By Stephen J. Kotz
Sharon Cook and her daughter Abigail are not taking your typical summer vacation this year. The mother-daughter duo, both teachers with a focus on early childhood education, are setting off for the city of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, on Thursday, July 6, for a month’s stay at the Zimkids Orphan Trust, where they will observe the institution’s fledgling pre-school program and serve as a sounding board for its young staff.
“We are not going to ride into Bulawayo on a white horse to save the day,” Ms. Cook said. “We are going to watch and chime in when we can and make a few suggestions.”
Not that they will be at a loss for advice, if needed. Ms. Cook has enjoyed a long career in primary education and is currently the education director of the Peconic Community School in Aquebogue, where she also facilitates a mixed age kindergarten/first grade class. Abby Cook, who graduated from the University of Vermont two years ago with a degree in early childhood special education, is a teacher at the Beginnings Nursery School in New York City.
The Cooks’ connection to Zimkids dates back a decade when its founder, Dennis Gaboury, visited the Ross School, where Ms. Cook was a teacher and her daughter a student. He has since become a familiar face at elementary schools on return trips to the East End, she said.
A sculptor, Mr. Gaboury, was introduced to the children of Zimbabwe’s second largest city when he accompanied his wife, a Fulbright scholar, on a sojourn of several months in 2005. While there, he was struck by both the extreme poverty and the children’s resilience in the face of it, as they made dolls and toys from the detritus they had collected from their surroundings.
Before he left the country, Mr. Gaboury sponsored a competition in which children designed dolls and toys for an exhibit. Each received prizes for their effort, and Mr. Gaboury brought some of their work home with him. After friends and acquaintances asked if they could buy them, he hit on the idea of using the proceeds to help the children who created them pay for their education and help support their families.
“Each toy or doll comes with a sheet of paper with a short biography of the kid who made it and a photo of them holding it,” Ms. Cook said. “All he asks for you to take a picture of yourself holding the toy and send it back.”
Mr. Gaboury soon started a drop-in center, where children could learn how to sew, weld, or some other vocational skill, and be fed a nutritious meal or two a day. After Mr. Gaboury noticed a large number of toddlers on the streets, with seemingly no supervision, he raised money to build a pre-kindergarten school, which now has about 25 students.
Over the years, the Cooks stayed in touch with Mr. Gaboury and hosted a visit by Tinashe Basa, Zimkids’ director, last fall.
When Sithabisiwe Ngwenya, a young woman with early childhood education certification, who is leading a new prekindergarten school that Zimkids recently opened, could not get a visa for a planned trip to visit the United States to learn about American teaching methods, Mr. Gaboury invited Ms. Cook and her daughter to come to Zimbabwe in a consulting role instead.
“I was going to fill a suitcase of stuff to bring, and when I asked, they said they wanted pencils, paper, glue sticks, two staplers,” she said. “We’re talking basic needs. They didn’t ask for blocks or crayons or watercolors or markers. That was a real wakeup call.”
Ms. Cook said she hoped to get a better reading what kind of supplies would be most welcome after her month’s stay and then organize a drive to collect them and send them over after she returns to the United States. “The last container that went over had a huge box of Legos,” she said. “They didn’t know what to do with them. They don’t have plastic building blocks.”
She said she did want to impose her views on the small school’s staff. “You tend to teach the way you were taught,” she said, “so perhaps we can model some newer methods.”
Ms. Cook said she looked forward to doing a little sight-seeing during her visit and said a trip to Victoria Falls has already been planned. Otherwise she and her daughter will stay in Mr. Gaboury’s home while he and his wife are in the United States.
“People have asked me ‘Are you excited?’ I don’t know. This is the first time I’m going somewhere that I’m 100-percent culturally illiterate,” she said. “And yet it seems natural, like we are going to see family.”
People who would like to learn more about the Zimkids Orphan Trust, can visit zimkids.com or check out its Facebook page. Ms. Cook added that Mr. Gaboury will be visiting the Ross School’s upper campus in East Hampton from July 24 to 26 and anyone who would like to purchase a doll or toy can contact him directly at email@example.com.