Students take musical leap for Ghana
McCracken Middle School students Daniel Vargas and Philip Czarkowski play trumpets last week during A Leap For Ghana, a concert to help raise funds for children in the African country. | Joe Cyganowski- For Sun-Times Media
• To reach Aiding Children Together to help the McCracken students in their mission, go to aidingchildrentogether.blogspot.com or email Jen Ciok at email@example.com.
• To make a donation to A Better Life For Kids or for more information about the non-profit organization, go to www.abetterlifeforkids.org.
• Participate in the annual Aiding Children Together walkathon to support A Better Life For Kids to be held in late May.
Updated: April 8, 2013 6:22AM
Not many junior high school students reunite with their second-grade teacher so she can deliver this message to them: “You literally saved people’s lives.”
During last week’s second annual “A Leap For Ghana” concert at McCracken Middle School, Middleton School teacher Shelley Nizynski Reese used her words carefully; no one knows better than she what money raised by these dedicated kids have paid for.
“Children’s lives were saved because of what you have done,” she said.
Last year, student members of teacher Jen Ciok’s Aiding Children Together club raised about $6,000, allowing Nizynski Reese to bring her compassionate and humanitarian work in Ghana to a new level. The money helped open the first medical clinic there; Nizynski Reese’s father-in-law, Dr. Tom Reese, treated more than 300 patients in the impoverished African country.
“This was the first time most of these people had seen a medical doctor in their lives,” Nizynski Reese said.
That clinic meant the difference between life and death for some patients. A desperate mother came in carrying her infant son with a 104-degree temperature because of malaria. Reese began treating him with critical medicine.
“The next day she returned with her son, fever-free and smiling and on the road to recovery,” Nizynski Reese recounted.
A villager bitten by a poisonous snake was saved because of the clinic.
Nizynski Reese’s nonprofit A Better Life For Kids has also taken care of eight deaf children in Ghana. Children with disabilities there are often stigmatized and abandoned.
“Seeing children who had no hope for the future smiling and wearing a school uniform is one of the best feelings in the world,” she said.
For the second year, A Better Life For Kids will be able to send these students to a boarding school where they have the opportunity to thrive.
The youngest of them became deaf from meningitis and was rejected by her mother. She initially was angry, confused and didn’t want to communicate.
“When I saw her this December,” Nizynski Reese said, “she came running up to me, smiling, and is beginning to use sign language now to communicate.”
If these stories sound like miracles, they are in a way — not only because of the humanitarian work performed in Ghana, but because of how Nizynski Reese’s initial solitary mission has expanded and inspired a community. She made her first visit to the orphanage in Ghana alone, right around the time she started teaching at McCracken. In July, she will visit there for the 11th time.
When she arrives, children will run to greet her, a palpable excitement every time she pulls up, a mutual love reflected from years of humanitarian work.
Since her first visit, Nizynski Reese has created A Better Life For Kids to further her mission. She has inspired friends and family to join her. Last year, she won the Illinois Holocaust Museum’s inaugural Power of One Award, which honors one person in the world who makes a difference.
But maybe the most important local ripple from her work is her inspiration to the students of McCracken Middle School.
Ciok created Aiding Children Together to teach students to become good citizens, to care and make a difference in the larger world around them.
“It’s the vision of our school to inspire students to make the world a better place,” Ciok said. “I love doing this and seeing how students respond.”
The students responded in amazing ways after the club aligned with A Better Life For Kids after the first year. Through different fundraising events – the concert and an annual walkathon being the major ones now – McCracken students have allowed Nizynski Reese to expand her work every year.
“Tonight, you all came to see a concert,” eighth-grader Juliana Tichota told a room filled with parents, families and Aiding Children Together alumni last week. “But the real reason you’re here is much simpler. The real reason you’re here tonight is because we want every child to have a good life, to have food every day, to have a bed to sleep in, clothes to wear and a roof over their heads.’’
Dressed in olive T-shirts, “A Better Life For Kids” written on the front, nearly a couple dozen children sang and played instruments through a collection of well-known musical numbers. They periodically talked about Ghana and their fundraising mission as an overhead screen displayed information about the country and photos of Nizynski Reese and her family during visits there.
It was abundantly clear that this was not just another school activity for them; students have taken A Better Life For Kids to heart both in and out of McCracken.
Student Nahrin Brndaro surprised Nizynski Reese by handing her a jar filled with nearly $100. She raised the money at an Assyrian school she attends, by making bracelets and other items to sell.
“I felt bad knowing these kids were suffering,” Brndaro said. “People should spend money on what they need, not what they want. There’s a big difference.”
Student Ben Yusen has raised hundreds of dollars on his own for A Better Life For Kids through his Bar Mitzvah project.
Seventh grader Chris Guolee was responsible for contacting Chicago Fire soccer star Patrick Nyarko from Ghana, who chose A Better Life For Kids for a $1,500 donation this year through an award he won.
The McCracken students are well on their way to at least matching last year’s donation total. Nizynski Reese knows just how some of the money will be spent.
Her July visit with her husband to Ghana will be dedicated to preventing malaria by installing mosquito nets, educating staff, buying medicine and taking other preventative measures against the disease. Malaria is the number one cause of death in Ghana for babies and for children under age 5.
Ciok and her students have never visited Ghana, but they feel a connection to the children there. There has been talk about a possible McCracken visit in the future, although there are several obstacles: the cost, age restrictions on humanitarian visits, safety and more.
Then again, if there’s anything to be learned from the two District 73.5 teachers and the students they have inspired, it’s that obstacles can be overcome and miracles can happen.