North Davis Elementary School students have extended the hand of friendship all the way to Africa, and thanks to a Davis High student and her mom, that friendship is now evident on the wrists of hundreds of children in Ethiopia.
Lauren Cordano, who graduates from Davis High School this week, traveled to Ethiopia with her mom, Pam Cordano, in April. There, for two weeks, they assisted the Bay Area organization Doctors Giving Back in providing medical relief and installing water filtration systems to some communities in desperate need of both. They also distributed more than 1,000 friendship bracelets that students at North Davis spent several months making.
As she would tie bracelets on the children’s wrists, Lauren would tell them — with the help of an interpreter — that the friendship bracelets had been made by children in America especially for them.
And it is that global connection that North Davis teacher Carol Stewart loved best about the whole project.
Stewart, who was Pam Cordano’s college roommate, offered up the assistance of her students when she heard that the Cordanos planned to bring friendship bracelets with them on the trip.
She involved her own class of sixth-graders, as well as the school’s student council, which brought in many more students in grades 3-6.
“It just kind of blossomed at North Davis,” Stewart recalled.
Students were invited to come into the library at lunch and make bracelets and Stewart also set up a desk outside her classroom with all the supplies needed so kids could work when they wanted to.
“They really got into it,” she said. “And it was all ages, boys and girls.”
Her own students would sit quietly weaving while she read aloud to them and some kids even worked on them at home, at night or over the weekend.
Lauren, meanwhile, visited the students to talk about her planned trip: why she was going, what she would be doing there and who the friendship bracelets would be given to. Stewart continued the conversation in the classroom.
“We talked about what a gift meant,” Stewart said, “about weaving in the care and love.
“I saw some real leadership skills come out,” she added. “And compassion.”
And the results astonished Lauren and her mom, who never expected to be taking more than 1,000 bracelets with them.
It’s a tradition among Doctors Giving Back to take along small toys for the children — toy planes, crayons, little teddy bears — Lauren said. But she figured friendship bracelets would last longer.
Made in brightly colored thread — and with some intricate patterns and designs thanks to some accomplished North Davis bracelet-makers — they were a hit among the Ethiopian children, providing a bright spot in what is a difficult life for many.
“They would have been excited with a triangle of plastic,” Pam noted. “They have nothing.”
The Cordanos first heard about Doctors Giving Back from a friend who was raising money for the Dublin, Calif.-based organization for his bar mitzvah project.
The group, a collection of doctors, nurses and other volunteers, travels to Ethiopia yearly. This was the 12th trip they’ve taken, and the Cordanos’ first.
Lauren called the experience “exhausting and exhilarating.”
She loved the people, the language, even the food.
“You see things you never knew existed,” Lauren said.
“We woke up every morning to Muslim chanting, goats and chickens,” Pam added.
And then there was the immediate impact on the people they encountered.
Their mornings were spent providing medical assistance in the town where they were staying; afternoons involved driving to more distant areas.
“People there were a lot more sick,” Lauren said of the villages where medical care was harder to come by.
Many suffered from typhoid, AIDS, malaria and other afflictions.
“Some of the people had lost hope,” Pam said. “We were trying to not just give them medicine, but make a connection.”
The poverty was eye-opening, Lauren said. And the fact that they couldn’t possibly treat everyone who needed care was heartbreaking.
“You could see that people were still sick when you’re pulling out in the van,” she recalled.
One long-term form of assistance they were able to provide was clean water. In addition to helping install simple water filtration systems, the volunteers would explain to villagers how to use them and how to clean the filters.
“We explained the reason you’re sick and you have parasites and typhoid is because of the water,” Lauren said.
The difference the simple filters made in the people’s lives was clear.
“You could see right away if a village had clean water,” Pam said. “In villages without filters, there is more disease, they’re thinner and more lethargic. The villages that had never been visited were in really bad shape.”
As they dispensed medication and care, the Cordanos gave out friendship bracelets as well. Both wore them on their own wrists and would point to them before tying them on the children’s wrists.
Lauren planned to return to Stewart’s classroom before the end of the school year to tell students about the trip and show them photos of the Ethiopian children wearing their friendship bracelets.
There’s much to show and tell.
“The energy they brought back with them was incredible,” Stewart said. “Story after story of people they made connections with. In the pictures, there is this humanity in that connection.”
And they already want to go back.
Pam said she may return with her younger daughter next year and Lauren, who will be a freshman at Cal Poly, wants to go, too.
“It really is a great experience,” Pam said.
Doctors Giving Back is always seeking donations and volunteers. Learn more at www.doctorsgivingback.org.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy