‘Cougars Creating Classrooms’ to expand opportunities for African students

Originally published in the Left Hand Valley Courier >>

On July 27-28, students from Niwot High kicked off the fabrication phase of ‘Cougars Creating Classrooms,’ a building project spearheaded by the Mwebaza Foundation to transform used shipping containers into instructional space for the Mwebaza Infant Primary School in Kyengera, Uganda.
Over the two days, representatives from the football, girls tennis, golf, cross country, and track teams, as well as the IB program, Robotics Club, and Boy Scout Troop 161, unpacked materials for the project and then painted the exterior of the containers, which will eventually help ease overcrowding in the four-room school that serves nearly 200 students in an impoverished area on the outskirts of Kampala, the Ugandan capital.
“The kids at the Mwebaza school are the poorest of the poor in their community,” Niwot Elementary teacher and foundation president Dale Peterson explained. “A lot of the students get to age 10 and drop out, because there’s not a school in the area that’s affordable for them. The Mwebaza school really wants to hold onto these kids, but there isn’t enough room in the classroom.”
Cougars Creating Classrooms is the latest undertaking of the Niwot-based 501(c)(3) whose mission is “to enrich the relationships among our Colorado and African partner schools through cross-cultural exchange and service learning that enhances educational opportunities, fosters a healthy learning environment, and promotes self-sufficiency.”
The foundation got its start ten years ago after Peterson initiated a pen-pal project between the Mwebaza School and his first-grade class at Niwot Elementary. Since then, it has grown to include four other area schools, each of which also partners with a disadvantaged Ugandan institution.
Over the years, the Mwebaza foundation has raised tens of thousands of dollars on behalf of the African schools, which was then used to build classrooms, establish keyhole gardens, purchase vans, and make improvements to sanitation and water collections systems.
“Our goal is to provide the schools with ways to get their basic needs met,” Peterson said. “From there, we want to help the school develop micro industries to bring in the income they need to meet the needs themselves. We want to help give them a leg up, but then we want them to develop self-sufficiency and sustainability.”
For the classroom endeavor, the Mwebaza Foundation is working with Homes of Living Hope (HoLH), a 501(c)(3) charitable organization headquartered in Louisville, Colo. HoLH provides professional support to community organizations looking to convert used containers into low-cost housing, medical or educational facilities. Peterson connected with the nearby non-profit last summer, after seeing co-founder Bart Wear give a presentation at a meeting of Uganda Unite, a network of organizations that operate exclusively in the impoverished country. In the HoLH model, volunteers in the U.S. contribute labor and materials to fabricate the structure, then they pack it with supplies and other goods and ship it to a community in need, where it is reconstituted and installed permanently.
“It was amazing,” Peterson recalled of his introduction to the charity. “They were taking shipping containers and making a medical clinic for a town in eastern Uganda. So we called him up, and started getting ideas. They ship containers all over the world, and they said they’d love to partner with us, and that’s where we got started.”
Back in Niwot, Peterson wasted no time enlisting support and recruiting volunteers for the complex scheme. With the blessing of NES principal Nancy Pitz, he soon had a pledge of assistance from administrators at Niwot High School, Sunset Middle School, the Career Development Center (CDC), as well as the SVVSD facilities department, which has been instrumental in bringing in other community partners.
“It’s the most ambitious project that we’ve done here in Colorado,” Peterson said. “We’ve built school buildings over in Uganda, and we’ve done all sorts of different activities at each of the four partner schools that we have here in Colorado, but this is the most extensive in terms of the number of people involved.”
All told, the container classroom will take about 18 months from conception to final installation in Kyengera, about half the time it would take to build the entire structure locally.
“That’s because everything is negotiated ,” Peterson said. “They negotiate over the cost of nails and the cost of lumber. You can’t just go to Home Depot and buy what you want. We love the projects we’ve done that used local Ugandans, but we didn’t want to wait three years.”
The planning teams got down to work late last year, paced by Alex Armstrong's design class at Sunset, which helped create the final concept for the structure. The construction and work plans were finalized in February. In March, the SVVSD facilities department started reaching out to its vendors for contributions, and they did not disappoint.
“What’s surprised me is how willing the companies have been to donate materials,” Peterson said. At least seven area contractors (McCarthy Construction, FCI, Golden Triangle Construction, Haselden Construction, JHL Construction, Fransen Pittman Construction, and Nova Investments) have contributed lumber, drywall, paint, fixtures, or cabinets, among other things. “Some of them donated thousands and thousands of dollars worth of materials and that has been wonderful. The favor that the district has with these companies is great.”
Construction is scheduled to continue through fall, with a projected completion date sometime in November. Much of the rough-in, framing, painting, and additional fundraising is slated to be done by NHS students, while CDC welding students will be constructing the entire upper story. In fact, by the time the project is ready to ship to Uganda in December, nearly every club or organization at the area schools will have played at least a small role in its completion.
“What I’m most excited about is for the kids here to see kids in Uganda using the school building that they created in the parking lot,” Peterson said. “For them to be able to see that yes, you can make a difference, and put your hands on something that’s going to bless a whole other community.”
For more information about the Mwebaza Foundation and this project, visit Mwebaza.org or homesoflivinghope.org/who-we-are/our-projects/mwebaza-foundation/. The Cougars Creating Classrooms project is still in need of items to send to Uganda, including basic medical supplies (e.g., band-aids, antibiotic ointment), school supplies, and sturdy playground equipment. Please do not send books or clothes.