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School the World Guatemala

My twin daughters Maddie, Sydney and I recently got back from Chinique, El Quiché, in Guatemala. Since our return, I have had a hard time finding the words to describe our experience together. It was a life-changing immersion that will no doubt inform their choices - and perhaps their lens on life - forever.

To rewind this story a bit —
When I was slightly older than they are right now, I spent 6 weeks in Duran, Ecuador, an impoverished town outside of Guayaquil. I grew up in a very nice suburb of NYC and had never seen anything quite like the poverty that I absorbed as I lived on that hill near the Equator. There I grew as a person, and made friends for life. The main lesson I learned? That happiness doesn’t have much to do with material wealth. The people I lived with in that village were some of the happiest people I had ever met. There were deep struggles of course, and the very real issues that come with a life seeped in poverty. But the smiles of the children and the close-knit relationships within some of those families have never left my mind. That one experience transformed me, led me to my work at UNICEF and, quite literally, changed my life.

While raising Maddie, Sydney and Jack in the heart of NYC, I kept returning to those feelings I had in Ecuador, hoping my children would one day have a similar life-changing affirmation and eye-opening experience. I was admittedly skeptical of organizations that dip into international communities for a few days, offer well-meaning support to those in need, but then leave. I wanted to find an organization that didn’t simply give hand-outs, but rather empowered people to believe that they could pull themselves out of poverty, embracing their traditions, culture and togetherness.

My friend Vanessa introduced us to School the World, an amazing, immersive nonprofit organization, building schools and playgrounds for children in the poorest areas of Guatemala, Honduras and Panama. School the World just reached their not so simple goal to build 100 schools in 10 years and they are setting goals to build much more. While researching the organization to see if it was a fit, my girls and I learned that it takes the average American child 7-10 minutes to get to school, while it takes the average Guatemalan child about 2.5 hours, often walking alone. School the World wanted to change that fact - and thanks to them, every year, families are finding easier access to schools. Not just in primary school but through those difficult middle school years when children have an increased need for supportive spaces to help keep them safe. 

At the end of July, Maddie, Sydney and I joined a few chaperones and 30 U.S. students from Boston to LA and found our way to the heart of this Mayan community, still so rich with culture and spirituality. Within a few days, the kids formed friendships that they say are some of the deepest they’ve ever known. We built the 88th school alongside Guatemalan children, parents and teachers, we taught English, we visited homes and - our favorite - we played soccer and local games at recess every day. Chinique is a tiny village near Santa Cruz del Quiché, deep in the heart of Guatemala’s western rural highlands. The 3 classrooms we constructed were an addition to an existing school, El Calvario, allowing many more children in the area to receive an education.

We worked with local families and teachers to add cement floors, paint walls and dig deep holes to support a brand-new playground. It was hard work, as we anticipated. But I don’t think we could have anticipated the depth of relationships we would form, the joy we would experience every day, and the Guatemalan children that would enter our hearts.

We created a 3 min video that captures the experience… you can check it out HERE!

School the World has expanded into Honduras and Panama and ensuring a child’s access to education is their priority. They stay immersed in these communities for years, long after we leave, providing teacher trainings, parent education sessions and continued support.

What I love about School the World is that you can do more than donate…you can dive in, get your hands dirty and help. You can meet the people you are supporting, as you support them. You can take steps towards prioritizing education for children, the first step out of poverty. An educated child is an educated family. An educated family is an educated community. Educated communities solve problems differently and it all begins with helping children at the youngest age.

If you have a high school kid, I highly recommend School the World. If your child is still young, you can inquire about School the World's family trips in the three countries they currently work. It costs approximately $15,000 to build one school, and you and your kids will feel the value of every single dollar, with the deep recognition that a little bit of money goes a very (very) long way. And that giving your time goes even further. And that relationships, love and connection go the furthest.

Maddie and Sydney will continue raising funds for School the World, to support both the schools in session and the ones yet to be built. The hope is that the funds they raise will help buy desks, school supplies, books and more. $25 buys 5 books, $250 funds a classroom library, $3000 supports a Parent Training program, $3000 funds a playground for a school in need. The amounts listed below and we saw first-hand the impact each thing can have on so many young lives. We are deeply grateful to those of you who supported our efforts, and we appreciate your continued support! THANK YOU!!

