September 5, 2005: Headlines: COS - Togo: : Woonsocket Call: Heather Senecal works as a Peace Corps Volunteers to improve health practices and education in villages in Togo

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Togo: Peace Corps Togo : The Peace Corps in Togo: September 5, 2005: Headlines: COS - Togo: : Woonsocket Call: Heather Senecal works as a Peace Corps Volunteers to improve health practices and education in villages in Togo

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Heather Senecal works as a Peace Corps Volunteers to improve health practices and education in villages in Togo

Heather Senecal works as a Peace Corps Volunteers  to improve health practices and education in villages in Togo

On this special day, the Togolese people from a poor Third World country, a former French colony between Ghana and Nigeria, are gathering from eight villages and nine schools - one secondary and the others elementary - to give thanks for the first real possessions of books and school supplies they have ever had.

Heather Senecal works as a Peace Corps Volunteers to improve health practices and education in villages in Togo

Teachers, kids in Togo excited about books, supplies

By: MICHAEL HOLTZMAN, Staff Writer

09/05/2005

NORTH SMITHFIELD - It's a late July day in a remote village of Togo in West Africa and Helen Senecal is with her brother from California watching an event like she's been propelled into a National Geographic story.

Only this is more personal.

The villagers, dressed in their best colorful garb, are singing and drumming and dancing for a great celebration. It's not the occasion of some feast or wedding or to welcome important dignitaries -- although those kinds of people are certainly here - but for something more significant and unique:

On this special day, the Togolese people from a poor Third World country, a former French colony between Ghana and Nigeria, are gathering from eight villages and nine schools - one secondary and the others elementary - to give thanks for the first real possessions of books and school supplies they have ever had.

They had come, also, to examine these books, such as stories in French by African authors about African children, and materials such as rulers and protractors they have never seen before.

Later on this day, July 29, before school would begin in early September, the donated materials would be divided up with the teachers from each school.

This daylong celebration is the culmination of fund raising that began during a snowy winter in North Smithfield last year at the urging of Peace Corps volunteer Heather Senecal, who in 1999 graduated as salutatorian from her town's high school. The Student Council from her alma mater carried the torch when they learned of Togo's needs where Senecal was working to improve health practices and education in these villages.

They raised $3,400 by last January, including a successful winter concert that the snow couldn't stop, and with other donations from family and friends Senecal raised well over the $4,200 in cash needed to fill the teachers' supply requests.

When they compiled that "wish list" to begin the project titled "promise for a better education" as listed on the Peace Corps Web site, Helen Senecal said her daughter went with the teachers and headmaster to Togo's capital city, Lomé, to select the books and materials, such as maps, dictionaries and encyclopedias, history and math books.

These teachers with no books, who would write study notes each day on the crudest of blackboards for their students to copy, who used rooms for preparation under a thatched roof with four poles, "were like children in a candy store" selecting school supplies.

Heather would tell her mother: "They had seen them, but they had never had them."

"The students had never seen a map before. They had never seen Africa on a map before," Helen Senecal said.

See TOGO - Page A-5

In concert with the Peace Corps' "promise for a better education" came donations of 6,000 used text books in French given by France, and funds from Canada that would serve to build desks and benches for the classrooms.

On this celebration day, filled with emotion and commotion, with massive speeches and Togolese people ranging from the very youngest to the village elders and the provincial governor, that ended with a reception in the home of a village chief, they all came to give thanks: to France and Canada and North Smithfield, Rhode Island.

Helen Senecal of 800 Black Plain Road, visited the villages where Heather volunteered from June 26 to Aug. 4. She and Heather's uncle, Edward Rabbitt, a well-traveled computer engineer, were told when the ceremony would be held, organized to coincide with their trip.

The mother was asked how she felt during the ceremonial speeches of thanks, including one by her daughter who spoke of the commitment by the villages that provided 25 percent of the "in-kind services" and funds to enable Peace Corps projects like this one to be self-sustaining.

The speeches heralded the sacrifices of families to educate their children and that it was not uncommon for children to walk several miles each way to a cement block school without electricity or running water.

Senecal said she thought about her daughter taking bucket showers each morning, riding her bicycle 26 kilometers through the bush to catch a ride to Lomé each week for food and supplies and to access a computer.

"I'm looking at all this and this is my child in a totally foreign country. And you're so proud of them, they've survived such harsh conditions," Helen Senecal said. "It's amazing when you see a child adapt to an environment and learn to live simply."

For herself, after spending more than a month in Togo, amid trepidations when her daughter left two years ago, Senecal said, "It was an overwhelming experience. I would go back in a heartbeat.

"I call it my visual oxymoron: such a gorgeous country, beautiful beaches, kind warm people - but they have nothing. It's just a very sad situation," said Senecal, who has worked in admissions at Bryant College for many years. "The day to day challenge of living there, when you come face to face with it, it takes your breath away."

Among the teachers' responses, she recalled a teacher speaking about their dire needs, saying in effect, "we need to educate our children to be able to do things to move our country forward."

Back home, her family wants North Smithfield High Student Council Advisor Natalie O'Brien, her students and the town citizens that donated, to know "how grateful all of these villagers are." She said they were overwhelmed that "people who don't even know them care about their education."

"They're very appreciative, and it's going to make a difference," she said. "If they could have just seen the expressions on the teachers' faces."

As for Heather, 24, who spoke to North Smithfield High students about her experience over Christmas break last January, she concludes her Peace Corps volunteering in Togo on Nov. 18.

That's when her brother, Justin, will meet her in Africa and they will travel together. Justin, who graduated North Smithfield High in 2001, has been handling the family business owned by their father, Alan Senecal.





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Story Source: Woonsocket Call

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