HMH: That's incredible. I mean connecting your students somewhere in Oklahoma to somewhere in Kenya is an extraordinary opportunity for them to experience the world virtually but be solving a problem that really is impacting kids their own age, younger children, and children far away. How did they react to that and how did you engage them in something that was so far from their experience?
Donna: Oh, it was not difficult to engage them. I have found that this generation, and probably for the last 15 to 20 years, there is a very, very strong sense of purpose in these young people and they have a passion to make a difference when they see that they can have an impact positively on others’ lives or on cleaning up the environment or a solution for any problem. So engagement was the easiest part. The logistics was probably the most difficult part.
HMH: [laughs] Right. Right.
Donna: So we went, and on that trip and then the following summer, we had an idea of then the scope of it and everything that was going to be needed. So we raised the money from our local foundation—students who wanted to go, they had to raise their own money. A couple of them I helped; if they didn't have access to the funds, we would help them out. We had a pool of students and their parents were involved. We went through a process of elimination. We could only take a certain number because of where we were staying. We were staying at a medical clinic out in the bush. The space was limited, so we could only take between five and 10 students. That forced us to really work with the native Kenyans, which was probably one of the greatest benefits to my students . . . was working side by side with people from a different culture and becoming friends with them and learning about their culture and solving problems. Because over here, you [say], ”Oh, the saw doesn't [work]?” You just plug in a saw, [and] you have electricity. Over there, so we didn't have any electricity, so we had to do everything by hand, etc., etc. The water didn’t work. How’re we gonna put the pumps in? It just was a problem-solving process from day one. And the students loved it.
HMH: What do you think was the most important thing they learned about another culture in terms of working together side by side?
Donna: The severe poverty was moving . . . I think that really was enlightening to them because they didn't understand what it was like to live on less than a dollar a day and to not have access to medical care or education. I mean even in the United States, I mean we have poverty but we still have access to education. Most people have access to medical care or food. But when you're out there, it's not there. And I think that, and the fact that—and this was very enlightening—when we went back into Nairobi to come back home and we go through a part of the city where there's probably a mile of homes that were probably 30 million dollars or more. All [of a] sudden this inequity that is so exaggerated in a developing country became reality to them. Because they don't see it here in America as clearly.
But there, it was so extreme that they started [saying], “I can't believe they're not helping. Why don't they build roads out there? Why don't they get them clean water? Why don't they do this?” And I said, “Well, do we have any circumstances like this here in America, in Oklahoma?” And so it opened up a whole discussion. And so I think just the way the Kenyans live on so little, but yet they have a very strong spirit and they're very happy people. And that was—I think that was a lesson for them also. And the fact, I think, environmentally they got a bowl of water—that was all they got was a little bowl [of] water—to take their shower in at night. And the girls were, “How am I going to wash my hair? How am I going to do this?” I said, “You'll have extra water by the end of the week, because you'll learn how to do it.” And they did. And coming back here, they said, “Oh my gosh, I waste so much water here. I waste so much food here. I waste so much time here.” I mean the waste. I think those were the most impactful.
HMH: Yeah. That's pretty profound.
HMH: I know you did something pretty special between the high school and the community. I think you called it the Together Project. It was also about making sure that you're actually changing the environment of where you lived and I assume that was student driven as well.
Donna: Yes. That has been a very long term, and will continue to be a long term, collaboration between our school district and the city of Broken Arrow. And we've had a relationship with the city engineer and the water quality-control people for years because we have a stream that runs alongside our high school campus. And there was a pond on the other side of the street, and years ago they decided they were going to make it into actually a flood control pond so they dug it all up and lined the bottom with rocks. And I just remember saying, “Why are you ruining a natural habitat? We're developing so quickly we need to have these green spaces in our town as we continue to grow.” And that question they really took it to heart and thought about it and said, “You know you're right. How can we re-establish the natural habitat even though we need this flood control pond? But how can we allow nature to also thrive in this area?” And that's how this conversation came about. And then students became involved: “What can we do that's a natural sustainable way?” So they came up with the floating wetlands, and now we're working on rain gardens, and we'll continue to expand out where we're starting to bring nature back, because if we can get the quality of the water right then everything will come back. And then we'll get the bottom of the food chain correct, and then we'll start to have that sustainable system and a nice habitat. And the city, I mean, they want it. We're working at all of our waterways around the city now. So we will have elementary students doing certain things, we will have middle school students doing certain things, and then we will have our high school students doing other types of projects that . . . require research and then application and design and then we'll work with the city, and it's been a fabulous partnership.