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Girl Scout Brings Gold to South Africa’s Youngest Students

Christina Vanech at opening of kindergarten room
Christina Vanech in new kindergarten room

August 2008 saw South African teachers, educational officers and community development agents, from communities surrounding the Thabisile Primary School in Soweto, coming to visit and being thoroughly impressed. The reason? A model kindergarten room created as a Girl Scout Gold Award project by Christina Vanech. Visitors concurred that the room ought to be the standard for kindergartens in their schools as well. The regional superintendent of schools even stated that he would encourage principals to seek funding to upgrade their kindergartens using Christina’s project as a model!

Such remarks testify to Christina’s remarkable work in South Africa but also speak to her being a young leader to keep your eyes on. As the Girl Scouts themselves note: “The Girl Scout Gold Award is the highest award that a Girl Scout 14-18 may earn.” They also mention that the award could be described “as being "what you really want to be remembered for" in Girl Scouting. For many, the leadership skills, organizational skills, and sense of community and commitment that come from "going for the Gold" set the foundation for a lifetime of active citizenship.”

Olubayi Olubayi (GLP), Denise and Christina Vanech with District Officer and Mrs. Vilakazi, Principal of Thabisile Primary School
Christina and education officials

In the fall of 2006, Christina Vanech was asked by her friend Emma Carver to help co-coordinate a book drive through GLP for disadvantaged children in South Africa. The two women worked together to inspire and mobilize fellow volunteers at their high school, The Pingry School, to get involved. Soon, what began as a small collection of books became a massive campaign. Christina coordinated the sorting and packaging of the books, and helped to organize highly successful book drives at several other schools including her brother’s school, the Chatham Day School (CDS). As a result of an extraordinary undertaking by these motivated young people, the Global Literacy Project ended up with an astounding 50,000+ books, which were shipped out the following spring. 

In August 2007, Christina and a few others who were involved in the book drive themselves traveled to South Africa to establish a library to house the donated books. Expending their own labor, Christina and other volunteers converted an old barn into a warm and beautiful space called the Thelma Tate library, which is now suitable for reading, learning, and gathering. Upon returning from South Africa that summer, Christina helped to establish and became the co-chair of the Global Literacy Club at the Pingry School in order to ensure that the volunteers’ collective endeavors will have a lasting and sustainable impact on disadvantaged communities in South Africa.

Transforming the Thabisile Kindergarten Room
Thabisile kindergarten room before renovation Thabisile kindergarten room gutted for renovation
Thabisile kindergarten room after renovation

Christina became dedicated to South Africa after being moved by that country’s history of struggle and the plight of its poor. For summer 2008, she returned to South Africa in order to implement specific projects through GLP. She returned to Thabisile to build a model kindergarten room, a much neglected aspect of school planning in poor schools in South Africa. The kindergarten room was also the basis of her Girl Scout Gold Award.

Before the trip, throughout this past spring, she dedicated herself to researching kindergarten education and compiling a list of improvements and additions to the existing layout that she believed were necessary to create a functional kindergarten room. She modified and expanded her list after working with GLP board members who are involved in education and by making her own observations at Thabisile. 

After sketching out an attractive and innovative design for the kindergarten room at Thabisile, she raised the needed funds from several foundations and other well wishers to implement her plan.  Then she set out, once again, with GLP and a group of volunteers to South Africa in order to convert a dilapidated classroom into a first-rate, aesthetically pleasing, and fully functional kindergarten room for the benefit of children who are otherwise unlikely to experience learning in an age-appropriate space.

The principal of the Thabisile Primary School has written Christina to say: “…your Girl Scout Gold Award project has become gold for us: this has become a model Grade R room that all the other primary schools in Soweto want to visit and to emulate.  So far very many principals and teachers from the surrounding schools have come to visit our Gold Grade R room.”

Principal Vilakazi went on to note: “As we explained to you when you were here with the rest of the Global Literacy Project group in August [2007], our Grade R is not funded by the government;  it is funded by impoverished parents who have trouble raising the small amount of money that we ask of them. The little money that the parents raise is used to pay the Grade R teacher. There is no money left over for books, chairs or any teaching materials for Grade R. Without your generosity and effort, our Grade R would have remained a bare room without any teaching materials for many years.”

The Girl Scouts say of the Gold Award that “if it is something tangible, it should come with a plan for use and maintenance within the community.” How did Christina measure up along this dimension? Mrs. Vilakazi said, “Also, our grade R teachers have benefitted greatly from the Grade R teachers manual that you created and gave to us on how to use the modern Grade R classroom. That is an excellent manual that is easy to follow and explains to the teacher exactly what to do with the children in each section of the Grade R room. We are all still happy and amazed by your generosity and spirit.”

Christina Vanech at opening of kindergarten room
Christina Vanech and Thabisile students

The final word on this Gold Award project? Principal Vilakazi sums it up eloquently.

“Our Grade R children have a beautiful room to learn in and they have all the learning aides that they need at their age. And the results are exciting. The children are happy and they are learning to read and write and count much faster than the previous classes. We can see the powerful impact of teaching and learning in the correct environment. And of course all the other grades want a class as beautiful as Grade R. We are working hard to find ways of improving our other classrooms using your Grade R as the gold standard.

Kindly accept our heartfelt gratitude to you for setting up a wonderful room and learning system for the youngest children at our school.   The strong positive impact of your project is already clear. Our children are learning faster, and other schools look up to us a model for Grade R education.”

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