“If you can help, you must”

Haddonfield teacher, students fundraise to send former child soldier to graduate school

Many students have read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. But few students have read it and had the opportunity to connect with a former child soldier, effectively changing all of their lives.

In 2015, Kimberly Dickstein’s 10th-grade English class at Haddonfield Memorial High School was reading Beah’s memoir when Dickstein found a way to relate the words on the page with the reality of so many. A friend of hers was now working in Malawi, and he connected Dickstein with Garang Buk Buk Piol, a former South Sudanese child soldier now working as an international aid worker. With the Carter Center, Buk was working to eradicate guinea worm.

Within two weeks of the introduction, Buk was Skyping with a classroom of captivated students who listened to every word with an intensity that they would later turn to helping him achieve his dream of attending graduate school in the United States.

Buk described his struggle to achieve an education, how limited the resources had been at many of the schools that were available to him, and how his experiences as a child soldier motivated him to peacefully change communities.

Dickstein and Buk maintained contact, and she would later write him a letter of recommendation for graduate school. The students often asked about him, so Dickstein messaged him for an update. They learned that Buk had been awarded a partial scholarship to attend Emory University’s master’s program in international development, but without an American visa, he could not attend. And without proof that he had the financial resources to complete the tuition payment and support himself in the United States, he could not get the visa.

“Even though I had never done anything like this before, I believed I knew how to help him, and it was the right thing to do,” Dickstein said. “If you can help, you must.”

Dickstein noted that as a 2009 alumna of the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, she is proud to advance the university’s motto, “Jersey Roots, Global Reach.”

Buk and Dickstein at Emory University in Atlanta during an August visit. Dickstein, one of Buk’s sponsors for his student visa, spent seven days with Buk to help him with adjustment—finding a place to live, making appointments with health services, banking, financial services, and other tasks, and to prepare him for his first semester.

Team Garang and “The Five”

Dickstein worked with her students to develop a campaign that included community outreach, fundraising, media relations and more. Five students were the most inspired to get involved. Wayden Ay, Mohamed (Mo) Jishi, Kathleen Lee, Natalie Naticchia, and Yaodong (Yao) Yu were all sophomores when they first met Buk via Skype. Now seniors, Buk has nicknamed them “The Five.”

Alongside other students, teachers, and parents—known collectively as Team Garang—they turned their intensity into action and began crowdfunding to help Buk. By June 2018, they were canvassing door to door in Haddonfield. In the first three weeks, they collected $21,000 toward their goal of $93,922. All who contributed in any way became a part of Team Garang.

The students harnessed the power of social media, as well as their own personalities and individual talents, to spread the word quickly. From developing a fundraising plan to creating a script for going door to door to keeping everyone’s spirits high when the inevitable complications and setbacks threatened to demoralize them, they worked as a confident and capable team.

The NJEA Review interviewed “The Five” and the best way to understand these students, their motivations, and their transformations, is to hear from them directly. Read their interview beginning at the bottom of this article.

Thanks to the efforts of Dickstein, Emory University’s Master’s in Development Practice program, Team Garang, and many others, Buk received his American student visa in August and enrolled at Emory for the fall 2018 semester.

“After my graduation, I will move back to South Sudan to help in nation building,” Buk said. “The skills and knowledge obtained from my time at Emory University will be critical in helping communities to chart that path to development.”

After making a presentation at the Sept. 27 Haddonfield Board of Education meeting, Dickstein brought Buk to Haddonfield on several occasions.

Buk with his children in South Sudan; his son, Buk Garang Buk Buk Piol and his daughter Aluat Piol.

On Oct. 8, Buk addressed the school’s 800 students in an assembly where he talked about conditions in South Sudan—discussing war, the scourge of the guinea worm, and the inefficient distribution of resources. Throughout the day, he visited classes where he participated as if an HMHS student in the day’s lessons.

During Buk’s October visit, he did many quintessentially American things, such as giving the locker room speech to Haddonfield’s football team before a Friday night game and attending the Haddonfield Police and Community Day in town. Team Garang and Dickstein then drove him to the Jersey shore to see the ocean for the first time.

