Students step up for Darfur

Amanda Cavanaugh, Heather McElhinney, Matt Seklecki, and Emma Tobin
Taking a stand for Darfur at their Martha's Vineyard Regional High School assembly last week were (from left) Amanda Cavanaugh, Heather McElhinney, Matt Seklecki, and Emma Tobin. Photo by Danielle Zerbonne

By Pat Waring - February 1, 2007

The Performing Arts Center at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School was packed with students for last Wednesday's assembly on the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. As the entire student body watched two films and an informative power point presentation, all was silent. At last audience members burst into a long, standing ovation for the four committed students who produced the dramatic event.

"So many people were dying, no one was helping," said senior Emma Tobin, who suggested the assembly to history teacher Elaine Weintraub last fall. "I felt if we got the word out we could really help people."

Joining Emma in the project were classmates Amanda Cavanaugh, Heather McElhinney, and Matt Seklecki, who were already experienced at taking action to help Darfur.

The threesome had been struck by harsh stories of killing in Darfur when they were sophomores, while studying about genocide in Ms. Weintraub's world history class. The teacher recalled that Heather was particularly concerned and had said that although nothing could help the many who had died in earlier violence, there still could be hope for those in Darfur. At that time, Amanda, Heather, and Matt launched a fund-raising project, holding several events during the school year, including bake sales, a sponsored walk, benefit concert, and raffle of an Allen Whiting painting. The approximately $2,000 they raised went to Doctors Without Borders for work in Darfur. The students also went to Island elementary schools to enlighten youngsters there about the situation.

In late fall, the four banded together and began planning. "It was an enormous undertaking," said Ms. Weintraub, who gave the youths occasional support in the project. "They did an amazing job."

She said she was impressed with the quality of the information and the presentation, and that the students initiated and created the assembly all on their own.

"This is what project-based learning really means," said Ms. Weintraub. "It's about truly learning something and feeling like you have to take action."

Heather, who was instrumental in launching the earlier fundraiser, said their group wanted to do an assembly to educate fellow students and inspire them to action. Both then and this year, their goal has been steadfast. "We wanted people to know that one voice can really make a difference," said Heather. "We can't do anything about history but this is now, and we can change it."

Amanda said she had been concerned that other students were largely unaware of the bloodshed in Darfur and the region's need for help. "Now we can say our whole school knows," she said.

All four students said they felt rewarded by the response they got, both at the assembly and afterwards. Amanda described how one girl approached her in tears later, saying how moved she was by the presentation and pledging to help in future efforts.

"We've received all positive feedback from both students and faculty," said Matt, who had made a major contribution to the assembly by creating a film about the crisis.

Emma, who said she was brought to tears by the strong ovation, related that she had received e-mails from students afterwards expressing their support and asking for advice on action to take.

The students all chimed in at once in their enthusiasm, offering a list of ways to help - "you can write a letter to your congressman or president, tell a friend or family member...you can tell somebody...you can get involved...you can get out there and take a stand against it." They will soon be asking high school students to tie a green ribbon on car antennas to show their support and raise awareness about the problem as they drive along Island roads.

The four students, all college-bound next year, want to make sure the campaign to help Darfur does not die. They have hosted two meetings for underclassmen who will continue the efforts in the future. The group is planning to hold a fund-raising walk in the spring and another Island student is working to organize a benefit concert.

Emma, who served as moderator for the assembly, proudly held up her green plastic bracelet inscribed with "Not on my watch - Save Darfur."

"It's up to every person who knows about it to try to stop it," Emma declared.

For more information on the situation in Darfur and suggestions for ways to help visit savedarfur.org. For information on local Island efforts visit savedarfur@mac.com.