Orchards students raise hundreds for school in Peru

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

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A picture of dark-haired children playing a board game lit up the screen at Orchards Elementary School.

“I love that game,” several children shouted excitedly.

“Do they look like kids you’d like to be friends with?” GeGe Coleman asked the first-graders.

Heads nodded.

“Well, they already think of you as friends, because you helped them out,” Coleman said.

The Orchards kids sat quietly, looking at the images from the Peruvian highlands.

Coleman is the founder of a school in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Carmen Alto, a city high up in the Andes mountains. She came to Orchards this week to personally thank some of the poorest kids in Clark County for supporting her work in South America.

Orchards Elementary students have the highest rate of poverty in the Evergreen school district, as measured by eligibility for free school lunch, according to state records. Out of 130 schools in Clark County, only seven have greater shares of students living in poverty than Orchards does.

But when these children heard about the needs of kids half a world away, they helped freely and frequently. Next month, the school will run the third Pennies for Peru campaign. The first two drives brought in enough money to buy much-needed books and other supplies. They paid the school’s rent for a month. And they fed the children who often don’t get another meal at home.

Ten years ago, Coleman lived in Portland and worked for the Bureau of Land Management. She went to Peru for a volunteer vacation and fell in love with the place. She started using all of her yearly vacation time for trips to Carmen Alto to help out at a food assistance program in Acuchimay, one of the mid-sized city’s poorest neighborhoods. Many of the program’s beneficiaries were children, and Coleman started a small library for them during a yearlong visit in 2005.

When she returned to Portland after the year, she realized her heart wasn’t in Oregon anymore. Coleman sold her house, moved to Peru and, after some consultations with the locals about their

needs, started Kids at the Crossroads-Acuchimay, a school she ran out of one room in a rented house.

Since then, enrollment has ballooned from 15 to more than 100. The school is part of a registered nonprofit in the U.S. now. It rents two floors of a building.

“She won’t say this, but (Coleman) is truly a rock star in the community,” said Carrie Foshee, the Orchards teacher who organized the penny drive. “She is the first person they go to.”

Foshee knows this because she and fellow Orchards teacher Moyra Meza went to Carmen Alto last summer. Foshee knew Coleman from a family connection. When Foshee thought about traveling in Latin America -- she speaks fluent Spanish -- she called Coleman. The school’s founder hadn’t had more than a day off since she moved to Peru, and eventually suggested the two Orchards teachers could come down and substitute for her for a few weeks.

They did. But before they went, they asked Coleman what practical gifts they could bring. Books, they were told.

“I thought they’d bring a few books down with them,” Coleman said.

But Foshee and Meza did much more, with the help of their students. They put a little plastic jar in each classroom and told the kids of their plan for the summer.

The kids from one of Clark County’s poorest neighborhoods brought in $800 in pennies over the next few weeks.

The two teachers hauled a big suitcase full of textbooks to Carmen Alto. With the money left over, they paid the school’s rent for August 2011.

“When we came back, the kids were so excited,” Foshee said. “They felt a kinship. They know what it’s like to be poor.”

They also brought back letters from the children in Peru. Many of the Orchards students speak Spanish, which meant they could read the thank-you notes to their classmates.

In the fall, they held another penny drive and brought in $700. This time, the money went to the Portland nonprofit that administers fundraising for the school. It was spent on the Peruvian school’s food program. Students there get a snack -- usually a sandwich and some fruit -- each day. For many, that’s the only meal they’ll have that day, Coleman said.

It costs about 12 cents to provide such a meal in Carmen Alto, she told the Orchards teachers. Given that information, they could calculate how many meals their penny drive was buying in Peru.

“Every day, the kids asked, ‘How many have we fed now?’” Foshee said.

In May, they’ll run another penny drive. And Foshee plans on going back once every year for the foreseeable future to train the Peruvian teachers.

Coleman came to Orchards for the first time Thursday. She spent the entire day there, showing each class pictures from the school and maps of Peru.

She opened the presentation by thanking her young donors.

“You don’t know how fantastic it was to get those books,” she said to a first-grade class in the morning. “All of you opened your hearts and shared your pennies, and that’s so wonderful.”

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.