Wood County fourth-graders gather donations for Ugandan children

Photo by Michael Erb Criss Elementary School fourth-graders Kenslee LeMasters, left, and Alexis Starcher, right, hold up some of the more than 500 toothbrushes collected by Criss students which will be donated to children in Uganda. Students at Criss Elementary School gathered about $100 in change which will be used to purchase soccer balls for children in Uganda.

PARKERSBURG — Students from two local elementary schools are sending gifts overseas after learning sometimes our everyday things are luxuries others may never see.

Fourth-graders at Mineral Wells Elementary School and Criss Elementary Schools held donation drives for children in Uganda, Africa, after hearing how many children there lack the most basic items.

Debbie Bird, an independent missionary and Williamstown resident, works with organizations around the world to help improve the lives of those living in abject poverty. Most recently, Bird has been working with Vienna-based Mountain Home Ministries, which seeks to create fair trade agreements between women in Uganda and women in McDowell County in West Virginia.

In November, Bird returned from a missionary trip in Africa and was asked by Mineral Wells Elementary teacher Jill Carden to speak with her students about her time in Uganda. Bird showed pictures of children and told stories about the people she met and the challenges they face every day.

Carden said the students were moved by what they saw and heard. Bird told them one group of children who lived at an orphanage in Uganda had only a ball wrapped in paper which they would use as a soccer ball.

Photo Provided Students Miryan Lewis, from left, Isabell Stephens and Ava Horton are involved in an effort to collect money and supplies for fellow school children in Uganda.

“It really bothered the students that they only had one toy,” Carden said. “They felt like they needed to do something.”

Carden’s students began a donation drive called “Change for Change,” gathering coins to purchase soccer balls for those children. Bird said it is cheaper to purchase such items while in-country than to try to ship them overseas from the U.S.

Carden and Bird said they expected a small donation, but instead the children spent months raising funds.

“The students really stepped up and campaigned for donations,” Carden said. “They managed it like a little corporation. They learned about marketing. The kids would sit and count money during their breaks. They learned how to roll coins. It taught them math and compassion.”

Carden said the students have raised about $100.

Photo Provided Students at Mineral Wells and Criss elementary schools have been working to help students in Uganda by collecting money and basic items.

“Our school is really giving in general,” Carden said. “I try to teach my kids to be givers, not takers, and to make the world a better place. I think they got that lesson.”

“I like to help people. When I heard how poor they were, I thought if $2.50 of U.S. money equaled 100 burr (their currency in Africa) we could really help,” said Miryan Lewis, 10, one of Carden’s students.

Bird also spoke to fourth-graders at Criss Elementary School, who started a school-wide campaign to collect toothbrushes. The idea came after Bird told the students that many children in Uganda do not have a toothbrush, or share one among all their family members.

Though the toothbrush donation drive ended Feb. 5, donations continued to roll in, with the count reaching 520 toothbrushes on Feb. 7.

“They’re still coming in, and we’re still accepting donations,” said Criss fourth-grade teacher Beth Cox. “We’ve been amazed. We’re a small school, but the children have worked really hard to gather donations.”

Cox said fourth-grader Kenslee LeMasters was so touched by the presentation she went home that night to tell her mother she wanted to help.

“When she went home, she told her mother ‘I want to use my own money to buy the toothbrushes,'” Cox said.

LeMasters, 9, said she felt bad seeing children her own age who lack the basic things we take for granted.

“I was trying to compare them to us,” LeMasters said. “We can get all the toothbrushes we want and they don’t have anything.”

LeMasters said she wanted to make sure the donation came from her.

“I’m not sure (how many toothbrushes I bought), but I know I got a lot,” she said. “I tried my hardest.”

“I felt sad because they had barely anything,” said fourth-grader Alexis Starcher, who brought in six toothbrushes to donate. Starcher, 9, said the donations from students was “amazing” and said she hopes the school will do more projects for Uganda in the future “because I want to help them.”

Bird said she hopes to visit more schools and would like to see a county-wide program which would pair up local schools with schools in Uganda.

“I tell the students they are life-changers. You are going to change someone’s life,” Bird said. “It really is possible to affect someone’s life in a positive way even if you’ve never met them.”