What started out as a sixth-grade pen pal project at a Bartlett elementary school turned into a humanitarian effort to provide books for children in Ghana.
Students at Sycamore Trails Elementary School and members of the First Baptist Church of Elgin collected more than 7,000 books for students in Ghana.
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"It was really cool because we've been talking all year about the problems of the world, and finding out about other cultures," said Jim Reed, sixth-grade gifted program teacher at Sycamore Trails, who led the effort. "We talked about how we can't change the world, but we can make a difference."
Reed just returned from Ghana after delivering several hundred of the donated books to students at two schools. The children cheered and shouted with excitement because they had never seen storybooks before, he said.
"The schools there are extremely poor," Reed said. "Most students have never seen books like this, ever. The only books they have are government-issued workbooks with three or four kids sharing one workbook.
"They just aren't engaged in reading there in Ghana. Most kids don't go past the sixth-grade level in education. It's the concept of reading a storybook that's not your typical workbook. They don't get that."
Reed said he is working on sending a shipment of the remaining books to Ghana soon. Sycamore students helped package the books into boxes that are being housed at First Baptist Church for now. His students also had collected more than $800 through a fundraiser for their Ghanaian pen pals.
"They worked extremely hard to do all this work and I am very proud of them," Reed said. "This is the first year I've done this here."
Reed has been doing volunteer work in Ghana for a few years, working with schools in the Cape Coast region, and has partnered with several area churches. He currently is working on an orphanage project there.
Three years ago, Reed helped a local church raise $10,000 to establish a poultry farm at an orphanage in Bawjaise, a town north of Accra. The money helped purchase 2,000 chickens and provided for all the labor and feed needed for an entire year so the 150 orphans could be self sufficient, he said.
"It really was a success," Reed said. "They were able to feed the kids once a week."
Though the project was initially successful, nearly half the chickens died from disease within the first year. Earlier this year, someone broke into the farm and stole the remaining chickens, he added.
"They had about 500 chickens at that point and they were producing about 7,000 eggs a month," Reed lamented.
Reed started the group Two Pennies Ministry.
Reed's fascination with Africa started with his friend, Moses Kofie, whose homeland is Ghana.
"We've been looking for a place we can serve and help people who haven't been getting help previous to this point ... people who didn't have connections to outside organizations," Reed said.
Reed said he and Kofie saw the need in schools in Ghana and wanted to help.
"The last two years we've been sending school supplies and just exchanging letters," said Reed of the work he did with students at Highland Elementary School in Elgin where he previously taught. "You've got 60 kids crammed into a single room with a teacher and they don't have any writing materials."