Niwot students fundraise, design, build classrooms from shipping containers for Uganda school

Longtime Niwot Elementary School teacher Dale Peterson wanted to teach about Africa, but also go beyond the typical lessons focused on African animals. 

So 10 years ago, he connected with the headmistress of the Mwebaza Primary School in Uganda, and they started a pen pal program.

“We wanted it to be a true partnership,” he said. “It’s as much for the kids here as it is for the kids in Uganda.”

Peterson sent cameras to the school so the students could document their lives and send back pictures. Those picture prompted his students to start raising money through lemonade stands and garage sales, raising so much that Peterson started the Mwebaza Foundation in the spring of 2008.

“Their school building was kind of a mud hut,” he said. “We were inspired to want to do more. The kids here need an opportunity to give back to the world and learn to be compassionate. This is a very hands on way to do that.”

The foundation expanded to partner with three more Ugandan schools, along with raising money so the Mwebaza school could build a more permanent structure to hold classes.

Now, the foundation is working with Niwot-area students to turn shipping containers into classrooms to help with overcrowding.

Peterson said Mwebaza Primary initially enrolled students until age 10, but many students didn’t continue their schooling after leaving. So the school began allowing older students to stay, but they’ve had to come at night — and walk home in the dark — because of space issues.

The foundation is working with Homes of Living Hope, a Louisville nonprofit that supplies the shipping containers to schools and community groups.

The nonprofit previously worked with students at Monarch High in Louisville, who built a mini medical and dental clinic for a neighborhood in Mexico City.

Mwebaza Foundation executive manager Devaki Douillard said the shipping containers offer several advantages to building in Uganda.

Building in Uganda can take years, she said, and is more expensive. Building here and shipping the classrooms to Uganda means they can take advantage of donated materials and volunteer labor.

She estimated it will cost $13,000 to ship the containers to Uganda, while the foundation spent $75,000 to build a new school building there. 

Niwot High students working on the project said they like that they can participate directly by building the new classrooms here.

“Not everyone can go to Uganda,” said senior Jaryd Meek, who recently worked on the framing. “It’s cool to really see where all the money we raised is going.”

Some of the Niwot High students now building the shipping containers and raising money were in Peterson’s class at Niwot Elementary.

“It’s so cool to watch how it’s gone from being pen pals to building schools,” said Niwot senior Emma Falk.

Fellow senior Ava Dumler added that connecting with the Ugandan students “was a really meaningful experience in first grade.”

“We talked about how much we take for granted here,” she said.

Her contribution to the shipping containers was to work on the design for the murals that students will paint on the outside. She chose butterflies to incorporate the idea that “education really gives you your wings.”

The plan is to ship the containers to Uganda in December, with an estimated arrival date of March. A local team of adult builders plans to go to Uganda to help with the assembly. 

Students are continuing to raise money to cover travel expenses for the adult team and labor expenses in Uganda.

“This project is a big part of Niwot,” said Niwot junior Julea Trank-Greene.

St. Vrain Valley Schools