Pen Pals

America to Zambia pic

Last week a group of high school students sent handwritten letters to secondary students at School of Hope in Zambia. The students are members of the International Girls Club at Cary Grove High School in Cary, Illinois. In years past, our team has hand-delivered short notes and homemade cards to kids when we have traveled to Zambia to work with our partner schools, but we’ve never attempted a pen pal project due to the turn around time and cost of shipping. However, when club sponsor Sonya Wadlington and I met to discuss the project, we decided scanning the letters and sending them via email to School of Hope would be best. We also chatted about possible topics and culturally sensitive content to include in the letters. The thoughtful teens got to work and hand wrote letters; many included little drawings in the margins to extend the information shared.

Here are a few favorite lines from the pen pal letters explaining high school life at Cary Grove:

  • I take 5 classes/subjects and go to them every day.
  • My favorite subject this year is either English or physics!
  • Art lets me express my creativity.
  • I really like science and I hope to become a doctor when I’m older.
  • I would like to tell you about my family because family means a lot to me.
  • That is my true goal for my time at school. To become a better thinker in order to eventually pursue my true passion.
  • I’m also planning on going to a university after high school.
  • In my eyes, to achieve happiness, you must do what you love, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
  • One of my favorite foods to eat is ice cream.
  • I’m really looking forward to exchanging letters because learning about other cultures has always been an interest of mine.
  • I’m so glad we get to write to each other from halfway across the world.
  • What does your schedule look like each day?
  • Do you know multiple languages?
  • What types of food do you like to eat?
  • Does your school have uniforms?

School of Hope director Kathleen Schwartz will share the letters this week, and hopefully, the International Girls Club will receive letters back from their Zambian pen pals in December.

Little letter pics

Where Would We Be Without Donna?

By Pat Kelly

We ship a lot of books. So naturally, the U.S. Postal Service plays a big part in getting the bulk of our books to their destination. Over the last eight years, I’ve been involved in schlepping boxes of these children’s titles to the post office in Crystal Lake. On a few occasions and where it seems like the majority of the time, our postal clerk Donna is on the processing end of the affair.

Now let me tell you about Donna. She is polite, efficient and strong. If she has ever had a bad day, I am completely unaware of it. With the pleasantness of a saint, she hefts numerous boxes, each weighing 20-30 pounds onto her scale and then sticks printed labels on each box. When we ship overseas, each box is placed into a slippery M-bag and there are M bag tags along with customs forms to work with. It’s a tedious process in which Donna works through with ease.

Recently, I had a load of ten heavy boxes of children’s books on a cart behind the counter at the Crystal Lake Post Office and Donna was working through them getting postage applied to each one. When she was working on the ninth parcel, she asked me if I had more books in my car to bring in. A simple question, but it almost seemed like she welcomed additional boxes. And it reminded me of the drive and devotion Donna possesses to be sure each and every interaction with a customer is a positive one.

Hats off to Donna and all her colleagues at our Crystal Lake Post Office!

Sharing Stories

“After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the things we need most in the world.”~Philip Pullman

girl title 1

“What do you have that’s scary? I don’t mean like walking scarecrows at night. I mean really scary,” inquired a blonde-haired friend. “I’m not sure. Does R.L. Stine work for you?” I asked. “I don’t know.  Let me see,” he replied quickly.  After scoping out the R. L. Stine section, he wandered around every other table to check out possibilities.

“Do you have three funny books?” inquired a little fourth-grade girl with two sparkling smiles standing behind her. “Do you mean three copies of the same book?” I questioned.  “Yes, we are three best friends and we really want to read the same funny book,” the girls replied. “Have you tried Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing? Peter and Fudge are a stitch,” I suggested while handing them the books. The girls all opened to the first page and started to read together.

Boys Title 1

“I’m looking for a comic book,” a second-grader announced to Mal. “Comic book? Follow me, let’s see what we can find,” Mal replied. “Mal this guy over here is looking for Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” I called out. “There may be some on that table over there,” Mal said pointing to the long table in the corner of the room.

As kids asked Wendy, Alia, Dave, Mal, Koriann, and I to help them select books, we chatted with each other about our favorites. “Didn’t Thank You, Mr. Falker make you cry?” Koriann asked as she held it in the air. “Yeah, I can’t wait for Patricia Polacco to visit Glacier Ridge this year,” I replied.  “What? When? That’s so exciting. I may have to be sick that day,” Koriann laughed.  

The morning passed quickly as we shared stories with each other.  At the end of the day, each child left with three books they had personally chosen.  Some chose books for themselves while others chose books for others.  It was a true gift to spend the time talking about books with friends today. Happy reading everyone!

~Anastasia Gruper

So, Did You Always Want to be a Teacher?

