Consolidated School District of New Britain
Consolidated School District of New Britain

SMALLEY ELEMENTARY MEETS PARKVIEW ELEMENTARY

This is the story of Smalley teachers Kyle Greene, Theresa Gouveia, Elena Josephson, Heather O’Bright, Kristen Holmes and how they made it their mission to help the students and community of Parkview Elementary School.


2016. It began with over 300 letters from students at Smalley Elementary School to students at Parkview Elementary School. Months would go by, and the Smalley students would receive a response. This continued for over a year and during that time, a long distance friendship and bond formed. Soon, it went beyond the students and impacted the staff as well.

As these teachers were sitting around talking about the letters, Greene, who had previously been to Parkview numerous times, began the conversation and asked those in the room to imagine the impact they could have if they helped this school and led them on a path to break down the educational barriers they faced at Parkview.

The conversation continued, and they started talking about what is it that is preventing the students at Parkview from being successful. One common theme that kept coming up was the lack of food and water. Other areas of concern included transportation and the lack of school supplies. The conversation went on for a while longer until they all just looked at each other and said, “Why don’t we all just go?”

The rest, as they say, is history.



 

PREPARING FOR KENYA
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Malaria pills. Typhoid shots. Yellow fever shots. Tetanus shots. This was the easy part of the process this group of teachers went through to get to Kenya. The hard part? Raising money.

Before their trip, the group held various fundraisers, including a casino bus trip, a pasta dinner, a formal dinner, and more. They also created a GoFundMe account, which raised over $2,000. With all of the fundraisers, the group raised close to $10,000. The group didn’t use any of that money to pay for their expenses - they did that on their own. They wanted to ensure that every dollar raised went towards the students and staff at Parkview Elementary School.

With that money, they earmarked close to $6,000 to provide lunch for all students and staff at Parkview. They also spent thousands of dollars on school supplies and other necessities. With the remaining money, Gouveia saved it in case they needed to buy anything else once they saw the condition of the school.

After over a year of planning, it was time to head to Kenya, and members of the group, along with Gouveia's two teenage sons, arrived at JFK International Airport in New York with luggage filled with school supplies, which included over 10,000 pencils. After checking in and having to shift their luggage around to meet the weight requirements, the group was finally ready to take off.



THE JOURNEY THROUGH KENYA
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Seventeen hours later, they arrived in Nairobi and met up with the drivers they hired to be with them throughout the duration of their trip. The drivers, who would also act as a safeguard for them, spoke English and Swahili, the native language. 

They took a 30-minute ride to the hotel and settled in for the evening. The next morning, after everyone had met up, they got into two vans and took a 4.5-hour car ride to Nakuru, where Parkview Elementary School was located. There, they stayed for eight days and seven nights.

While Greene had tried to prepare the group for what they would experience mentally, he just fully couldn’t describe everything and knew the group had to experience it all for themselves.

Their first experience heading into the city was the sight of garbage burning along the road, and the smell to go along with it. In Kenya, there is no formal garbage disposal system, and residents are left to dispose of it on their own in any way they can. All of the staff said it was a smell they never wanted to experience ever again.

“On that car ride, I was balling my eyes out,” said O’Bright. “My mind started to wander. Why was I here? What can I do to help these people? It was very emotional just seeing everything. I knew that what we were doing was just a little drop in the bucket, but it was a really big drop for the Parkview students. I’ll never forget my first impressions of traveling to Nakuru.”

Josephson echoed O’Bright but also said that the landscape of Kenya was breathtaking.

“There is much poverty, but it is breathtaking when you take a moment to reflect and take it all in. At times, I was looking out at the vast land and all the trees. We were in a different world, and that was the beauty of it. You have to find beauty in everything.”

Their first impressions continued when they arrived at the hotel room. They quickly learned that they would have to be mindful of when they took showers and for how long. This is because the government would randomly shut the power off throughout the day to save on energy. They also had mosquito netting around their bed, as mosquitoes would fly in and out of the windows, which didn’t have any screens. The danger to that? Many mosquitos in Kenya carry malaria, and the group had to consider that.

