by Ardeana Hamlin

of The Weekly Staff’

Students at Holy Cross School elementary school in South Portland found a way this spring to get involved in world affairs. They raised enough funds to enable 19 children in Ngamo, Zimbabwe, to attend the village school.

The story began, as stories sometimes do, with a journey — a journey taken by school Principal Chris Labbe to South Africa to attend a conference. The beauty of Africa and its wildlife prompted Labbe and her friend, Jill Spencer, in March to plan a safari trip back to Africa. That led her to Tim Farren of Farren Safaris, based in Bangor, who made arrangements for Labbe and Spencer to travel to Zimbabwe.

“Because Tim knew we were educators, he arranged for us to visit the elementary school in Ngamo village,” Labbe said. Before leaving for Zimbabwe, Labbe and Spencer asked Holy Cross School second-graders to write letters and draw pictures about being in second grade and living in Maine. she took the letters and drawing to the Ngamo school students.

“When we went to visit the school and brought the letters the second-graders had written, the [Ngamo] students sang and danced for us,” Labbe said. “When we went back to pick up letters the Ngamo kids had written for our second-graders, the letters weren’t quite ready yet, so I talked with the third-grade teacher while we waited.” In the course of their conversation, Labbe learned that many students were not in school that day. They had been sent home because their parents could not pay the school fees.

“I was horrified,” Labbe said. She asked how much the school fees were and learned that the cost to send one child to school was $10 for three months, or $30 for the school year. “Jill and I walked  back to the truck [that had brought them to the village] and we came up with one hundred dollars between us.” They took the money to the headmaster and asked him to figure out which families were most in need.

Before Labbe and Spencer left Zimbabwe, the headmaster gave them a list of the names of the children who now would be able to attend school, and introduced them to the children’s mothers.

“When we got back from the trip,” Labbe said, “I was pretty wound up about the Zimbabwe children not being able to go to school.” She told the story to her colleagues and students. A sixth-grader suggested that the school sell Tootsie Pops for 25 cents each to raise funds to send a child to school. Other students put jars on their teacher’s desk where coins could be dropped and earmarked for the Ngamo village children. A fifth-grader who won a speech competition donated her $50 prize to the cause. A first-grader set up a lemonade stand and over the weekend raised $8 to donate, she said.

Whenever Labbe told the story about the Ngamo school children, people would reach into their wallets and hand her money. Soon, $370 had been raised, enough to send 19 children in Zimbabwe to school. Then, an additional $837 was raised.

Labbe also told her story at a principal’s association meeting she attended. Soon, she received an email from Principal Joseph Gallant of All Saints Catholic School in Bangor saying that his school wanted to help raise funds to benefit Ngamo village students.

Gallant said, “I saw it as a really good lesson for our kids, for them to learn that there are kids who go to Catholic schools and who are not as fortunate as they are. It’s a good lesson for the kids — that they can live Jesus’ message. We have dress-down days — used occasionally — our students wear uniforms — where kids bring in what they can afford, fifty cents or a dollar, and they earn a dress down-day. The money is used for a good cause. Last month they raised $500 for water filters for undeveloped countries.”

Gallant said All Saints Catholic School is proud of its students and how they step up to help when teachers explain to them there is a  need.

“Ten dollars for us [in America] is so minimal,” Labbe said. “I think that the [Holy Cross School] children see that the little bit they do makes such a difference — and seeing the photos of the [Ngamo] kids is very powerful. Service is part of the Holy Cross mission. Students volunteer at the food cupboard and do toy drives at Christmas time. Now we have reached out to be global citizens.”

In order to make certain that funds go directly to the Ngamo school, Tim Farren volunteered to wire the funds to the Imvelo company which operates the safari lodges where his clients stay, which is near Ngamo. Staff from Imvelo take the funds directly to the school headmaster. Imvelo also donates a percentage of its profits to the village to make improvements, such as for sources of clean water.

“It’s a nice triangle — it gets the world that much closer,” Labbe said

Labbe also has started an online account at GoFundMe.com/v34a265d to benefit Ngamo schoolchildren.