Friday, October 25, 2013

Reading Rainbow

Hey readers, I hope this blog entry finds you all well.  As for me, to say I am hugely busy would be the understatement of the year.  There are not enough hours in the day for all the things I have to do or want to say.  But actually, that's a good thing, isn't it?  My lack of time to post clever Facebook statuses, Tweet my every move, or Instagram my latest outfit must mean I am doing something meaningful, staying in the moment, living life to the fullest....right?

Well, here's the scoop this week.  En route from one meaningful life event to another, (I'm sure), I peeped a group of schoolkids on the 1 train, ALL OF WHOM were quietly engaged in today's most underrated pleasure activity: reading.  It was, in a word, FANTASTIC.  So, if a bunch of multicultural Upper West Side primary PS'ers can be this engrossed in text, can those of the Tee-Zed be that far behind?

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Search for Avonte Oquendo

This post was compiled sourcing ABC and CBS News.  It concerns Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old kid from Queens who suffers from severe autism.  He is non-verbal and has "the mental capacity of a 7-year-old."  He has been missing for two weeks, and the search to recover him is reaching a frantic note.

It is all very sad and scary and I have been following the story in the papers, on television, and in person as there are missing person posters plastered all over the city and police officers passing out flyers on the streets, particularly near subway stations.  Avonte's case is a disturbing reminder of the social dangers that face children with intellectual impairments, particularly as I am still dealing with my own case in Msaranga.  It is clear that we, all over the world,  must take responsibility for these children, arm them with as much awareness as possible, and care for them if they cannot care for themselves.

Avonte has not been seen since October 4th when he ran away from the Center Boulevard School in Long Island City.  Across the street from the school, police have set up a mobile command center and the family has been holding a vigil in two tents where they wait for word.

NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly says that the NYPD has recently expanded its search for Avonte beyond the city because the child is fascinated with trains and may have gotten aboard one, perhaps to New Jersey or beyond.  They have also intensified their efforts with police using helicopters and additional officers on foot and boats.  Divers also searched the East River near the school.  Because of the boy's love of trains, much of the search has been focused on the subways.  The NYPD says all 468 stations in the system as well as all tunnels, bathrooms, and abandoned stations have been searched. 

Avonte has previously been found at various train stations.  Most recently, in August after he wandered away from home, family members found him at the 67th Avenue Station in Forest Hills.  Five years ago, he took the subway from Jamaica to Kew Gardens/Union Turnpike Station where he was found by transit police.  And seven years ago, he was found at the Fresh Pond Road Station in Ridgewood.

The failure to find Avonte thus far has led the family to think he may have been abducted.  "I think someone has to have him.  If he has been out and about someone would have seen him," said his brother Danny Oquendo Jr., who came up from his home in Orlando to help with the search.  "New York is a big city but there are millions of people that would have had the opportunity to see him if he was on trains wandering around."

Roc Conti, a cousin said, "If somebody does have him, release him, because he can't even tell on you.  Write a note, put it in his pocket, write a note on his forehead, send him off."

And his grandmother, Doris McCoy who is convinced someone has her grandson and that he is still alive, begged, "Please bring him back, don't keep him if you have him.  Be good to him.  Don't abuse him.  Don't hurt him."
Family attorney David Perecman says Avonte's special education learning plan calls for "constant supervision," but Avonte is clearly seen in the school video with no supervision whatsoever.  Says Perecman, "The family doesn't know where their son is, and at the very least, they should know how he went missing, they are entitled to that."

Police are also playing a recording of the 14-year-old's mother out of emergency response vehicles hoping the boy will hear it.  The message says, "Hi Avonte, it's Mom.  Come to the flashing lights, Avonte."

Saturday, October 12, 2013


In an apropos follow-up to last month's "Maendeleo" entry, this post is titled "Matokeo" which means "results" in Swahili....and, I gotta say, it feels darn good to finally be able to write about some of those!!

Since I just composed the Toa Nafasi quarterly report, I'm gonna crib from that document cuz I'm a wee bit tired from producing said results.  Some of this is clearly repetition for any loyal blog followers out there, but if you keep calm and read on, you will find that the big finale does not disappoint!!  (I've also highlighted the news in red type in case some of you just wanna get there faster....)
Since completing the assessment in May, we were able to identify those students who needed further follow-up to determine why they were under-performing in the classroom, approximately 20 children.  We conducted that follow-up in the form of teacher questionnaires, parent interviews, and doctors’ appointments during the months of June, July, and August.  We discovered a few children who demonstrated hearing, vision, and psychosocial difficulties and we attempted to address those issues with the help of partner organizations such as the Gabriella Rehabilitation Center, Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, and Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania.
We also familiarized ourselves with new teaching methodologies incorporating the use of manipulatives in small group tutorial sessions in order to better teach those children who do in fact have intellectual impairments.  In this way, we have begun to change the outcomes of their academic work in the Standard One classroom, and we are happy to report that the teachers have seen the fruits of our labor!  I think I can officially say that the pilot program of The Toa Nafasi Project was indeed a success!!
At the end of August, I returned to the United States for the purposes of fundraising.  I have planned an event for Wednesday, November 20th that will feature: a speech and slides about the Project; a Q&A session afterwards; the signing of a guestbook to keep track of potential donors’ contact information; distribution of informational brochures about the Project; giveaways of Tanzanian crafts to the guests; a fun “pub quiz” to test guests’ knowledge about Tanzania; the introduction of various American participants in the Project, either from the programming side or on the U.S. board of directors; the planning of a group of trekkers for a 2014 Kilimanjaro “climb for the cause;” and of course, cocktail hour!
I am also pleased to announce that the website for The Toa Nafasi Project has finally been launched and is able to accept donations online!!  It took quite a while to get to this point, and it will undoubtedly evolve over time, but we finally have the all-important web presence that we so urgently needed at  We have also printed brochures forthcoming and are working on t-shirts and various other marketing materials. 
Other administrative tasks on the list of things to do while I am stateside include: business banking, locating more sources of funding, contact networking, and gathering more teacher resources.
Finally, the Tanzanian staff continues to hold down the front lines back in Msaranga.  Vumilia Temba is heading up the tutorial sessions with our approximately 20 “slow learners” and, together, they have been making great strides.  Vumi is also taking a few of our most intellectually challenged students for further testing at the Gabriella Center this month in order to consider whether they might be better off in an exclusive classroom.  Harrison Ngowi mans the desk at Toa Nafasi headquarters in Moshi town, dealing with various managerial issues pertaining to the NGO in Tanzania.  We thank him vociferously for being the one to face the Tanzania Revenue Authority, no doubt a wearisome task!  Headmaster Kennedy and Teacher Mshiu support our efforts at Msaranga Primary School and Councilman Kiwelu and other local government officials advocate our efforts in the village.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Happy World Teachers' Day!

From The Daily Telegraph (UK):

"I take for granted that my toilet flushes, that the bin men come every Tuesday and that, when I pull the cord in my bathroom, the light comes on.  I take for granted that I can drink the water from the tap, I can access information from my phone, and – especially at this time of year – that my central heating will come on in the morning.

We take a great deal for granted in life, especially the fundamentals, like being able to read and write.  Most of us have also taken our teachers for granted.

Take a moment to consider the skills you have now and the person who taught these skills to you.  Remember your first English teacher, who taught you the "i before e" rule, your ABCs and the difference between a noun and a verb.

Remember your first Math teacher who taught you to add and subtract, to tell the time, and who explained the 24-hour clock, even though there are only twelve numbers on a clock face.

Tomorrow is World Teachers' Day – a UNESCO initiative that celebrates teachers around the world.  Since 1994, WTD is held annually on October 5, to raise awareness and address the issues pertinent to teachers while recognizing the contribution they make to education.

Isn't it curious that one of the most pivotal professions in our society, that impacts our young people, influences our leaders of tomorrow, and affects the way we live our life, rarely receives the respect or acknowledgement it deserves?

Teachers and school communities are a vital component to the healthy functioning of our society and yet in the UK, teacher morale is in crisis, external criticism is rife, and sickness due to stress is exploding.

Tomorrow is the day to appreciate teachers and the extraordinary job they do to teach, support, and inspire our children.  As you finish reading this article, raise a glass to the teachers who inspired you.  Say thank you to the teachers who made a positive difference in your life.

Start singing the praises to your children's head teacher, the governors of their school, and your MP's, about a teacher who has helped, encouraged, or inspired your child to grow, progress, and understand the world.

Teachers are the most valuable resource in education.  It's time to appreciate their value in our society.  You cannot put a price on inspiring a child to be the best he or she can be.  Teachers are the unsung heroes of our communities.

Today of all days, let's acknowledge and celebrate their foundational influence in our lives."

--Kathryn Lovewell, author of Every Teacher Matters