Having already experienced so much in their first full day, the staff went to bed, not knowing what would await them in the morning at Parkview Elementary School.


 

PARKVIEW ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
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The group arrived at Parkview Elementary School, and the students were excited to see new faces. Immediately, a crowd of students rushed around them, and the Smalley staff greeted the curious students. However, after looking around, the group also began to see just how dire the situation was.

They saw students filling up on water so they could fill up their bellies. This water though, was sitting in a cement holding tank, and it was dirty. There was no running water, and Gouveia knew she had to something. So, with the money she had earmarked in case of an emergency, the group bought the school a water tank to have installed so they could have clean water.

However, that was just on the outside. On the inside, the walls were bare, the classrooms were dusty, and it was hot. But, there was a feeling of love and focus within the walls. For the group, it was a sight to remember as teachers with class sizes of 40+ students were engaged with their students in just about every classroom they visited.

“Teachers were amazing and engaging. This speaks to the power of the teacher. It doesn’t matter how many students are in a classroom - if you can adapt and command a room, you can make great things happen,” said Gouveia.

The group was impressed with the way the teachers welcomed them into their classrooms. Gouveia’s teenage sons even spent a considerable amount of time sitting with the students. Gouveia said that the Parkview teachers would change the lesson to English so her sons could understand, thus showing the power of just how smart and engaging they were.

“One would think that because it’s a third world country, children would receive a bad education. However, the education there was amazing. Good teaching is good teaching,” said Gouveia. “Every student was learning how to read. They were all learning Math, English, and Swahili. It was an amazing experience."

For Holmes, she was impressed with the way the students were so focused on learning.

“The children at Parkview were some of the most innocent and sweetest kids. There was not one student in the class who was distracted. Every single one of them was ready to learn and show us how they learned. I am amazed at how much the teachers did with how little they have.”

The class sizes at Parkview, which covered K-8, averaged just over 46 students. Even with those class sizes, O’Bright said it was amazing watching the teachers in action and just how much they were able to engage their students.

“Teachers were walking around and differentiating the lesson based on student’s skill levels. We implement various teaching practices here, and they were implementing some of the same stuff. It was incredible to see that even though we live in a much different world, they face similar struggles with student learning.”


 

WANTING TO DO MORE FOR THE PARKVIEW COMMUNITY
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Midway through the school day, the students and staff break for lunch, but they do it all together. The teachers cook for the students, with the youngest ones getting their meal first while the older students wait patiently in line, sometimes for up to 60-90 minutes. This is because they only have enough room to cook with one or two large pans. Unfortunately, for many students, this is the most substantial meal they’ll have all day.

“If you want to feel like a million bucks, go feed 400 children,” said Gouveia. “The reaction on their faces and the satisfaction you saw in them eating was both sad and wonderful all at the same time. It makes you look at things differently, especially when you see how much food is wasted daily.”

The group also provided sweets for the children, and the reactions were priceless.

“The students love sweets. They would run off and hide it. They didn’t know what to do with it, and they treated it like a treasure. Every day, there was a huge smile on their faces whenever they would see us take out the candy,” said O’Bright.

The group continued to visit Parkview for over a week and helped with the daily activities and lessons. On most days, they would hand out pencils to the students. Gouveia noted that there was a rush of children when they saw the pencils, and students would try to get more than one.

“The students treated it like a hot commodity. These students are often only given one or two pencils for the entire school year. They rely on this to help get them by, and when they had the opportunity to get more, they took advantage of it.”

It was moments like these that made O’Bright stop and reflect and wonder what she could have done more to help.

“To this day, I still regret that we left early each day we were there. We got to the school around 8 AM and didn’t leave until 4 PM, but that wasn’t enough. I wish there was more we could do to help them.”

