"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Sunday, August 26, 2012

12,334 pencils

Rebecca, Atem and John

Yesterday I attended Atem’s birthday party. It was a lot of fun.  A bit different than most 8th birthday parties, though.

Sure, the guests brought presents. There were sandwiches and lemonade. We clapped and sang happy birthday. There was a birthday cake.

But there were also speeches and presentations. At the microphone, introducing each speaker, was a very tall, very black man dressed in white. He was Atem’s dad. He also happens to have been one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

You may recall reading about Atem, either on this blog or in the news. He’s the one who decided (at age 6) to help the children back in his father’s village in South Sudan by collecting pencils for them. You see, he had been shown a picture on You Tube of some kids sitting outside under a tree, making their school notes in the dirt with their fingers or with sticks. He couldn’t believe that was their classroom and that they had no supplies. Atem’s father, John, had begun the painful process of explaining his own past, and Atem decided to take action. He went into his bedroom and soon emerged holding ten pencils. “Will these help the kids in Southern Sudan?”

John knew then he had to broaden his explanation. Rebecca, Atem’s mother, also realized it was time to tell their precocious child the story of the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan and the facts concerning continued conflict, displacement and extreme poverty. So they did.

Atem decided to try and collect 1,000 pencils from his friends at school. Soon, the plan mushroomed, and people from all over the place were gathering pencils for the darling little boy with the winning smile, big heart and tenacious personality.

Before long, a woman at their church caught wind of what was going on. In time, she started a foundation to provide assistance to the children back in John’s village. The goal has moved beyond pencils to purchasing rainwater collection tanks so the children can be healthy enough to even go to school. After that, she wants to build an actual building to house the students.

Atem still remains the centerpiece of the foundation. He still collects his pencils. But now there are lots of adults who are working toward a project to benefit people living in a place they probably hadn’t even heard of two years ago. Progress is being made.

And Atem, who has surpassed his second goal of 10,000 pencils, announced at his party that his new goal is 20,000. After all, he’s collected 12,334 pencils now. He believes he can go higher.

The director of the foundation announced she is hoping to raise enough money to buy an airplane ticket for young Atem so that he can personally deliver the pencils to the kids in his father’s village.

By cake time, people were rising up out of their seats and dropping ten and twenty dollar bills into a basket that John and Rebecca had propped up on a chair. Atem, dressed in a suit and bow tie, was beaming.

The cake was in the shape of a pencil. Atem’s eyes danced around the crowd as we gathered in a circle and sang to him. His smile grew bigger and bigger. He knows something special has happened in his young life - that he has innocently become a catalyst for change.

It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a third grader. But when one thinks of the situation his father was in at this very age, it begins to make sense that things are happening this way.

Both John and Rebecca are very tall. So is Atem. He looks more like a ten year old.  Yesterday, though, during those moments when speakers were praising his name, he really did look like a man – a mighty one at that.

[If you would like to help Atem achieve his goal, or if you would like to make a donation of school supplies or money to purchase supplies, you can send your tax deductible donation to JOURNEY OF HOPE, c/o Gashland United Methodist Church, 7715 N. Oak Trafficway, Kansas City, MO 64118, attention: Linda Wansing.]

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