Melissa Wantz

Project Hello: Love grows between California and Sierra Leone students

What happens when a high school student in Ventura, California, connects with a peer in a struggling, war-torn nation and asks, “what is your biggest fear?” Imagine the concern when Saffie Turay in Freetown, Sierra Leone, replies, “I fear being a failure in life because I will be poor, and poverty is a disease that reduces a human being from being an active member in society to becoming a dormant member who could do nothing for the development of the society and has no say in that is happening around him.” Suddenly, a student in Ventura is reminded that fears of spiders, snakes and heights are inconsequential.

Three years ago, Foothill Technology High School English teacher Melissa Wantz was struck by an idea while driving to school. She was inspired by Ishmael Beah’s haunting personal account of the war in Sierra Leone, "A Long Way Gone," to think differently about classroom boundaries. Wantz decided to try to tap into the power of social media by creating an international social network for students at Foothill and Sierra Leone, culminating in a book of art and stories. Her colleagues, including world history teacher Cherie Eulau, were enthusiastic about getting involved.

“The project grew and became a part of us and was embraced by the school culture on several levels,” said Wantz. "This year it will be highlighted as a part of the graduation ceremony.” With Beah’s book as the inspiration, “more kids are looking globally; this allowed them to do something super meaningful,” she said.

When she applied for a NEA Foundation grant to fund her project, the teacher admitted, “I didn’t know anyone in Sierra Leone.” Through a contact with The Peace Corps, Wantz was referred to Seattle-based non-profit Schools for Salone, which led to a connection with a philanthropist in Sierra Leone named Joseph Lamin. He gathered students in the capital city of Freetown, and the grant provided vouchers for them to redeem at an internet cafe to correspond each week, allowing her students to build an emotional connection with peers through research and creativity.

Over the course of the 2009-2010 school year, 13 Foothill students embraced 13 new African friends who rarely had the opportunity to use a computer in a country where less than one percent of the population has access to the web. This unique social network of 26 students transcended the classroom and ultimately became a vehicle for social change.

As the project grew, Dr. Joseph Opala, professor and anthropologist at James Madison University and an authority on Sierra Leone, suggested Wantz turn the book idea into something far more significant: a storybook of literature for Sierra Leonean children. In response to a desperate shortage of books in Sierra Leone, Foothill’s sophomores gathered African fables from out-of-print sources and helped produce a website and 300 copies of a book of traditional fables from five tribes, original art and poetry titled “Salone Stories.”

A portion of the NEA Foundation grant was matched by Schools for Salone to pay for the book’s illustrations by artist Julius Parker of Freetown. In June 2009, Wantz and Eulau delivered 200 books to Sierra Leonean teachers and children. Schools for Salone has since raised money that will be used to reprint about 4,000 copies of “Salone Stories” for use in 16 schools in Sierra Leone.

While they were traveling in Sierra Leone, the teachers saw the great need for education, which was severely disrupted by ten years of war. “We started thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if we could raise some money to help build a school,” said Wantz.  Upon sharing the fact that it would take $50,000 to build a new school, Wantz and Eulau were a bit surprised by their students’ immediate reaction: “We can do that!”

And so, Foothill seniors, who read the Beah book as sophomores, committed to raising money to build a concrete school in the village of Lungi to replace a mud and thatch hut. They met their goal in April, and the new K-6 school is currently under construction with an opening date set for this summer.

“We learned how much people in Sierra Leone value education by how fast they have moved on the school construction,” Wantz said. Foothill senior Anna Geare may be taking the Senior Hero Project a giant step farther.

”I may not have met the children of Lungi or Sierra Leone, but after going through thousands of photos and videos, I now recognize their faces. As a result of this project, my interest in Africa has transformed into passion,” said Geare. “This project has inspired me to join the Peace Corps after my four years at Occidental College. I hope to work in Africa and maybe even have the opportunity to visit Lungi village and witness the people I have impacted and the school I helped build.”