Twenty-seven years ago, Bainbridge Island residents Ela and Kim Esterberg founded the Bainbridge-Ometepe Sister Islands Association (BOSIA). They wanted to help create a relationship between Bainbridge and the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua and to develop lasting friendships across language, cultural and economic divides.
Little did they know that this endeavor would spread and take root in the Bainbridge Island schools.
The island’s 3rd grade students have created, produced and sold a "Kids Can Make a Difference" calendar, raising more than $100,000 during the last 20 years for the Ometepe community.
I was pleased to learn that the Esterbergs’ vision has paid off: Students in Boo Schneider's 3rd grade class at Ordway Elementary School on Bainbridge Island were named “Outstanding Young Philanthropists” this year because of their work on the Ometepe project.
I first met the Esterbergs when I moved to Seattle 16 years ago. At that time, my soon-to-be husband, Ed, worked with Ela for the City of Seattle. Ela and her husband, Kim, are truly delightful, warm and generous people. Maybe they were trying to play matchmaker, because they asked Ed and I to housesit several times at their wonderful Bainbridge Island home, which turned out to be a quiet refuge away from the busy-ness of city life. And when Ed and I got married, Ela gave us two precious wedding presents: artwork for our wedding invitation and a beautiful scrapbook with pictures and memories from the wedding.
Although it has been several years since our family has seen the Esterbergs, I know they are happily retired and involved in BOSIA and other projects.
I wanted to find out more about these third graders — the kids don’t travel to Ometepe and see first-hand what life is like there, so I wondered how they really know what kind of impact their fundraising has on the Ometepe community.
And as I soon found out, the kids don’t just draw pictures for the calendar, get them printed, sell them and then send the money to Ometepe.
It is so much more than that.
A whole curriculum of sorts has been developed around this project, involving everything from using math skills, social skills like leadership and teamwork, field trips, and having BOSIA representatives come to speak to the class about Ometepe.
The speakers show pictures of Ometepe and describe what life is like on this small island. The kids learn that even though there are some glaring differences, there are similarities, particularly between them and Ometepe kids.
One speaker, George Schneider (who is Boo Schneider’s husband), was asked by one child: “Why can’t we just send the money we earn to Ometepe?”
“Because we are building relationships with the people there,” he responded.
And the kids really start to get that during the process of creating the artwork, interacting with community members and making decisions about what projects to fund.
“My favorite part about the “Kids Make a Difference” project is that we get to learn about our sister island and about what kids are like and what they like to do and make friends that are so far away but at the same time so near,” said one student.
To create the 13 drawings (12 plus a cover), Schneider purposefully pairs each of the 26 kids with someone they may not otherwise become friends with because they are different from each other in some way. So someone who might have artistic talent is paired with someone who is good with numbers. This really helps kids see that even though they may be different from one another, they can work well together.
When the calendar is finalized, Schneider takes the kids on a field trip to a local printer who has been working with the school for years. The printers educate the kids about how the printing press works and answer questions.
“The staff talk to the kids and show appreciation and support for their work. And in this way, the kids get good strokes,” said Schneider.
The larger community is quite supportive of the kids as well. People are frequently on the lookout for the calendars when they go on sale in November and go out of their way to talk to the kids and give them encouragement.
Last year, the kids raised almost $10,000, surpassing their goal of $8,500. This is where math comes in: On the chalkboard, the projects the Ometepe community has requested are listed with their costs, and the kids decide what the priorities should be.
They may decide to fund two college scholarships for $1000 each, and then they have to figure out how much is left to support other projects.
Schneider reminds kids that “all the projects are good, they’re all important,” because sometimes it’s hard for them to decide which one to prioritize.
Some projects the funds have gone to have included helping ambulance drivers work weekend shifts, constructing a library, providing fees for tutoring, and purchasing milk and vitamins for preschoolers.
Kylie Van Aken, 17, a senior at Bainbridge High School, participated in the Ometepe project as a third grader.
She said her experience that year “was one of the most influential ones of my life.”
She learned how to be accountable for her work and how important precision is when creating a work of art.
“Another great skill was to show my passion by actually having to talk to big, scary adults and asking them to support our cause by buying a calendar. This helped me learn to be confident with what I had to say and today I believe I can speak in public settings with much more ease,” said Kylie.
“Parents are blown away by how much their children know about the project and what they have accomplished and how confident they have become,” said Schneider.
But Kylie’s experience left her hungering to do more.
“Giving a third grader an opportunity to change someone’s life is an amazing thing . . . you don’t have to be an adult or have a lot of money in order to make a difference in someone else’s life. Since the moment I left the 3rd grade I knew that I was going to travel to Ometepe in high school to visit the people that I became so interested in,” she said.
Likewise, Colleen Ingersoll Carroll, 24, office volunteer for BOSIA in Altagracia, Ometepe, said, “My experience as a [high school] delegate turned my somewhat-abstract third grader's idea of Ometepe into a lived reality, and I cherished the relationships formed with my host families and began to get a greater sense of BOSIA's work.”
Elizabeth Ralston is a writer with a public health background. She writes about topics on philanthropy, including profiles of inspiring people and organizations on her blog, The Inspired Philanthropist . When she is not writing, she enjoys spending time in the great outdoors with her family. You can follow her on Twitter.