It is summer, 2014. The little tree that I planted three years ago has already grown tall enough to provide some shade, relief from the scorching afternoon sun in Aguie. I tell Kara how happy I am to see my little tree grown so tall, and Kara insists, “No, Coco, that’s the tree I planted!” We argue and laugh and fight for bragging rights. Then I say, “I can’t believe this school building has gone from a construction site to such a busy place full of happy kids!” Kara looks me in the eye and says, “You built it, Coleen.” I feel acknowledged, disbelieving, humbled. I built that.
It was about ten years ago that I first heard of Remember Niger. Ruth and Pat, two women from my church in Minnesota, spoke one Sunday morning about their trip to Niger with Kara VanderKamp. When I learned that some members of the group had struggled with communication during the trip because of their limited abilities in French, I offered to use my language skills to help in any way I could.
Shortly thereafter I attended a Remember Niger meeting at Ruth’s home and was surprised to learn that this organization was truly in its infancy. Very little had been established at the time, and Kara was seeking out volunteers to help her realize her dream of educating Nigerien children. Her vision and determination never wavered, so it was an easy decision for me to become a volunteer translator and interpreter for the organization.
Ten years and four trips to Niger later, I am delighted and almost in disbelief when I consider the progress and influence of the Remember Niger Coalition. We have grown from a few hundred students in two or three schools to helping nearly 2,700 children and young adults in twelve different schools and education centers. Our faculty has grown and the teachers and administrators have been able to continue their own education and provide a respected, loving and successful environment for learning. Our students consistently achieve success at the highest-level assessments required in Niger.
Your support has built schools, purchased furniture and supplies, created jobs, provided nourishing meals and established safe places to learn and play. You have given unprecedented opportunities to girls and boys, students with hearing loss, and other students with disabilities. Most important of all, you have helped ignite the curiosity and desire for learning in the hearts and minds of our students.
Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” Your donations, your prayers, your work, your enthusiasm, your belief in what is possible have lit that fire in children all across Niger, from Niamey to Zinder. Look at their smiling faces. Look at the schools. Then look in the mirror and say to yourself, “I built that.”