Fostering Education in Ethiopia

Ethiopian students in classroom
Ethiopian students in a classroom in 2010, after class sizes have been reduced.

Former Southdown Primary principal leads effort to provide books, training for children.
By Ken Ryan, Patch
In a world of nearly 7 billion human beings, former Southdown Primary School principal Helen Boxwill proved once again that a single person can make a big difference. In this case, helping tens of thousands a world away.

Her non-profit organization H² Empower, which aims to empower people through education and sustainable development, has focused its efforts on Hosanna, a rural agricultural area in southern Ethiopia with 30,000 school-aged children.

When Boxwill first arrived in Hosanna in 2003, as part of a non-governmental organization (NGO) program called International Foundation for Education and Self-Help, she trained teachers to work with students, modifying their methods from lecture-based to more student-centered learning.

To say the teachers and students in Hosanna were working with limited educational resources would be an understatement. The teachers’ only available school supply was chalk. The average classroom size in the Hosanna primary school was 95 students. On a trip to a local college Boxwill came upon a sparkling new library. The only thing missing? Books.

Boxwill and her team got to work. Thanks to her organization, and scores of Long Island students, schools, libraries, businesses and individuals, progress began to happen. First, they trained the teachers and helped them gain greater access to information while promoting global-minded education. They began to build and supply libraries. They created wells for increased sanitation and health. They organized various workers into collectives to increase productivity and ultimately their standard of living.

Since 2003, H² Empower has shipped 13,000 pounds of books to Ethiopia and is currently building a community library in Hosanna. It has trained 430 primary school teachers and worked with government and private organizations to gather additional resources.

A container of 30,000 books recently arrived in Hosanna.  Forty-seven schools and the Hosanna Hospital will receive the books along with the community library H² is building. The Hosanna Development Corp. is training the teachers at all the schools to make sure the books are used correctly. Boxwill said the average classroom size is now down to 54.

“It’s very fulfilling to see the progress, very,” said Boxwill, who makes yearly trips there. “And it is progress made on so many levels.”

The families of the students in rural Hosanna often work on farms, for meager wages. The average day’s pay in Hosanna is $1.50, Boxwill said. That’s $10.50 for a seven-day work week, or $547.50 a year (if you worked 365 days). Despite the income constraints, these parents have contributed to the education efforts, donating $6,000 collectively in the last several years.  “It has made a huge difference,” Boxwill said. “It is very rewarding to see how the parents are willing to sacrifice to improve the education of their children.”

Long Islanders have chipped in as well. Students at several Long Island schools have held book drives and raised funds for the children of Ethiopia. The Smithtown High School Honor Society helped load a container (which sat on the property of the Smithtown Historical Society for two years) consisting of 30,000 books. “We could never have loaded 748 boxes in two hours so seamlessly,” Boxwill said in praise of their efforts.

Jeremy Schneck of Dix Hills, who runs the nonprofit Reading Reflections, collected and distributed hundreds of books for the cause.

It has taken a village – a global village – to make this project a success, with still more work to be done. “Now that I think about it, it has been quite a long time since I first went over there,” Boxwill said. “When I hear that [the local government] will be inspecting how the schools use the books, that they see the value in it and are very excited about it, that is very gratifying to me.”