Brayton Elementary School first-graders pose with the books they sent to students in Kenya.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — It takes a village to get a load of books from North Adams to an African village.
Brayton Elementary School first-grade teachers Elizabeth Patenaude and Jacqueline Thomas recently spearheaded an effort to send 60 reading textbooks to Chesegem Primary School in Eldoret South, Kenya. They were assisted by Leon Aalberts, a retired teach and minister from Williamstown, as well as Williams College student and Kenyan native Felix Biwott, and two classes of eager first-grade students who not only got to learn about geography but also about the joy of giving back.
The project started back in November when Patenaude and Thomas found out that the curriculum was being updated, leaving a bunch of old textbooks with no home. They encouraged students to take some books home, and even reached out to hurricane-stricken areas in the South to see if any schools there could use them, but in the end were faced with a choice: throw them away or find another plan.
"It's hard to throw books in the garbage," Thomas said. "We had to find those books a home."
Enter Aalberts, who volunteers in Patenaude's classroom once a week, sometimes bringing international students from Williams with him. Two of those students were from Kenya, and both enjoyed working with the first-graders because they had left younger siblings back in Kenya. Together with this year's student, Felix Biwott, Aalberts thought the students at Chesegem Primary School could use the books.
"[Biwott] was just ecstatic about the idea," Aalberts said. "[His mom] was as ecstatic. That got my juices going."
Patenaude and Thomas loved the idea, so they said they started to prepare just to mail the books to Kenya. Sounds simple, right?
Not so fast: "It was harder than we thought," Thomas said.
Braxton first-graders help box up books to send to a school in Kenya.
They quickly realized how expensive it would be to mail the books to Africa: It ended up costing more than $900 to ship 60 books, even with the guidance from book-shipping experts at Storey Publishing. But that was just a bump in the road, thanks to their volunteer extraordinaire.
"Mr. Aalberts was very determined that these books were going to get there," Patenaude said.
Aalberts was able to secure donations for the shipping costs to get the books into the air. Using the tracking information, the first-graders were able to follow the progress of the three boxes, which hit another snag when they reached Nairobi and incurred a storage fee that had to be dealt with. Once again, Aalberts took care of the problem, reaching out to the Kenyan consulate in Los Angeles to help the books complete their journey.
And then the day came: The books arrived at Chesegem Primary School - in the end only six days after leaving North Adams — and Biwott's contact there sent Aalberts pictures of the smiling students receiving them.
"It was like the cherry on top of the sundae to see those pictures," Aalberts said. He wasn't at Brayton the day they received word that the books arrived, but the students were eager to share the news with him next time he was volunteered in the classroom.
"They reported to me. That's exciting," he said.
The adults all agreed that the children were able to learn a valuable life lesson from this experience.
"It was a good experience for the children to realize we're very lucky," Thomas said. "This is a wonderful gift to give people who aren't so lucky."
"They understand we did a nice thing," Patenaude said.
The best news? They hope to send more of the old textbooks — still being stored in a closet at Brayton — over to Kenya, as this first batch did not allow for every student to have his or her own book. This time they might be able to either ship them right to the Kenyan consulate in Los Angeles or even have them driven to an office the Washington, D.C., to be able to get them to Kenya more inexpensively.
"If we can get rid of more books, that would be great," Aalberts said.
Brayton Elementary School principal John Franzoni agreed and expressed his gratitude at the collaborative effort that made this project possible.
"It was nice for the kids to see," he said. "We're so fortunate to have such great community support."
Williamstown.com welcomes critical, respectful dialogue. Name-calling, personal attacks, libel, slander or foul language is not allowed. All comments are reviewed before posting and will be deleted or edited as necessary.