[caption id="attachment_18" align="alignleft" width="400" caption="Maureen Orth with students at the Escuela Marina Orth"][/caption]
In Wednesday night’s presidential debate, when Barack Obama mentioned that he wanted to see young people serving in greater numbers in volunteer programs such as the Peace Corps, I felt heartened, because I know first-hand what an indelible mark these kinds of experiences can make on one’s life, and how very good they can be for the soul as well as for the country. Decades ago, in the 60s, I was a Peace Corps volunteer and helped build a two-room school for 35 students high in the Andes above the city of Medellin, Colombia. The villagers named it for me: Escuela Marina Orth. Last week I had one of the more memorable days of my life when I returned to Escuela Marina, which now serves as kindergarten through high school for 350 students, to celebrate my school’s being the very first in Colombia to receive computers from the One Laptop Per Child project, begun by Nicholas Negroponte at M.I.T. The 230 laptops, donated by Chevron, plus the Internet connection for the community, provided by Motorola, were cited in the local paper, El Colombiano, as examples of “civic valor and corporate responsibility.” We made Page 1!
Four years of hard work began in November 2004, when the secretary of education in Medellin asked me to help these children be competitive in the global economy, prompting me to establish two nonprofit foundations—K12 Wired in the U.S. and Fundacion Marina Orth in Colombia. Today, seeing how excited the children are about their small, green-and-white computers, which they are allowed to take home every night, is one of the greatest rewards I have ever had. I walked into the first grade classroom and had never seen kids so eager to learn. Their teacher, who had pooh-poohed the whole idea of computers and was on her way to retirement, was plunging right in. She had taken them to the zoo a few days earlier so that they could see live animals and later classify them by type: native, wild, pets, etc. Many of these children had not been off the mountain before, and had never even seen pictures of animals such as giraffes and rhinoceroses. Now they were calling them up on their computers, drawing them, and asking one another for help. The idea of teamwork is hardly an innate concept in Latin American society, so the fact that these children were learning together was noteworthy. In the classroom next door, the third grade Spanish teacher could chat with her students online and simultaneously correct the work on each one’s computer screen while they proceeded with their grammar assignment.
How exciting it has been for me to see this project take shape so many years after I set out, with a band of campesinos and barefoot kids, to construct two classrooms for 35 students. The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia gave us bricks and cement, and we provided the labor. For years the area was too violent to visit, but things are now much calmer and safer, so when the secretary of education asked me for help, I could not resist. Our idea was to create a model that could be replicated throughout the country. That is now happening. As a result of the publicity we received, K12 Wired and Fundacion Marina Orth have been besieged by requests from other school districts in Colombia to help them, too. The local governments wants to buy the computers themselves, and the president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, has made learning English a national priority. Who knew that my Peace Corps service, which had been inspired the recently assassinated John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask not what your country can do for you,” would bring me so much happiness and satisfaction throughout my lifetime?
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