Tuesday, June 30, 2009

First Trip to St. Mary's

Still jet-lagged, I arrived at St. Mary’s for the first time since my last trip to South Africa almost 2 years ago. The kids came rushing in, excited to continue playing and learning on the XOs. Aimee and I quickly realized there was no way we could have an organized lesson plan off the bat because the kids were too eager just to play around. We knew this was important for the kids to play around first themselves and discover things individually, after sharing with friends and us as well! Luckily, with 2 of us helping out, there was more time to work with kids 1 on 1, instead of leaving poor Aimee to all 8!

Watching the kids fool around and help each other out, I found myself fighting back tears. The smiles on their faces showed their excitement, and I began feeling the power of this program and the endless possibilities the children can have with these laptops. Wiping away the few tears that dropped, I enjoyed walking around looking at the programs the children decided to open up first and how they did not hesitate to show Aimee, myself and their friends what they have accomplished. We let the children choose the programs they wanted to open and we were able to assist them, teaching them how to use the program, which they then could teach their fellow peers.

The best part of my day was when I realized Robyn, a 12 year old girl, using the chat function to type the exact same sentences to 2 boys, Lloyd and Jurihin. I immediately called her out on flirting with both of them, and it became a big joke and laugh for the rest of the day.

After the kids had about 30 minutes of free-time, we showed the kids how to take pictures using the XOs. They quickly caught on, and were given 10 minutes to walk around the room taking picture of whom and whatever they wanted. After picking their favourite picture, we went around explaining how to cut and paste the image into a word document so they would be able to write about what picture they had taken. The kids loved the independence and freedom of being able to decide what pictures to take, which to keep and what to write about. Without realizing, the kids were working on typing and important computer functions, such as cut and paste!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

First day back home

We have a few visitors with us from the US joining us for a little. They’re a team from General Mills, very generous contributors and donors to OLPC and OLPCorps particularly. They came to see first-hand what OLPCorps will be doing, and we’re very grateful and blessed that we got to share our Grahamstown story and perspective with them!
It’s hard to believe I’m back here (I’m sorry if I don’t stop saying that this entire trip!). Too many emotions running through me right now but everything tremendous, to say the least. I got to visit St Mary’s the day after I got in, jumping right into things here. As the kids came streaming into the centre, it was just pure joy to get to see so many of the kids from a couple years back, and also a lot of new faces. I got lots of second looks from the kids, thinking they recognised a familiar face from somewhere. Sure enough, a bunch of them put the face together and ran over for hi’s and hugs. Some pulled me over to the wall at the back of the room where photos hang of past volunteers at St Mary’s – just double checking it was me :)
Highlight of the morning for me was when one girl threw her arms around me and said, “you remembered us!” Believe me, it took everything in me to stop from crying!
Oh boy, I can’t wait to get this project going!

St Mary’s and Holy Cross

Here’s a little look into the premises of the 2 after-school programs we’re working with. First is St Mary’s Day Care Centre. I've talked a little about them in my last post, but here's a little more official description from the centre:

There are 87 children between ages 6 to 18 at present. The children are with the Centre for about 10 years and the secret of the Centre’s success is that they remain in its care for so long. They are selected from the most under-privileged homes and are provided with a second home in which love, care, food and warmth are provided. Most come from homes where the only income is a child support grant, a disability grant or grandparent’s pension. Most are poorly fed at home, live in crowded conditions and have alcoholic parents who have no time for their children. A growing number have been physically and sexually abused. Almost all of the children at the Centre are affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic with either a family member who has contracted the disease or has died as a result of it. A smaller minority of our children are also HIV positive.
The children arrive between 7:00 and 8:00 am each school day and immediately wash, tidy up and change into school uniforms and shoes which the Centre provides. After a nourishing breakfast they go to school and return for a nutritious lunch, organized afternoon activities and supervised homework. After a snack at 4pm they return to their own homes. It is firmly believed that children should continue to be part of their families despite alcoholism, poverty and all the other disadvantages. We do not want to alienate them from their roots and
The Centre was established in 1982, and approximately half of the income comes from Kindernothilfe, an organization whose funds come from ordinary German Christian families. The balance has to be privately raised.

View from the front

View of a bit of the township from the main doors

These are some of the many kids whom I got to know and who motivated me to come back!

