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Local community’s donations, effort helping over 2,000 Malawians learn literacy skills


About 2,000 Malawian children are learning basic, early English literacy skills to read and write, with a little help from north country communities.

Books, index cards, crayons, markers, flash cards, alphabet charts, paper slips for pocket charts and other materials are being collected throughout the greater Watertown area so that leaders with the Keys to Education project can take more lessons and rewards to teachers in the African country.

Heather F. White, a kindergarten teacher at Sherman Elementary School, said a group of women, whose backgrounds include teaching and reading consulting, will travel to Malawi for two weeks in May to distribute materials, check progress on how the first year of the program went last year and continue to provide educational workshops to help Malawian teachers learn effective early literacy practices.

“What they do oftentimes is take verses from the Bible, write it on a (chalk) board, and kids memorize it,” Mrs. White said. “We were giving them their first set of reading strategies.”

One male Malawian teacher, she said, wrote her a letter after she and a few others participated in the Keys to Education program last year and asked Mrs. White if he could come to the United States and shadow her in her classroom.

Seeing teachers there engaged in learning so they can help their students learn is humbling and rewarding, Mrs. White said.

Teachers provide feedback about the program, and from that feedback, Keys to Education leaders here know what new materials to collect and what early literacy learning progress is being made. Keys to Education is made possible by a $34,000, three-year grant from the Presbyterian Women organization of the Presbyterian Church USA. Women who went last year were founders or supporters of the Women of Grace Widows Fund, to which the grant was awarded.

Last year, Renee G. Waterbury, a first-grade teacher at Sherman; Rita A. Gefell, a teaching assistant in the Carthage Central School District; and Sue Remington, a first-grade teacher in Colorado, accompanied Mrs. White on a 10-day learning adventure for the program in Malawi when school was out of session. This time, Mrs. White is taking fresh faces there when school is in session.

This spring, Mrs. White will be accompanied by Barbara Eldridge, a retired reading consultant for the Watertown City School District; Julia R. Bonisteel, a retired elementary teacher; and Julia Gefell, a graduate student intern who is studying in California for her master’s degree to work in the area of English as a second language.

“I’m really excited for that component because with Julia she’ll be bringing fresh-out-of-college knowledge, energy and excitement,” Mrs. White said.

Although Keys to Education receives grant money, its leaders are responsible for raising some money toward material, supply and shipping costs. The group will host an African Tea fundraiser from 3 to 4:30 p.m. March 9 in the MacSherry Parish Center of Trinity Episcopal Church, 227 Sherman St., to benefit the project. A free-will offering will be encouraged.

Mrs. White said she would like to have 2,000 alphabet cards made for the trip, which show all 26 letters of the alphabet, a picture that starts with each letter and other cues. On the back will be the 50 most common words in the English language. Mrs. White said she hopes a local printing company may be able to help reduce the cost of producing those.

Service groups or organizations, churches or individuals can contribute to the trip by contacting Mrs. White via email at

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