Wylie DI coaches naturally dedicate an immense amount of time and energy into the students they coach, but this summer coaches Jennifer Hanner, Kim Cheek and Tonya McElyea took that dedication across the globe to serve the students at Rwanda Children’s Christian School.
A CALLING TO RWANDA
Hanner, Cheek and McElyea share a common heart for the STEM program Destination Imagination. All three also had a calling to serve beyond Wylie, but the catalyst pressing each to act was different.
For Hanner, a personal event and kind gesture from a friend years before changed her life greatly. At the time, Hanner’s husband was going through a bone-marrow transplant and recovering from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare condition when a person’s immune system attacks the peripheral nerves. Their friend, Serge Gasore, came to visit them in the hospital. He asked if he could name his building project in Rwanda after her husband.
“Knowing what Serge survived growing up in the genocide against the Tutsi people, it was very humbling to tie our story of God’s healing together with his story of overcoming overwhelming circumstances to start his non-profit called Rwanda’s Children,” said Hanner. “Serge’s life impacted mine in a way that compelled me to want to partner with him.”
Cheek’s inspiration happened while working on a service project with her 4th grade gifted and talented class. Their project dealt with statistics and needs of communities located locally and internationally. The class created a campus food drive to benefit a local food bank, which then inspired the students to go internationally with their project. One of the students working on the project happened to be Hanner’s son Benton. He shared about Gasore’s non-profit with his class. It was the perfect fit, so Benton invited Gasore to speak to his class.
“He [Gasore] shared about the many programs created to make a difference in his community…and the message of actions of hope, growth, and compassion for one another,” said Cheek. “He invited us, to one day, come. Fast forward, four years later, we did!”
In steps McElyea. She grew up serving on mission trips to Mexico but had not served in that capacity since graduating from high school. Several years ago, she began feeling a pull towards serving others in this capacity again. The door of opportunity began to open when McELyea listened to Hanner’s DI team, Science Alliance, explain their plan to work with students in Rwanda. Hanner mentioned to McElyea she and her sons were planning to go in the summer.
“I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to do, but I knew I that I was supposed to go,” said McElyea. “I asked if I could come along. Once, I knew we were going to work with the primary students, I knew this was meant to be.”
TRAVELING TO ANOTHER DESTINATION PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY
Taking a team compiled of teachers, students, a psychologist, and a very large quantity of educational supplies from Abilene to Rwanda is a big undertaking. It called for traveling over 8,500 miles, more than 23 hours, and with 700 pounds of classroom materials and technology. Hanner and McElyea were accustomed to traveling abroad, but this was a whole new experience for Cheek.
“It was a very long travel process, but it was a fascinating journey,” said Cheek. “I was constantly in awe of things I’ve never seen before.”
The team prepared for their trip by obtaining passports, enduring multiple vaccinations, and meeting with the school’s staff to plan activities, transportation, and hotel accommodations. While logistics was quite the task, it fell short of the mission of meeting the educational needs of the students and teachers at Rwanda’s Children School. The ladies felt to succeed, they first needed to understand the people they would serve.
Each researched Rwanda diligently. McElyea said reading the stories of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi people was difficult, but it helped her understand the “mindset and resilience” of the nation of Rwanda. Cheek read and studied the data researched by DI team Science Alliance saying she “ate up every bit of the data they discovered.” Hanner having traveled to Rwanda three times before, along with coaching Science Alliance, still prepared herself mentally for this trip.
“I tried to learn as much as I could about Rwanda by reading about the beautiful culture, the circumstances that caused genocide of close to a million people, and the rebuilding of a decimated country,” said Hanner.
WYLIE IN RWANDA
The Rwanda Christian Children’s School is in Ntarama, a small village located about 45 minutes outside of Rwanda’s capital-city Kigali. Each day of the two-week trip began early and with the same overall objective – teach! Earlier in the year, Hanner’s DI team taught students at the school how to complete a common DI problem-solving activity called instant challenges. Through zoom meetings and videos, Science Alliance had set an educational foundation from which they would work.
McElyea said the team had a “project-based learning approach” when teaching the various age groups. They taught 3rd-6th grade classes with 14-30 students in each. They used Keva planks, Strabees, Dash bots and hands-on science curriculum in the classroom. These items along with other teaching tools and technology were based on the supply list Science Alliance had put together and collected through their service project.
The school day is managed differently in Rwanda compared to the United States, especially the focus on play. Cheek said each day at 10 a.m., they would have breakfast with the students and then recess.
“I loved looking around and seeing Jennifer shooting basketball with the girls. Basketball is big!” said Cheeks. “Tonya had some ‘mean’ games of duck-duck-goose going on. Play is valued and important there.”
The end of the day brought time for fellowship and mentoring. They demonstrated to the school’s teachers how to use the manipulatives they brought in their classroom as well as worked with older students on life skills.
“We hoped to teach the teachers how to incorporate STEM projects into their classrooms,” said McElyea. “We also had a psychologist in our party who worked with teachers, staff and a variety of adult students in the sewing program to understand and cope with trauma.”
Hanner said teachers in Rwanda often must be creative in their classrooms due to limited resources and hungered for the new methods of teaching their students, which left Cheek with an “attitude of gratitude”
“I learned we can be more resourceful and innovative than we first believe we can,” said Cheek.
IMPACT SURPASSES CLASSROOM AND BEYOND BORDERS
The benefit was mutual for all involved. They worked hard each day to change the lives of the staff and students at Children’s Christian School, but in return left forever changed by their time in Rwanda.
“I fell in love with the students and staff at Rwanda Children’s Christian School,” said McElyea. “The students and staff have so little in their classrooms and do so much with it. They have an overwhelming positive attitude and love of their culture and their school.”
Cheek said she grew in so many ways – in her faith, as a teacher and just as a human. She felt the opportunity to observe and interact with another learning institution was of great value, giving her a new appreciation for our school district.
“I grew in learning to trust and to rely on others’ talents. I learned to listen to others’ stories and what they were expressing,” said Cheek. “We are a blessed community. We are innovative, resourceful, and compassionate, and we are committed to raising leaders and responsible citizens.”
Hanner had the unique and awesome opportunity to bring her three sons along for the trip. Benton, who is her oldest and a team member of Science Alliance, and her twins Caleb and Clayton.
“I loved seeing my boys teaching other kids, but also experiencing a different culture,” said Hanner. “My boys now know what it looks like to see kids their age walk miles to a river or well for water to drink and what it looks like to be so grateful for an opportunity to go to school. These lessons they will never forget!”
“This country has experienced a great deal of trauma from the genocide and life is full of challenges, yet the simplicity and connection to each other is impactful to my life,” she said. “We will never know the full impact of our trip, but I’m certain that the Rwandan friends I’ve made have changed me forever.”
Jennifer Hanner is a Wylie parent and volunteer. Kim Cheek is the Wylie’s Gifted/Talented Coordinator and District DI Director. Along with others, they coach the junior high DI team, Science Alliance.
Tonya McElyea teaches first grade at Wylie West Elementary and is one of 4 coaches for the high school DI team, The Metallic Chickens.
By Kristen Johnson
Photos provided by Tonya McElyea, Kim Cheek and Jennifer Hanner