New Hope Academy forms bonds with schools in Gambia

Newspaper photo: students help Gambia

The Gazette

When sixth grade teacher Beverly Berndt was assigned the Republic of Gambia by her church for her volunteer work with her husband Randy in 1997, she found two small new schools that reminded her of the school where she taught back home.

A teacher at New Hope Academy in Landover Hills since its birth 12 years ago, Berndt was looking for schools in the Gambia with which New Hope could form a relationship, a concept called "twinning" in the Gambia.

The Berndts' volunteer activities in the Gambia and their search for "twin" schools for New Hope were both coordinated by the Unification Church in New York City.

The two schools that seemed like the best candidates for a relationship with New Hope were the Sololo Primary School, which was founded in 1995, and Dani Elementary School, which opened in 1998.

"These schools were just getting started, and they reminded me of New Hope," Berndt said. "The Daru School had literally been built from the ground up by the teachers and students using mud from the Gambia River to make bricks. Although these schools were small, they really impressed me."

Berndt presented the idea of establishing a relationship with the schools to Joy Morrow, who has been the school's principal for all 12 years of its existence.

"I talked to Joy about it and she wanted to get involved," Berndt said.

New Hope's PTA and staff have been supportive of the programs Berndt has initiated with the two schools, including providing supplies and scholarships so that pupils can continue their education beyond the sixth grade.

Elementary school in the Gambia is paid for by the government, but tuition for secondary education is $60 per year for seventh and eighth grades, and $130 per year for high school grades ninth through twelfth. This money pays for items such as school uniforms and textbooks.

"Some families are sponsoring students in the Gambia," said sixth-grader Elizabeth Kerman of Cheverly.

Families both within and outside the school have paid for 30 students to continue their education this year.

Examples of items New Hope has shipped to the two school include plastic chairs, bags of cement, colored pencils, mango seedlings, fertilizer, glue and cassette tapes of cello performances.

The range of these items, from basic school supplies to food and building supplies, demonstrates the many ways in which New Hope is assisting these schools.

"When I've gotten lists from the school of what they need, sometimes I've wondered whether I'd be able to justify asking for money from the PTA for some of the items," she said. "For example one school asked for large cooking pans. But what I realized was that the students need to eat in order to be able to learn."

Another tenet of New Hope's involvement with the two schools is a program sponsored by the Unification Church called the Pure Love Alliance. The program features events and informative materials that advocate abstinence before marriage, in part to counter growing AIDS problems in Africa.

Berndt said she thinks it is important for schools, especially those with large African-American populations such as those in Prince George's County, to form connections with schools in Africa in order to "get back to their roots." She said she hopes other schools establish similar relationships with schools in Africa.

Pupils at New Hope have been actively involved in both fund-raisers for their "twin" schools and learning about the Gambia.

"We all gathered clothes to sell to raise money for the schools," said sixth-grader Mary Henkin of Lanham.

"We sorted the clothes into bags according to what size they were," said sixth-grader Richard Abendroth of Bowie.

Berndt has received the assistance of her pupils in making items to sell alongside small souvenirs she has brought back from the Gambia, mostly carved wooden animals and masks, to sell to raise money for the schools.

"We help Ms. Beverly make jewelry and things to sell," said sixth-grader Esther Lykes of Lanham.

Sixth-grader Gabrielle Burnes of Hyattsville said she manned a table with items for sale at one fund-raiser.

Berndt said pupils have even initiated their own fund-raisers.

"We made our own lemonade," said sixth-grader Claire Healey of Germantown. "We made like $80 from that. All we had to do was tell them it was for the Gambia, and people bought it."

"I think we're helping them," said sixth-grader Kester Wilkening of Bowie about New Hope's involvement with the two schools. Berndt and several pupils in her class said they are eager to set up pen pal relationships with pupils in the Gambia, but Berndt said there are sometimes problems with mail sent to and coming from the schools, which are about 100 miles inland across difficult roads.

For more information about sponsoring a School in the Gambia, schools may contact Beverly Berndt at 1-240-486-0362 or [em addr]