Student to student: Helping those less fortunate

By Julian Wise - December 6, 2007

When Oak Bluffs School principal Laury Binney and his wife Marcy Klapper took a year's leave to explore Brazil, they embarked on an adventure that would forge connections between the Oak Bluffs School, rural Brazil, and their daughter Ariana, who is beginning her career as an educator.

After studying Portuguese in the city of Maceio, the two set out for the small towns of Cuparaque and Mantenopolis, which sit on opposite sides of the border between the states of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo. They met with the town's mayors, who reported that thousands of their residents had left for the U.S., most settling on Martha's Vineyard. In Cuparaque, they saw modest homes built with money sent from the Island. These were relatively luxurious compared to the cement shacks around them.

In conversation with the locals, Mr. Binney and Ms. Klapper heard stories of the difficult trek north to Martha's Vineyard. It can cost as much as $15,000 to exit Brazil. Some emigrants pass through Mexico, crossing rivers, evading bandits, and risking lengthy detentions and deportation. Getting a legal visa costs $14,000 and many applicants are denied (of 45 residents who traveled to Rio for visas, only three were successful).

Ariana Binney, Nathan Francis, Meredith Marsh, Hannah Gonsalves, Oliver Carson, Adam Bilodeau, Wayman Harrison, Allie Nelson, and Tabitha Oliver
(Back row from left) Ariana Binney, Nathan Francis, Meredith Marsh, and Hannah Gonsalves. (Front row from left) Oliver Carson, Adam Bilodeau, Wayman Harrison, Allie Nelson, and Tabitha Oliver. Photo by Ralph Stewart. Click photo for larger version.

In touring local schools, they saw Spartan buildings with few teaching materials. Most students attend the schools in four-hour shifts due to overcrowding, with younger children attending in the morning and older children arriving in the afternoon. Class sizes are large (25-35) and much learning is done through rote recitation and copying from the board.

"Yet despite what we might assume to be educational hardships, the sense of self-respect that these people take, not only in their schools, but in their community is stark," Mr. Binney wrote from Brazil. "They take great pride in where they live and who they are. Everyone we have met here has been so accommodating, inviting us into their homes, sharing their lives and stories with us. At every school we visit, we are warmly received and have been genuinely touched by the generosity that Brazilians have shown us."

When the Mr. Binney and Ms. Klapper described the schools to their daughter Ariana, currently working as a 4th grade assistant at the Oak Bluffs School, she was struck with an idea. This year the 4th grade is working in small advisory groups that are undertaking socially conscious projects. One advisory is raising money for Heifer International while another is assisting a homeless shelter in Boston. Ms. Binney decided to work with her students to collect much-needed educational materials and art supplies to bring with her to Brazil in late December when she visits her parents.

The students in Ms. Binney's advisory (Tabitha Oliver, Oliver Carson, Wayman Harrison, Nathaniel Francis, Allie Nelson, Adam Bilodeau, Hannah Gonsalves) took immediately to the idea and have begun organizing a collection drive in the school.

Student Allie Nelson explains that the materials will be used to help improve the schooling experience of Brazilian children who lack the resources found at the Oak Bluffs School. "I'm really happy that we're helping children who really need things," she says with a smile.

"Our school is large. They don't have many classrooms like us," adds classmate Wayman Harrison. "They have lots of holes in their walls and crowded classrooms with 30 kids in a room."

Teaching assistant Meredith Marsh, a participant in the project, says, "It would be ideal for the students to learn about another culture and place in the world and reflect on how fortunate we are."

In the upcoming week the students will collect art materials and educational supplies throughout the building. Members of the Island community who wish to help can contact Ms. Binney at the Oak Bluffs School. Ms. Binney says she wants the students to feel a personal connection with the schools in Brazil and see how small actions can make a big difference in the lives of children far away.

"I want them to realize the positive effect they can have on other kids in the world," she says.

Julian Wise, a contributing writer to The Times, is a teacher's assistant at the Oak Bluffs school.