The second is the Holy Cross After-school Program of Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery (more pics from their website). When I first got to Grahamstown in 2007, I thought it was a little town, only because all the ‘essentials’ for a student were within walking distance. In time, there was a lot more to my new home that I discovered. The Mariya Monastery is one of many hidden gems that I wish I knew about earlier. The drive takes a bit of effort in itself by car, but it’s because this haven is tucked away in a little valley away from the city centre. The absolute definition of a sanctuary, this space immediately fills you with smiles, sunshine and peace as soon as you walk in. Run by about 7 Benedictine Anglican Brothers, the monastery also has a guesthouse as they continue centuries of tradition in welcoming all who pass their way. In 2005, the Brothers saw a need within the rural community and focused on the children in nearby farms. Thus, the after-school program began as a way to allow the kids to catch-up in their studies and offered them a true opportunity to succeed in the classroom. Right now, there are 16 kids in the program. (The inequality in the education system is something I’ll have to get into another time).

Here are a few pictures of the monastery grounds from their website, so you get a little idea where we are!

Main entrance

Kid you not, view from the grounds

Hills and valleys...

Some of the kids!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


First off, these little laptops are called XOs cos of the little kid icon! (We don’t want anyone to be confused you see :)

I don’t think we’ve talked about the functions and adaptations of the XO as yet. As you can tell from the first picture, the laptops are small and efficient (notice the comparison between a regular laptop). In fact, OLPC’s introduction of the XO has lead the commercial market to begin to produce smaller personal laptops, such as the notebook/ebooks at present.

Though they look small, and almost like a toy, they have all the full features of any other laptop. Since they were built particularly for kids in the developing world, they are meant for the outdoors. Where our $1000+ laptops will be spoilt if dropped/ wet etc (and most times kept far away from us as kids!), these little guys can withstand falls, get wet and withstand exposure to sun/ sand and more.

For our deployment, we chose chargers meant for an electrical source as our schools have reliable electricity grid. However, they’re also made with the option of a little solar cell or chargers meant for geneators.

What’s more, the monitors have a built-in video/camera and microphone for recording purposes. The monitors can also be rotated so that you can share what's on your screen with friends too. These laptops aren’t meant to replace all school materials, but they can serve that purpose. They fully rotate 180 degrees to fold down... press a button to flip the direction of the screen, and there you have an e-book for easy reading!

Initially, we thought the only way that the laptops could connect with each other was only with internet access. But what makes the XO unique as compared to a lot of the products out in the market, is that the laptops can connect to each other using an internal wireless system, called a mesh network (that’s what the little ‘ears’ are at the top of the monitor). There’s an option called the ‘neighborhood’ view, where if other kids have their XOs on, it’ll register everyone within range. That way, it allows for easy collaboration on programs – whether a game of Maze or Chat with your buds!

Anna & Aimee

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Once upon a time

I apologise that it's taken a little (a lot) longer than anticipated to get some updates going. Internet access was tough in Rwanda, and well.. time has gotten the better of us since we've been back. Anyhow, here's an attempt at a back-story.

So, how and why did I get involved in this in the first place? Fate, serendipity or fortune could potentially be words to explain how this has all crazily come together. I'd like to think it's just been one tremendous blessing after the other, so let me begin to share some thoughts.

During my senior year, I'd been taking my time deciding what it was exactly that I'd like to do with my years out of college. I was looking for a service opportunity that was akin to the Peace Corps, but one that I could apply to as an international. I knew I was keen in the larger goal of poverty alleviation, but I wanted the opportunity to be immersed in a place where I could serve and also learn a tremendous amount about social justice issues. The best resource I found to begin this tedious search was idealist.org, an online resource which has anything and everything to do with public service within the US and around the globe. I'd been getting daily digest updates, with anywhere from 30-50 little descriptions on potential jobs and internships catered to my interests. I was real busy one morning, the 27th of Feb to be exact ;) , but something made me want to sift through the idealist email. Sure enough, i read 3 little lines that seemed almost too good to be true. "Intern in Africa, deploy 100 laptops to kids ages 6-12, One Laptop Per Child Corps Africa" and a hyperlink. I recognised the name OLPC from it being in and out of the news, so my interest was piqued and i hurriedly checked up on it. Needless to say, i couldn't stop smiling for the rest of the morning. Too good indeed, but I immediately knew it in my bones that the grant would come through.

Why it especially means so much is this. Back in 2007, i spent a semester abroad in Grahamstown, South Africa. While I was on my semester exchange, I volunteered a good amount as well. One place was St Mary's Daycare, and I grew to care deeply for these children. Just before I'd left, some of the kids asked if I'd forget them; and I most certainly assured that that I never would. Since then, I'd been thinking of multiple ways to try and give back, but nothing really jumped at me. But as soon as I read the opening lines of the grant application, i just knew this had their names on it! With the faces of the children in mind, I excitedly shared this idea with my roommate Megan, and Anna who had studied in South Africa with me. Right away, I found the Director of St Mary's online (good ol Facebook!), and got cracking on getting our project proposal in order. In time, all the components of our project came together:
- focus on kids ages 6-12
- find a local partner willing to support you
- plan for longevity

That's when I checked in with Rebecca at Off Campus Studies. I wanted to prove that since a good number of Gettysburg students study in Grahamstown every semester, there'd be a great way of establishing a long-term partnership between our 2 towns. In time, we got the support of the Center for Public Service in Gettysburg, and the Centre for Social Development in Rhodes, and they suggested a second afterschool care program, Mariye, so that we had 100 children in all.. it was all coming together! On that first day itself that I read the grant application online, i put on my brass south african bracelet and promised to only take it off only after I was back from SA. (I'm still wearing it... It reminded me to think positively and pray hard for it to all happen! hah). Things just kept getting better. Caroline Hartzell, my advisor and prof at college (and most helpful grant-editor!), informed me that one of her old students Drew Stinson was going to grad school in Rhodes Univesity, back in South Africa. Thanks to that tip, I got in touch with him and learned that Stephanie Bonnes was there too. How perfect - 2 Gburg grads and current Rhodes students IN SAfrica already! They were just as excited about being a part of the project, and were the perfect people to be there and help us coordinate so many things on the ground. So, in a flurry, Megan, Anna and I put our proposal together and got it in right on time. To cut the next bit short.. we waited anxiously only to find out that we were narrowed down to a group of finalists out of over 250 proposals that had come in from around the world! We had to sit tight for another week :\ Then, we get an upsetting (now unimportant!) email that they sadly could only choose a few teams, and we were not selected. We were absolutely devastated, but knew that something good was still going to come out of it - like I said, I was so sure in my bones that we'd get it! Sure enough, 3 days later we get an email saying that more funds came in and we were a part of 30 teams that were selected. The circumstances didn't matter, we were shouting and dancing in the streets when we found out at 1 in the morning! (yes, that was us.. hah)

So, it all came together. And while I'm beyond thrilled that this has happened for the kids, I'm beginning to see how it's been planned all along. See, in 2003 while I was in 11th grade (JC1) in Singapore, I was a leader for the local youth delegation that attended the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva. It was one of the most incredible experiences that I'd been privileged to be a part of. Along with my first visit to South Africa (on a school trip I did with the Drama Society), i knew that I wanted to get into the field of internatinal relations and public service. The summit was where I learnt about the Digital Divide, and also the potential of ICTs and open source products in creating a more equitable playing field. I'd heard talk of the beginnings of an 'affordable laptop for children' based on all the principles being talked about at the summit. Sure enough, at the UN WSIS in Tunisia 2 years later, Nicholas Negroponte revealed the XO along with OLPC. It made sense that my experiences from then and through college were all coming together!

Phew.. I'm probablty boring all of you, but I can't stop smiling thinking about how this has all progressed :) Life is full of the most amazing opportunities. Dream big, and blessings will abound!

Tomorrow, we're having the Community Presentation Ceremony. I promise we'll have that up soon, along with the phenomenal experiences we've taken away from Rwanda. Till the next time!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

So...What's happening now?

Currently, 3 of the 4 team members (Aimee, Drew and Steph) are in Kigali, Rwanda for 10 day orientation workshop, which began on 8 June. While in Kigali, team members are able to meet with other OLPCorps members from across the country and world, who are all about to depart on this amazing experience.

The workshop includes: group activities, training with the XO laptops, technical presentations, and updates for the laptops. Members will receive an introduction to project based learning and how to incorporate activites on the XO laptops, while being encouraged to create unique projects for their specific deployment site.

The 10 day orientation is going to strengthen the knowledge of the XO laptops and the comfort of working with them. It will increase unity among team members in direct teams as well as the other teams going to different places.

It will be soon when everyone will be arriving in Grahamstown (approx. 18 June for the 3 in Kigali, and 29 June for me!), where we will finally begin to directly work with the children and the community!

Why I joined OLPCorps!

I was sitting in the computer lab of the Gettysburg College library when future OLPCorps team member, Aimee George, approached me with a grin on her face. Enthusiastically, she explained this organization called One Laptop Per Child that she found while searching on the internet. As she was describing the goals and the outline of the group, we began scrolling through the website, and tears rolled down my cheeks as I began to picture children with these laptops and how the doors to the world would open for them, changing their lives. I realized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I could not pass up.

I have always loved working with children. I constantly babysit and have spent the past 5 summers teaching swim lessons to children ranging from 3 to 14 years old. For the past 2 years I have helped in elementary school classrooms. Working with children has always been a passion of mine, as there is no better feeling then seeing a child work out a problem and solve the issue by him or herself using the tools and technology given.

Throughout college, I made sure to take advantage of volunteer opportunities on and off campus. For example, I made frequent trips to Washington D.C. distributing clothes to the homeless, I volunteered at the local homeless shelter in Gettysburg, and I travelled to Nicaragua on a service-learning trip.

In fall 2007, I studied abroad in Grahamstown, South Africa with Aimee. Excited and nervous before leaving, I had no idea the impact South Africa was going to have on my life. Spending time studying, travelling and truly becoming independent for the first time in my life, placed me on an emotional roller coaster that can not be described with words. The generous people, the unique and vibrant culture, the delicious food and the miles and miles of untouched land seeped through my veins and since my time abroad, have stayed in my blood, never to leave. I fell in love with South Africa, and leaving was one of the hardest things I had ever done.

Joining OLPCorps would allow me to combine my passions; working with children, volunteering and South Africa. Not only would it allow me to return to the place I fell in love with, but it would let me return with a purpose. So after Aimee approached me in the computer lab, I knew that joining an OLPCorps team was an experience that would allow me to encourage, educate and empower many children in Grahamstown, South Africa, changing not only my life but theirs as well.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

So... what is OLPCorps, again?

We probably should have started with this, but anyhow.. here's the release that's going out on what it is we're actually doing (thanks Drew and Steph!). We'll be certain to share our personal perpectives as soon as we get the chance!

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is a U.S. non-profit organization devoted to enhancing early childhood education. Its mission is, “To create educational opportunities for the world's poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning." Currently, the organization’s focus is on Africa. Early this year, OLPC announced that it would donate thousands of their special child-friendly laptops to select teams willing to build partnerships with local organizations in African countries.

In March, Grahamstown’s own St Mary’s Day Care Center and the Holy Cross After School Program at Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery were selected to be recipients of this unique opportunity. In total, only thirty teams out of over 200 applicants werechosen to take part in the program, three of which are in South Africa.

The St. Mary’s Day Care Center is an established NGO providing after-school food and care to some of the most impoverished and disadvantaged school going children in Grahamstown. Currently, the center is a second home to 87 children between the ages of 6 and 18. Similarly, the Holy Cross After School program provides transportation, food and after-school care to some of the area’s poor rural children. There are currently 16 students in their program from the junior through senior classes. To assist with implementing the OLPC program, the two day care centers have formed partnerships with student volunteers at Rhodes University and Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, United States. Together, this partnership is called GTECH - Grahamstown/Gettysburg: Together Empowering Children.

Beginning in July 2009, each child at the St. Mary’s and Holy Cross day care centers will be given their own OLPC laptop. Student volunteers from Rhodes, Gettysburg and GADRA will work with the children to engage them in learning through the use of special computer programs. Aside from utilizing the educational tools available on the laptops, children will be encouraged to play games and explore the laptop’s functions on their own. Internet connectivity will also be installed at the day care centers to assist with research as well as the overall usefulness of these laptops as educational tools.

It is the hope of GTECH and OLPC that through the use of these specially designed child-friendly laptops, the children of St. Mary’s and Holy Cross day care centres will not only be able to take advantage of unique educational tools but will also gain a level of comfort with technology. Each child will own and care for his/her own laptop, giving him/her a sense of personal responsibility and empowerment.

For more information please visit the OLPC webpage at http://www.laptop.org


No doubt, these next few weeks and months are going to be busy. We'll be sure to keep you posted on all the latest news as it happens, using our somewhat fancy gadgets that we'll soon figure out. Before you know it, we'll put the tech in GTECH... yes, i just said it.. hah.

Here's the plan for the coming days.

6th June: Drew and Stephanie leave Grahamstown and arrive in Kigali by the evening (Port Elizabeth-Kenya-Kigali)
7th: I'll reach Kigali in the morning (Singapore-Dubai-Joburg-Kenya-Kigali
8th-17th: Orientation and Training session for the 30 OLPCorps Teams in Kigali
18th: Steph, Drew and I will return to Grahamstown
22nd: Community Presentation Ceremony for the XOs
29th: Anna arrives in Grahamstown from MA

That's the gist.. till the next post, here's the XO icon in our favourite colours: Gburg (orange and blue) and Rhodes (purple and white!).. cool, i know ;)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Here we go!

Hi all,

Thanks for taking the time to visit our blog! It's hard to believe, but we're just days away from our deployment in Grahamstown, South Africa. Over the course of the coming months, we hope to use this as an outlet to update you on our project, share personal stories and experiences, and really just include you in this tremendous movement that's being called OLPCorps Africa.

Stay tuned as we give you some background info on the project; how and why we picked Grahamstown and our 2 communities... and tremendous other things, really! (Sign on to get email updates, might just be a little easier!).

Till the next post... here's to GTECH - Grahamstown/Gettysburg: Together Empowering Children.

Aimee, Anna, Drew and Stephanie