On Dec. 7, with funding from an NJEA PRIDE in Public Education grant, Dickstein and Team Garang collaborated with Haddonfield students, teachers, parents, community members, local businesses and churches, and local media outlets to organize the inaugural Global Citizen Dinner. This fundraising event drew 170 attendees. Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, chairperson of the Assembly Education Committee, gave the welcome address. Mayor Neal Rochford presented Buk and Team Garang with a town proclamation. The event was to benefit Buk’s education fund as well as his work in South Sudan. The dinner also included a panel discussion with Buk, Dickstein, Ay, Jishi, Lee, Naticchia, Yu, and Dr. Hillary King, a sustainable development fellow from Emory University.

“The community of Haddonfield has made the impossible, possible,” King said.

“This has been the most meaningful work in my 10 years as an educator,” Dickstein said. “The defining moment of my life and my sense of where my place is in the world was meeting and advocating for Garang.”

Dickstein is building a curriculum around being a global citizen. She believes that societal transformation begins with individual transformation, and she has seen a powerful transformation in each of the students who have participated in the project, but particularly in Team Garang, the five students who have been the most committed and involved.

Dickstein’s tireless efforts on Buk’s behalf have led to an invitation to visit the Carter Center and meet former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalyn Carter.

The four class officers from the HMHS Sophomore Class of 2021, from left, Katrina Edwards, Salena Chacon, Chris DiMedio, Jake Amons, presented a check to Garang Buk Buk Piol at the Global Citizen Dinner on Dec 7. They selected Buk’s Education Fund as their Spirit Week fundraiser, raising $10,215. The sophomores read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone for their summer assignment as part of the world literature curriculum in their English class.

“Shaking President Carter’s hand meant more to me knowing that this man’s enduring commitment to alleviate human suffering has empowered individuals like Garang to improve his own community by furthering his education,” Dickstein said. “That moment was a tangible reminder that anything is possible.”

Dickstein, Team Garang and Haddonfield’s students plan to maintain their connection with Buk throughout his academic career as well as when he permanently returns to South Sudan.

If you would like to donate to Buk’s education fund, visit gofundme.com/get-garang-to-emory.

The five

While the entire Haddonfield community—Team Garang—inspired by Haddonfield Memorial High School (HMHS) teacher Kimberly Dickstein, has pulled together to help Garang Buk Buk Piol earn his master’s degree in international development from Emory University, five students at the high school took the lead. They are Wayden Ay, Mo Jishi, Kathleen Lee, Natalie Naticchia and Yao Yu.

“The Five” and Kimberly Dickstein took Garang Buk Buk Piol to see the ocean for the first time. From left: Kathleen Lee, Natalie Naticchia, Buk, Dickstein, Mo Jishi, Wayden Ay, and Yao Yu.

Following an assembly at HMHS on Oct. 8, “The Five,” as Buk calls them, spoke with the editor of the NJEA Review.

I understand that you first learned about Garang when you were sophomores.

Natalie: Yes. We Skyped with Garang in our sophomore English class. From that moment forward, I knew this was something I wanted to run with. I think we five came together because we were the people who stuck with it the longest. We knew we were in it for the long haul.

Kathleen: Yes. Natalie, Yao and I were in the same English class. Garang Skyped with us despite technical difficulties on his end and managed to write every single student a thank you letter back. It was interesting to see how one man is so selfless.  He’s ultimately coming here not just for himself, but for his country. He’s going to go back to South Sudan and help his own people. That really touched all of us—how Garang can be like this, even though he has so little.

What are the strengths you each bring to helping Garang and South Sudan?

Wayden: We all bring something different to the table that made us work as a team unit. Our differences have really made us as strong as we are.

Natalie: We’re all from different social circles. We’re all involved in different activities, so we were able to pull from a lot of different groups in the school.

Wayden: I do all the “secretarial” work. We use Google Docs as a way of making sure everyone knows the important information.

Natalie: I’m sort of the “people person.” I help create a lot of connections along the way.