These moments also gave Gouveia a chance to reflect on what she has in New Britain, and just how much more can be done if everyone pulled in the same direction.

“Our students - whether here or in Kenya - need their teachers to take them where they need to go. Teachers, if they apply themselves, can take their students to amazing heights. Teachers need to understand that and stop making excuses. These little faces come in each day and are just so excited to be here. Students look up to all of their teachers and think they are the world. Take a step back and forget the superficial stuff – students want to learn.  The takeaway for our students and administrators – they don’t always see how great our students are. They don’t see how much this district has, and how much we are giving our students.”


 

THE PEOPLE WHO CALL PARVKIEW HOME
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On some days, while the rest of the group went back to the hotel at 4 PM, Gouveia and Greene didn’t. With the assistance of the principal of Parkview, they were able to tour the neighborhood and see exactly where these children came from. There was no running water, kitchens were an open fire, and there was minimal furniture. As noted previously, food was far and between.

They saw how run down the neighborhoods were and the poor living conditions. The principal, who was considered wealthy, brought them to his house, but even then, the living conditions were not ideal. Gouveia and Greene noted that there was a large gap where the wall and ceiling were supposed to meet, so birds and other bugs would fly in and out of the house. There was no screen and no doors, just a cloth draped down to cover the entryways.

“Despite all of this, his house was charming. You could feel the warmth, and you knew that he had worked hard for everything he had,” said Gouveia.

On other days, while driving from the hotel to the school and back, the group was able to take in the culture around them and see how the people of Kenya lived. Too often, we become wrapped in our bubble and don’t understand what is going on in the rest of the world. For the group of Smalley teachers, they were able to see just how hard others have it.

Josephson recalled a moment where they had stopped on the side of the road to get bananas, which cost 5 shillings. Josephson gave 100 shillings or $1 in US Dollars. When Josephson left the banana stand, she noticed the vendor was overwhelmed but wasn’t quite sure what to think of it. When she got back to the car, her driver explained.

 “You just made her day and her week. With that $1, she just got an entire week’s work of pay.”

Later in the week, the group stopped at the same vendor and gave the vendor more money. Feeling a need to continue this goodwill, the group wanted to thank the teachers and administrative staff at Parkview, so they treated them to a buffet dinner at the hotel. The Parkview Staff were so grateful for the experience, and couldn’t thank the Smalley staff enough. Beyond dinner though, it was a chance for the group to learn more about Parkview Elementary School, the staff, and the students.

“We had a chance to sit down, be peers, and learn about these people and their lives,” said Josephson. We heard personal stories and how they have to work so hard every day to be successful. We learned about their culture and what pushes them to do great things. We even had a moment where they turned their music on, and we all joined in to dance with them.”

One of the lighter parts of dinner though was when Gouveia tried to explain just how cold it gets in Connecticut. She said the staff couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that it could get so cold that people could freeze to death.

The group also learned a lot more. When talking about various cultural differences, the Parkview staff were surprised to hear that in the United States, we can go to the store to buy milk and eggs. They were even more shocked when they found out the Smalley staff all had cars. They talked about other issues as well, and all of it put everything into perspective.

“We showed them photos of our classroom and our houses. They were taken aback because of just how much we had compared to them. It truly puts everything into perspective, and it opened my mind to a lot of new ways of thinking,” said O’Bright.


 

THE LASTING MEMORIES OF PARKVIEW
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The memories of Parkview live in the hearts and minds of everyone who went on the trip. For Greene, who didn’t talk much during the interview, said it was because he wanted to sit back and hear what his colleagues took away from the trip.

“I don’t want to talk about myself. I want to hear what they experienced and what their biggest takeaway was,” said Greene. “We all want to do something to make an impact in this world. That’s why we are in education. The best way to make an impact is to change the lives of our students. From this trip, all of us can sow the seeds of experience with other adults and children. That’s what it’s all about.”