Every child has the right to an education. I know for a fact we will never, ever take ours for granted.

To learn more about School the World, help build a school or support the organization, check out www.schooltheworld.org.

If you have any questions on how to get involved, you can email me at aqberna@appleseedsplay.com

Alison Berna is one of the co-founders of apple seeds and songs for seeds

$15,000: 3 Classroom School - 2,980 bricks ($5/brick for fun fundraising ideas)

$10,000: Pre-Primary Classroom and Playground

$8,000-$9,000: Supply ALL books for 1 year in ALL STW schools in one municipality

$7,500: Pre-Primary Classroom in Guatemala (stocked with supplies)

$5,000: Playground

$3,000: Parent Training in 1 Community for 4 Years

$2,500: Scholarship (they raise the other $1,000) for U.S. student in Global Citizenship Program (to travel to Panama or Guatemala)

$750: Parent Training for 1 year in 1 community

$500: Teacher Training

$300: Send a kid to basico in their community - Just the Basics Scholarship

$250: Classroom Library

$100: School Uniform for Basíco scholarship recipient

$40: School supplies for Basíco scholarship recipient

$25: 5 Books

$5: 1 Book


A Life-Changing Experience For Our Family

When we opened apple seeds in 2007, our older boys, Sam and Ari, were 2 years old (Dov, our youngest, was not even a twinkle in our eye). My husband, Craig, and I were having conversations probably similar to many other parents...

How best to teach our kids gratitude? When should we really start to expose them to the world around them? Although we realized that Sam and Ari were probably still too young to internalize these life lessons, we did not anticipate that a chance introduction at apple seeds would build the perfect foundation for our entire family to organically learn so much about gratitude and love while appreciating the similarities and the differences in this world. 

Samantha Broder, and her boyfriend (now husband) Brandon Rigoli, both worked at apple seeds. They told us about a non-profit organization that Samantha’s brother, Brad, had recently co-founded called Kenya Education Fund (KEF). After college, Brad joined the Peace Corps and was struck by the fact that half of all school-aged Kenyans could not afford to continue their education after elementary school. He joined forces with Dominic Muasya, a local community leader, to establish KEF to provide scholarships to students across Kenya so that they could stay in high school to graduation, transition to university and gain meaningful employment.  Brad and Dominic strongly believed that the cycles of poverty and dependency could be disrupted with access to quality education for all.

Craig and I had visited South Africa before our boys were born and had witnessed firsthand exactly what Brad verbalized to us. He and Dominic were securing their first scholarship sponsors for students and based on what Brad knew about our family and what he knew about a KEF applicant named Winnie, thought we would be a great match. He gave us a picture and her first letter. In it, Winnie told us a bit about herself. It was filled with a list of the books she liked, her hobbies, her siblings’ names and ages, gratitude and joy.

Her letter said she was from Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa. It took awhile for us to understand that calling Kibera a slum is not an insult. It is a fact. The Kenyan government owns the land but does not provide Kibera's residents with basic services – like running water, proper roads or electricity. The area is overcrowded, with people living in extreme poverty - making less than $1 a day. The walls and roofs of homes are made of corrugated metal and wood, the floors are made of mud. Residents get water from 2 main pipes and then have to boil it for safe use. Bathroom areas have been set up by local entrepreneurs outside homes and are shared with approximately 100 other people...for a cost. There is no sewage system or garbage collection and both build up steadily in all the alleys between where people live. In Kibera, people struggle to meet their basic needs (shelter, water, food, clothing, education, sanitation, healthcare) on a daily basis. Despite these challenges, Winnie found her way to KEF’s offices, filled out an application for high school, took the entrance exam and thanks to KEF, she was entering her freshman year of high school and could not have been more excited. 

For the first few years of our relationship, I would write letters to Winnie and Sam and Ari would draw pictures. Winnie would send back letters and pictures of her own.

We sent details of our life in NYC and printed out photos of our family so that she knew what we all looked like. She kept us updated on her classes, and her family, and Brad would send us photos of Winnie in her school uniform.

