July 1, 2002 - South County Journal: Senegal RPCV works to bring two worlds together

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By Admin1 (admin) on Thursday, July 04, 2002 - 7:05 pm: Edit Post

Senegal RPCV works to bring two worlds together

Read and comment on this story from the South County Journal on RPCV Mary Fertakis who has worked since 1997 to establish sister school relationships between Foster High School and schools in Senegal, including a school she built in the 1980s at:

Peace Corps vet works to bring 2 worlds together*

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Peace Corps vet works to bring 2 worlds together

2002-07-01 by Sarah Koenig Journal Reporter

TUKWILA -- After spending two years with the Peace Corps helping improve a village in Senegal, Mary Fertakis took to heart the corps' third goal -- ``bring the world back home.''

Since 1997, Fertakis has worked to establish sister school relationships between Foster High School and schools in Senegal, including a school she built in the 1980s. For the past three years, French students at Foster have been able to talk with students in Senegal through video conferences.

``The kids have all these stereotypes in their heads,'' said Fertakis, a Tukwila School Board member. ``They're discovering that even though they're worlds apart on the surface, underneath they're very similar.''

The Washington Education Association recently gave Fertakis a Human & Civil Rights award for her efforts.

Fertakis' involvement with Senegal began in 1985, when the Peace Corps assigned her to the rural village of Thillagrand.

``I didn't know where Senegal was; I had to look it up on a map,'' said Fertakis, who was 24 when she arrived in the west African country.

Once there, Fertakis set up 10 community development projects, including a health-care facility, a well for the village garden and the El Haidji Cheik N'Daiye elementary school.

The school was the village's first. ``They'd wanted a school for 20 years,'' Fertakis said.

She planned and designed the school from start to finish. Villagers built the structure by hand.

The original school had two rooms that housed 70 first-graders. ``They were two and three to a desk,'' Fertakis recalled.

Today, the school has grown to six rooms with 300 students in grades 1-6, hailing from several surrounding villages.

``In Senegal, people leave the villages and go to the cities to find jobs and they're not there,'' Fertakis said.

``In my village, they don't leave now because I made it a more comfortable place to live: They have the school; they have health care. When I went back in 1998, I didn't even recognize the place -- it was light years from where we were before.''

In the fall of 1997, Fertakis gave a presentation on Senegal to French classes at Foster.

``They saw pictures of the school and decided they wanted to do something,'' she said.

The students gathered 100 pounds of school supplies and wrote essays about their school and directions in French for using Post-it notes and other items.

The Peace Corps delivered the supplies to Thillagrand a year later, and the sister school relationship was born.

Since then, Fertakis has organized annual video conferences between Foster students and the school in Thillagrand, as well as with Saidou Nourou Tall High School in Dakar.

She also has set up visits to Foster from several Senegal citizens, including the ambassador to the United States, a professional woman basketball player and a newscaster. And Fertakis has taken students out to eat Senegalese food.

The most recent video conference, with the Saidou Nourou school, was held June 3.

Fertakis says the students were curious about what they had heard on the news about each other.

The Americans asked the Senegal students about AIDS, poverty and war. The Senegal students explained that there is less than a 2 percent incidence of AIDS in their country, and they aren't in a war.

In turn, they asked the Foster students about violence in this country. The Foster students explained that they don't fear for their lives when they leave the house.

Now Fertakis hopes to secure funding to buy video conferencing equipment for Foster High School so students can take what she calls ``field trips without borders.''

Fertakis also would like to set up student and teacher exchanges.

However, she feels the project has a life of its own.

``Our motto is: `It's a Senegal project,''' Fertakis said, ``which means we don't know what's going to happen.''

Sarah Koenig can be reached at sarah.koenig@ southcountyjournal.com or 253-872-6738.

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