By Mary Logan, Maryknoll Affiliate
I am the moderator of the chapter of Maryknoll affiliates in Red Bank Catholic high school in NJ. I recently had the wonderful opportunity to participate in the Maryknoll lay missioners “Friends Across Borders’ trip to Kenya in June.
When I told my students that I would be going to Kenya they were very excited for me and were eager to help by providing some gifts for the children I would meet while visiting MLM projects throughout the country. One of the lay missioners that I spoke with suggested that soccer balls would be a wonderful gift for the schools and children’s homes.
My students, many of whom play soccer, were excited about the idea and held an ice cream sundae sale to raise money for the balls. Much discussion was held among the students as to what size soccer balls we should buy: how old were the children? How big were they? Did they wear sneakers while playing, or were they barefoot? After much discussion and list making we decided that we should get a few size 3 balls for the youngest children, some 4 for the older kids but that most of the balls should be size 5 as the kids could ‘grow into those.” The order was placed at our local sporting goods store.
I arrived at one of the first projects in Kenya which was a center for children who have been abandoned. One of the older boys was asked to help me unload some gifts for the children. I told the boy that I had some soccer balls and his eyes lit up! “What a wonderful gift! We all play soccer!” he said. I asked his opinion about what size balls to donate to his school. He gave me a puzzled look and exclaimed: “Soccer balls come in sizes?!”
When we were walking through the neighborhood, back to our van, I noticed kids from the slum playing a game of soccer. Their ball was made by wrapping dirty plastic bags and leaves around a rock, and tying it all together with twine.
Before my trip to Kenya I visited the Maryknoll Sisters’ Center and happened to have lunch with Sister Noel Doescher who had recently returned to NY after serving in Kenya for almost 30 years. My students in NJ were eager to buy presents for the students I would be meeting so I thought it would be a good idea to ask Sister what would be appropriate…perhaps money for a computer? Art supplies? Books? Soccer balls?
Sister looked at me and smiled. “Pencils would be a wonderful gift and much appreciated” she replied. Pencils?? I thought Pencils? I returned to my school and shared this idea with the student members of my affiliate chapter. “Pencils?” they replied with a complete lack of enthusiasm. “What kid wants to get a pencil?” one girl asked. “What could be more BORING than a pencil?” added a boy. “At least let’s get colored pencils, or large boxes of crayons, or maybe sets of gel pens” added a third. “Sister said ‘pencils’ just regular pencils, so that is what it should be” I told them.
Targets had pencils on sale that week, ten for one dollar, so we bought 300. The #2 pencils came in pretty colors such as emerald green, or sapphire blue, or bright red, but I could tell from the looks on my students’ faces that this was no one’s idea of a good gift for kids. (I confess I had the same thought myself.)
One of the first places we visited was a lay missioners’ project to help provide education for orphans. Mary Oldham, the lay missioner in Mombasa, had arranged for groups of her students to teach us Swahili and we all had great fun learning our phrases then putting on skits with the children. They laughed with delight as we forgot our lines and had trouble remembering our Swahili words. Afterwards we had lunch with the children.
As we were preparing to leave we gave a pencil to each child as a gift to thank him/her for spending time with us. I chose an emerald green one to give to Stella, the girl who had been my teacher. When she saw the pencil, she exclaimed in delight: “What a beautiful pencil! Asante, asante sana(thank you very much).” She was so delighted with her ten cent pencil. As the students crossed the courtyard to return to their classrooms I saw each one proudly holding his or her pencil, showing them to each other and exclaiming at their newness, the colors and the erasers.
Sitting in our van and our way back to our hotel I quietly reflected on the gift of the pencil. In my school, pencils get accidentally dropped on the floor and left there, occasionally they are swept up with the trash , and just simply taken for granted.
What did Stella see in that green pencil? She saw a beautiful gift, a wonderful tool, an object of pride. Did she think of the homework she could write with it to show her teacher what she learned? Did she imagine pictures she could draw with it? Perhaps a poem she could write?
Or perhaps she would keep it unsharpened, ever new, as a reminder of a wonderful day when she and her young friends were teachers of American grown-ups who obviously had a lot to learn.