As Sam and Ari got older they started writing their own letters – which now included details about their new brother, Dov. Sometimes it would take months to get our notes back and forth to each other. Winnie started to borrow the KEF computer to email us so that we could communicate more efficiently. During the first four years of being pen pals, we learned so much about Winnie, her family, her life, Kibera and her aspirations to be a nurse. She specifically wanted to work with children. As she got closer to graduation from high school, we spoke to Brad about her future. He said that he was confident Winnie could get into a university for nursing and that KEF could help her with applications and admissions. After years of hard work, filling out forms and taking her entrance exams – Winnie was accepted to Kenya Medical Training College.

For the next four years, Winnie worked her tail off in nursing school. She studied hard and took her field work extremely seriously. She spent 6 months working in a very rural area of Kenya within a tribe that did not speak English, Swahili or her mother tongue, Luhya. She learned to communicate with them, administered rabies and malaria shots and provided education to patients regarding both. During college, her favorite rotation was labor and delivery - helping to deliver babies. We kept up the letter writing, but at her university Winnie had more regular access to a computer so our communication became much faster and more frequent. She emailed us pictures of herself in class and in the field – really helping us to understand what her days looked like.

Sam, Ari and Dov would help write our emails back and attach family pictures of what we had most recently done. During those four years we made two attempts to bring Winnie to the US so that we could spend a summer together. Both of those attempts were denied by immigration in Kenya.

In December of 2016, Winnie graduated from college. We were so proud and sat in awe of all she had accomplished.

Around that time, our business partner and one of our closest friends, Alison Qualter Berna, was traveling to Nairobi. We connected her to Winnie so that they could meet. Our first face-to-face call with Winnie was during that trip, on Alison’s phone, using FaceTime at 3am. We sent Alison with a tablet to give Winnie so that we could use it to speak and (finally) see each other whenever we wanted. The first time that Sam, Ari and Dov FaceTimed with Winnie they were so excited they ran outside our apartment to show her all the taxis on 5th Avenue and the Empire State Building. Once Winnie had the tablet, and then her own phone, it took our communication with one another to the next level -- for the past 2 1/2 years we have used WhatsApp to text, send pictures or videos or just quickly check in on the day-to-day. 

After graduation, while Winnie waited for her exam results and nursing certificate to come through, she volunteered at Coptic Mission Hospital administering medicine and giving injections and New Life Home Trust - rescuing and caring for abandoned and neglected babies. Once she was certified, New Life Home Trust offered Winnie a job. She is currently one of 7 nurses at the home. She rotates between the newborn unit, babies and toddlers. 3 nights a month she does an overnight shift in the NICU. Because of our 7-hour time difference this is a great time for us to video chat. During our calls, Winnie has toured us around the facility and introduced us to the babies. She fills out their medical forms with at least one of them on her lap at all times. When we speak, it is the middle of the night for her, but she is lit from within. She was born for her work. When her shifts are over she goes home to Kibera where she lives with parents, her siblings and their children.

This summer Craig, Sam, Ari, Dov and I took a trip to Kenya to visit Winnie. We had been intimately involved in each other’s lives for 11 years and we desperately wanted to meet in person and spend quality time together. We went to Kenya for 3 weeks and spent 2 of them non-stop with Winnie. The timing worked out for us to meet Winnie for the first time at New Life Home Trust.  We were all a bundle of nerves and excitement waiting for her to come to reception to get us. It was hard to believe it was finally happening. Seeing her for the first time was magical.

Once she stopped spinning the boys around she toured us around the facility and we got to meet all the babies we had heard so much about and seen during our calls. We witnessed in person how attached they are to her and she to them. After work we went to meet Winnie's family and see where they all live. Winnie walked us through Kibera to where her parents and youngest brother, Bradley Joshua, live. From the minute we walked in every single member of Winnie’s family completely embraced us. There was so much joy and love in the air. It was such a high to all be together after so much time. Over the next few days we got to spend time with 6 of Winnie’s 7 siblings, her 2 nieces, father and incredible mother. We got to hear about their lives, understand their goals, see their strength and the closeness they share. We visited a KEF school in Kibera and Winnie’s high school in another area of the city.