After being in a variety of classrooms earlier in the week, I decided to circle back to a few teachers and ask for their stories in becoming educators. As each one shared her narrative, what struck me the most was the fact none of the them aspired to be a teacher growing up. Nope. Not one. In fact, Oliness, talked about she “sacrificed” herself at church and worked with the little ones in Sunday school. Sadly, her parents died when she was in grade twelve, so her plans changed dramatically. After waiting two long years to get into a dental school program, Mrs. Gwanu was told by her mother to head to Livingstone and begin working on her teaching certificate. As luck would have it, her acceptance to dental school came a year later . . . but Mom forced her to stay in the teaching program. Third grade teacher Tina had always wanted to become a nurse. However, her older sister was helping to cover the cost of schooling and insisted she pursue a teaching career. Nursing school was out of the question.

As I walked home later that day, I thought a lot about plans—plans for the future, plans for children, and God’s plan for our lives. It’s true, we often invest a great deal of time (and money) in creating big plans. We believe our plans are set in stone when actually our well crafted plans could change in an instant. And what I find so interesting is that these women are three of the strongest educators at School of Hope. They are leaders in their field who inspire their students and continue to learn themselves. They are proud of their students’ progress and joyful in their careers . . . even if teaching wasn’t their first choice.

A Girl With Goals


I’d like to introduce you to Miss Royna Mwewa. She is a grade ten pupil at School of Hope, and I have had the pleasure of working with her during my summer visits in Zambia. Royna lives with her mother and father along with five siblings in Liteta, a small town a few miles down the road. She has attended School of Hope since second grade.

As the oldest girl living at home, Royna is responsible for most of the cooking and washing for her family. She is also in charge of fetching water from the nearest well which is about a 10-minute walk. Her mother works in the dining hall at School of Hope and her father makes charcoal to sell. For fun, Miss Royna enjoys singing and reading novels including fairy tales, bible stories, and adventures.

Royna believes her best subject in school is English, but finds math and physics to be challenging. Her favorite teacher has often encouraged her by saying things like, “Education is the key to prosperity”. During our interview, Miss Mwewa explained to me that some kids say grade ten is boring, but she disagrees. And when I asked her to tell me about a time she felt successful in school, Royna described her experience with the high stakes national grade nine exam. She said she saw herself passing the test knew she was doing well while taking it. Turns out—she did do well and was successful in moving on to grade ten.

In two years, Miss Royna Mwewa hopes to attend a university and would like to become a journalist or an English Literature teacher. One major goal she set for herself is to take school and studying seriously. As we wrapped up our time together, she stated “I want to humble myself. There are lot of girls having boyfriends at the wrong time. I am picking books to be my friends. In my family, there are no girls who have finished school, so I want to make a difference and go to college”.

Are We Together?

No matter the age or occupation, we all strive for healthy relationships with people around us. Relationships create connection. They help us to understand different perspectives while encouraging us to see the world through a variety of lenses. Over the last four years, School of Hope has been a major part of A to Z Literacy Movement’s mission in Zambia, and we have worked hard to establish trusting, respectful, and caring relationships with staff and students alike. However, I still get nervous every time I travel back to Africa. I worry relationships have weakened and teachers will be hesitant to collaborate. I become anxious students might not want to participate in lessons.

Of course, I should know better . . . most of life’s worrying is a waste of time because when I returned to the school on Monday, so many teachers welcomed me back with open arms and open doors. Students stopped to greet me and asked when I was coming to their classrooms.  Such a sincere and warm welcome back. Gratefully, I’ve already been able to teach in multiple grades alongside teachers, while observing others in action . . . and it’s only Tuesday! I believe because of positive relationships, we are making a difference in the literacy lives of Zambian children, and as Zambian teachers often ask their students during class, “Are we together?”, I can honestly say “Yes. Yes, we are together!”.



Oh Zambia, Good to See You Again, My Friend

There is something about beautiful Zambia, Africa . . . something that always stirs an energy inside of me. I can’t explain why, but the sights, smells, and sounds of this country fill my heart with joy every time I return.

tree morning


Although this trip is going to be short, I’m excited to accomplish as much as possible this week with the teachers and students at School of Hope. Director Kathleen Schwartz has requested writing be the focus in all grade levels. Writing? Really? (Cue the eye rolling and deep sighs.) Writing—so often overlooked in content areas and avoided by students. Writing—believed to be “hard” and take so much classroom time. Writing—a combo platter of “no fun” and “super boring” throughout elementary and middle school. But wait . . . writing isn’t that bad. Writing invites new thinking and reflection. Writing helps us work through ideas and problem solve. Writing works hand in hand with Reading to increase comprehension. We need to write, and not just in Language Arts, but across all subjects.


I’ve got my lessons ready to roll and will hopefully encourage adults and children to reconsider how powerful writing can be in their lives. 🙂