Gouveia shared a similar sentiment and said that these types of trips are critical.

“Originally I wasn’t going to take my sons. I wasn’t sure of about safety. It’s costly. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew we were going to see poverty and I wasn’t sure if they’d be able to handle it. However, it gave my children an opportunity of a lifetime, to help shape them into the type of men we all want them to be. This experience changed them and their point of view. They felt a connection to the students at Parkview, and they still talk about it to this day and how they can continue to help them.”

The group wants to continue to take numerous steps to continue to help the Parkview community. Some of it is financial, but some of it goes beyond that.

O’Bright described a time where students had wondered why some of the women on the trip weren’t married and didn’t have kids. This is because, in that culture, most girls were getting married and became pregnant before they were 21 years old. For others, it started as early as 16 or 18. Once they had kids, it then had a negative impact on their education. This was evident when the group saw eighth graders who were 18 years old.

“How can we help these girls? Many of them don’t get a good education because they get married, have a child, and don’t come back to school until they are ready,” said O’Bright.

O'Bright said that this is one of their goals for their next trip. However, while the group is making an effort to help Parkview, they also want to make sure that the community can survive even when the time comes where they are no longer supporting them. For now, they are holding them up while they learn, and will continue to hold them up until they are ready to take steps of their own.

“We want to give them an opportunity to get going. You can see how much the parents wanted to be involved in the community,” said Greene. “If we can get that community moving in the right direction, so they aren’t relying on us each year, then we will have accomplished our goal.”

Greene said the further vision of all of this is to show just how much can be done right here in New Britain.

“The greater vision is to show families here in New Britain - teachers, staff, and families - that this is the power of a greater community. When teachers, administrators and the community come together, we can change the dynamics. There is no reason why we can’t thrive.”


 

PLANNING FOR 2020
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The group plans to go back in 2020 and want to continue their trip every two years. To help safeguard the money in Kenya, checks and balances were put into place as the staff wants to be sure that all funds raised and donated are going to the right place. Additionally, they wire the money in small increments throughout the school year.

Heading into 2020, the group has set another lofty goal for themselves - provide lunch for all students and staff at Parkview, get more school supplies, help the girls of Parkview, and more. As they did before this trip, they’ll be holding several fundraisers. They are also accepting donations.

You can visit their GoFundMe page when it is launched, or you can send money through Venmo to O’Bright (@Heather-OBright). If you’d like to send cash or money order, please contact Gouvea through email by clicking here.

However, the group prefers cash donations because the economy in Niakaru is mainly dependent on cash. In most areas, paying with a credit or debit card is not possible due to the lack of technology and in some places, electricity.

“When you see how little they have, it makes us want to do everything we can to help,” said Josephson. “Students need uniforms and books. Once they go to secondary school, they go away and need money for tuition, room and board, food, and more. We want to spread as much awareness as possible.”


 

THE LESSONS BACK HOME IN NEW BRITAIN
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The lessons taught back home in New Britain have had ripple effects. The group noted that students at Smalley love getting involved. Based on their stories, the students talked about what they could send - shoes, supplies, and even an XBOX. That’s when the staff had to slow down and turn this into a teachable moment.

“Our students realize they have things, but maybe not as much as other children in towns around them,” said Gouveia. "But, to help them also realize that other people in this world are worse off and whom they could help, it allows students to have an attitude of gratitude. Our students now understand just how little their peers at Parkview have, and they have taken it upon themselves to figure out ways to help."

After two separate interview sessions that spanned close to three hours total, Greene summed it up best.

“It was never about any of us as individuals. It was about what we wanted to do for our students here and there. Very few can change the world by themselves. We learned what education was like in Kenya, we helped them, we fed them, and we gave them a new breath of life for a week. But, that’s not where it ends. We must continue this work. By sharing our experiences with others, including our students, we can continue to make a difference. We may never see them after elementary school, but knowing that we have planted that seed - it's a gratifying feeling.”

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