November 29, 2004: Headlines: COS - Togo: Heather Senecal's two-year Peace Corps assignment is to teach health and how to prevent AIDS in Togo

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Togo: Peace Corps Togo : The Peace Corps in Togo: November 29, 2004: Headlines: COS - Togo: Heather Senecal's two-year Peace Corps assignment is to teach health and how to prevent AIDS in Togo

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Heather Senecal's two-year Peace Corps assignment is to teach health and how to prevent AIDS in Togo

Heather Senecal's two-year Peace Corps assignment is to teach health and how to prevent AIDS in Togo

Heather Senecal's two-year Peace Corps assignment is to teach health and how to prevent AIDS in Togo

Raising Awareness
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NORTH SMITHFIELD -- If a local teacher of school-age children submitted a wish list for a classroom, it might contain items like computer software, paperback story books and art supplies. Maybe it would include laptops and Internet access.

That’s hardly the case in the tiny west African country of Togo, a former French colony between Ghana and Nigeria, where the cost of school is $4 a year for primary education, $8 for middle school and a still-nominal $50 for a year of high school.

Even so, of the country’s 5.2 million citizens, only about 1,100 children -- three-fourths of them boys -- attend school at all, says Heather Senecal, 23, whose two-year Peace Corps assignment is to teach health and how to prevent AIDS.

Senecal, a daughter of Alan and Helen Senecal of 800 Black Plain Road, knows a bit about educational success. She was the 1999 class salutatorian at North Smithfield Junior-Senior High School and went on to graduate in 2003 from Providence College. At PC, she concentrated on French, political science and women’s studies, volunteering during college for Habitat for Humanity, an internationally acclaimed self-help, home-building program.

"She became interested in helping others," her mother recently wrote a teacher at her high school alma mater.

Maybe it’s when a young alum is on the other side of the planet in an isolated Third World country, working in tiny villages without electricity or running water, where schools are old cement block buildings or benches under a thatched roof, that high school students can appreciate a truly great need.

In schools called Tokpo, Kpando, N’kupe and CEG Kolo, the students’ books are either from the 1980s or consist of notes taken from their teachers’ lessons. For those teachers, the "wish lists" are for books in French costing about $10 each, world maps, notebooks and pencils, Heather Senecal said recently.

Her mother, recalling how the high school Student Council a year ago raised several thousand dollars to help build a classroom in Kenya, looked to the resourcefulness of young school leaders to aid her daughter’s project. In the next couple of weeks, the Peace Corps Partnership program will be posted on its Web site, stating its goal of raising $5,700 for schoolbooks in Togo.

North Smithfield High’s Student Council has responded eagerly to the partnership, said Natalie O’Brien, its advisor. Already, a student "lock-out -- an overnight with sleeping bags, movies and games -- raised $500, with businesses donating food for the event. Seventy students turned out.

On Dec. 14, students and school staff boarding buses for the annual holiday shopping pilgrimage to Boston will pay $5 a head, with all funds earmarked for Togo books.

The main fund-raising event will be a Jan. 6 concert in the high school auditorium featuring Brass Attack and Stefan Couture and the Camp Fire Band. Tickets are $10 and available at the school or from any Student Council member.

Tickets are being sold during parent-teacher conferences on Monday and Dec. 6.

"Our goal is to raise $3,000," said O’Brien. "My kids love it because of the connection to someone who went to school here ..Last year I thought what we had done (for Kenya) didn’t get the reception we thought it would from the community.

"But with the connection through Heather, as a graduate, I thought what we are doing would be great," she said. O’Brien, who teaches social studies in addition to coaching the girls and boys tennis teams, noted a portion of the high school’s mission is to promote global awareness. She sees the project as an opportunity to follow through on that mission.

On an even more personal level, Senecal will return to her hometown for a break on Dec. 23, having already been in Togo for 15 months. She’ll remain here until Jan. 13, and plans to speak with O’Brien’s economics and women’s history classes.

In addition to her academic success at the high school, Senecal played flute in the concert and marching bands, ran cross-country and played on the softball and baskeball teams.

From all indications, Senecal will bring stories and lessons and even significant current events that town students probably have never heard before. Just a week ago, the European Union lifted sanctions for human rights violations against the dictatorship under President Gnassingbe Eyadema; a celebration in the capital of Lome then resulted in 18 people being trampled to death.

"At first her father and I were very nervous about this whole experience," Helen Senecal said about their oldest of two children. With no hospitals in the five villages where she lives and works and the government outlawing personal motor vehicles, there are many formidable obstacles. Senecal "gets around her county (Kolo) by bicycle," her mother said.

Generally, the family speaks with her every two weeks and receives periodic e-mails when Heather can go to the capital city and rent Internet time.

The family’s concerns for her health and safety have eased, however. They said the training by the Peace Corps has been outstanding.

"Right now I’m fine with it," Helen Senecal said. With their limited resources, she said, "I’m in awe and just amazed how she’s been able to do it and do it all quite well." Her daughter believes health care education "needs to start with the children," she said.

In July, her parents and younger brother, Justin, plan to visit Heather in Togo before her 27-month Peace Corps stint ends in December 2005. In the meantime, they await her first Christmas home in two years, when they and the town’s high school students will hear directly about her adventures.

©The Call 2004

When this story was posted in December 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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