By Emily J. Weitz
Each year, Sag Harbor Elementary School sets a schoolwide intention, and students are encouraged to incorporate this theme into their lives in a variety of ways. “Around the World” has manifested itself in explorations of how the winter holidays are celebrated across the globe, in visits from leaders of distinct and far-flung communities, and in reading challenges that brings students across the earth through the written word.
“Our school-wide theme this year has enabled all students to learn more about our planet,” said Principal Matt Malone. “While learning about other countries, and seeing the challenges that others face each day, we have been reminded of how lucky we all are and how important to share with those in need.”
When I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to Uganda and Rwanda for a yoga and service retreat, I immediately thought about how I could tie my daughter’s school in to the experience. A friend had mentioned Luci lights, a solar, inflatable light that can illuminate a room for 12 hours on a seven hour charge. Laurie DeJong, founder and director of the Paper Fig Foundation (paperfigfoundation.org), through which I’d be exploring Africa, agreed that these lights would provide a much needed service.
I reached out to Michelle Grant, guidance counselor, and Mr. Malone at Sag Harbor Elementary. They agreed to organize a fundraiser for the lights. I laid out the cash and brought ten lights across the ocean. Once I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, I began the enriching experience of learning about the projects of the Paper Fig Foundation, and sharing the wisdom of yoga with anyone who wanted to learn.
I could not have anticipated how eager people would be to learn yoga and meditation. In Kigali, Rwanda, which is still deep in mourning from the horrific genocide of 1994, I taught a group of 25 women who work at Gahaya Links (gahayalinks.org). This basket weaving cooperative was founded after the genocide as a way to bring women from both sides of the conflict together to weave and mourn and, hopefully, forgive. The women laughed at their first downward dog, they leaned on one another in tree pose, and in savasana, they exhaled.
On Lake Bunyoni, in Uganda, we stayed at Entusi Resort, a gorgeous thatched-roof center built by Global Living Institute (globallivingston.org), which is based in Denver. The motto of GLI is “Listen. Think. Act.” So the first yoga class I taught there, to 13 Ugandans and five Americans, focused on this concept of listening first before arriving, all elbows, to “save someone”. It applied to the yoga practice: listen first. Breathe. Then act with intention.
Children spilled down from the hills to find out about this “yoga”, and I played them the chimes and we chanted “om” and they laughed and smelled lemon and peppermint oil and danced. In savasana, a little boy reached out to me, and I held his hand.
Through the Paper Fig Foundation, Laurie DeJong set up a sewing school in the slums of Kasese, where girls who would otherwise be lugging firewood for miles, could develop a skill that could offer a path out. We attended the graduation of the first class of sewing school, financed by Paper Fig Foundation. The women were proud, wearing dresses they had made themselves. The children and men who looked on saw the accomplishment, rewarded by handshakes and certificates and photos for the newspaper. For many of these women, they were being celebrated for the first time.
“Sadly, many girls in the regions we work with drop out of school at a very young age,” said Ms. DeJong. “These girls are at risk of many things including prostitution, early marriage, and severe poverty. We are hoping that if we train the young girls in a skill like sewing or weaving, it will give her an advantage when trying to find a job, keep her off the streets and assist with overall economic development in the region.”
When we entered the room where the sewing machines were set up, I noticed that even with the natural light spilling through the open windows, it was very dark. A Luci light beside each sewing machine will illuminate their work.
PFF built a health center in the hills outside Kasese, where thousands of people who would otherwise have no access to lifesaving medication like treatment for malaria could get what they needed. In the health center, on a sunny day, the doctor can see okay. But in the evenings, or when the sun is obscured, it’s not so easy. Five more Luci lights in the health center will continue to bring light as long as the sun shines.
“The health center and the sew school, similar to most buildings in the region, do not have any power,” said Ms. DeJong. “The cement building and lack of windows means that the inside is very dark, especially on days where cloud cover is heavy and after the sun begins to set. The Luci Lights are invaluable! They will allow both centers to extend hours and assist staff, patients and students to actually see what they are doing.”
I showed the doctor a photo of my daughter and told him about Sag Harbor Elementary School. I told them that the children had raised the funds to bring light to this dark place.
At morning program when I returned, my daughter went up to the front of the gym. Mrs. Grant announced that in four days, the school had more than quadrupled its original goal to purchase ten lights. We needed $150, and we raised over $700, all of which will go to supporting the vital work of the Paper Fig Foundation.