Kathleen: I’m the kind of person who stays up late, so if something needs to be done last-minute, I can do it. Thank you notes, letters-to-the-editor, articles for local magazines, centerpieces. I’m the “project and ideas” person.

Wayden: …and Kathleen’s our “sweetheart.” When something is going wrong, she’ll say the most positive thing that gets us back on track.

Yao: I’m more of a tech guy. I handle all the technology issues and our campaign online.

Mo: I meet with Ms. Dickstein a lot. She likes to talk things out and will run a lot of ideas by me.

Wayden: …and Mo lived in a different country, so he brings that perspective to the table.

Mo: I lived in Qatar. I moved back to the U.S. permanently in 2011. Kathleen and Yao also come from different cultural backgrounds.

You went door to door in Haddonfield sharing Garang’s story and raising funds. What was it like to take the project outside the high school?

Wayden: It wasn’t just the five of us. There were other students and different grades. We originally had a group of about 30 students who were in Ms. Dickstein’s classes.

Natalie: We had a flier to show at each door. We explained that we were part of a group of students who were campaigning to help a former child soldier in South Sudan obtain his visa and raise funds for his tuition at Emory University. We would say that he was accepted into master’s degree program, and we would explain how hard it is to obtain a visa, especially when you have to prove that you can pay for tuition. We would point them toward the GoFundMe link on the flier. If they were not able to provide a monetary donation, we asked them to share his story. A lot of people we met had already read A Long Way Gone, the book that started all of this. It showed us that in Haddonfield people are especially engaged and educated, and they want to help.

How did you spend any time with him over this weekend?

Wayden: We started with a football game. He loved it. Yesterday we went down to Ocean City, New Jersey, so that Garang could see the ocean for the first time. I’ve never seen someone smile that much! He loves soccer, so we were passing the ball around on the beach. He was juggling and teaching us how to do tricks. He just seemed very relaxed and at home.

Mo: His joy was contagious, which was great at this time of the year which is so stressful for us—there’s college applications and a lot of school work.

Wayden: It’s just cool to see someone who seems so different from us to be on the same level of happiness—to see that we’re more similar in that moment than anything else.

Natalie: I think it’s so rare that any of us would just look out at the ocean and just be in awe. It was such happiness—seeing someone see something for the first time that a lot of us take for granted.

Yao: The biggest moment for me was when Garang waved to South Sudan on the other side of the ocean. It was a first experience for him, and you don’t get to see that very often because we live so close to the ocean that we don’t remember the first time we saw it.

Yao, you had mentioned earlier that you were taking AP Government because of working with Garang.

Yao: I used to be only a math and science guy, I never thought I would take a history course willingly. But after my work with Garang, I thought, “You know what? Let’s do it.” I’m loving it, and it’s the highest grade I have out of all my courses so far.

How has this experience with Garang and Ms. Dickstein changed you?

Wayden: The book A Long Way Gone was the first time I was introduced to the conflict in South Sudan. To be honest, I’d never even heard of a child soldier before I read that book. I feel a little ashamed that I wasn’t aware. I think it’s teaching us how to communicate with people, to understand different perspectives and not try to force our opinions on others, but instead understand where others are coming from.

Natalie: Before this, I didn’t take time to read the newspaper or watch the news, but now I understand how important it is because our worlds are so closely connected. Once you start to educate yourself and become more engaged, you realize how easy it is to help and to have an impact.

Mo: Helping Garang has been the most important thing I’ve ever done. It’s the most worthwhile and fulfilling thing I’ve ever put my time into. You see the impact through one person rather than donating to a random organization and wondering how the money is being used.

Kathleen: We’re coming to understand that there’s more out there. It’s not that the five of us think we are special. We are no different from your everyday teenager. We don’t go home every night thinking of ways to help people. But through this experience and through understanding that we’re all humans, we see the need to change ourselves.

Natalie: It doesn’t take a special person to do this. It just takes patience and a team. It’s five 17-year-old kids and their teacher who came together. It doesn’t take anything other than perseverance, determination, patience, and the willingness to learn and be open to cultures and new ideas. I think that’s something that goes across the board with the world today. Just open your eyes.

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