On our fourth day together, Craig, Sam, Ari, Dov, Winnie and I left Nairobi to go to Watamu, on the coast of Kenya, to spend a week’s vacation at the Indian Ocean. Our time there together was so special. We toured ruins, went fishing and kayaking and celebrated Winnie's 28 birthday. Winnie saw and swam in the ocean for the first time and we had the time and space to ask every question under the sun, removing any trace of distance created by living 7,350 miles apart.

Winnie is one of the strongest, most joyful people we have ever met. Sam, Ari & Dov say there is no one nicer. It has been one of the biggest gifts in our lives to have such a close relationship with Winnie. We have all been deeply affected in the best ways possible -- to know her experiences and her character, to be both moved and inspired by her achievements, to love her and to be loved by her. We consider each other family. Winnie calls Sam, Ari and Dov her brothers and, with the utmost respect for her real mother and father, affectionately calls me and Craig, Mum and Dad. We have learned so much from each other and like any other beautiful relationship, I think we would all agree that we have each gotten more than we have given. 

One of the things we have learned, through Kenya Education Fund and Winnie, is how vital education is. It is the only pathway out of poverty and into a life of hope and opportunity. We’ve also learned that affording education means more than getting past the first hurdle of being able to pay school fees. It means affording pencils, notebooks, school uniforms, exam fees and sanitary napkins for girls. These all become barriers to getting an education. Without education there is no chance to thrive – which should be every child’s right. Kenya Education Fund believes that. That is why they exist. KEF has been working for over a decade to make that right a reality for as many kids in Kenya as possible. So far they have provided scholarships for over 3,000 students. Thankfully, they are not stopping anytime soon - but it takes a village.

·       Provide a student like Winnie with an education - $750 a year ($63 a month).
·       50% of KEF students have sponsors but the other 50% are put through school from general donations making donations of any amount extremely helpful.
·       $50 helps provide school uniforms for KEF Scholars.
·       $75 helps 3 girls with a year supply of sanitary pads.
·       $100 helps purchase school supplies and textbooks.

If you would like to learn more about KEF or donate -- please visit their website at Kenya Education Fund. You can also follow them on FacebookInstagram or Twitter

Check out this special message from Allison 
Allison Schlanger is one of the co-founders of apple seeds and songs for seeds. Feel free to reach out to her at aschlanger@appleseedsplay.com for more info.


Honored at the TheaterWorksUSA Spring Benefit

Honored at the TheaterWorksUSA Spring Benefit!

We are deeply grateful to have been honored at the annual TheaterWorksUSA benefit on April 29 in NYC. We are proud supporters of the mission of TheaterWorksUSA — to bring quality, live performances to children, inspiring minds all over the country. The money raised from the event will go to bringing shows to children who do not have access to theater arts. 

We have promoted TheaterWorksUSA programs to all our apple seeds families over the years. This is not just because we share an interest in the children’s arena. This is because we deeply believe in the philosophy of TheaterWorksUSA and we cannot say enough about the quality and caliber of the productions that TheaterWorks presents in communities. Their scripts, music, actors, sets, costumes and overall talent is unmatched in children’s theater. At the level TheaterWorksUSA is producing shows, it actually feels unfitting to call it children’s theater - this is our theater as well.

With 6 kids between us we have sat in the audience truly mesmerized by many, many Theaterworks productions...Click, Clack, Moo, Magic Schoolbus, Pete the Cat, Skippyjon Jones and more — and just as we thought our teenagers may have aged out of the kid oriented productions, TheaterworksUSA presented, The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical and they were back! The truth is...one of the most impressive things we ever told our 9 year olds is that we know the people putting on Dog Man: The Musical this summer and they sent us a link to buy tickets before it sells out! TheaterWorksUSA just told us we can share that link with all our apple seeds and songs for seeds families as well. Hope to see you there!


free printable winter friends coloring page

For your inner child or your kid who loves to color, this week we have a free printable winter coloring page!


How apple seeds started

 How apple seeds started!

Two of our awesome apple seeds & songs for seeds owners - Alison Qualter-Berna and Allison Schlanger - were featured in one of the recent NYC TV "Her Big Idea" episodes!

View the segment below to learn more about apple seeds - NYC's hippest and cleanest place, and songs for seeds - the country's most rocking' kids music program!

Check out more awesome "Her Big Idea" episodes online HERE!