Laguna Beach Independent: Her Lesson Plan Sprouts Gardens in the Tropics

May 6, 2010 · 1 comment

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Article originally published in the Laguna Beach Independent

Are prayers answered? Laguna Beach resident Ann Cooper thinks so. So does her counterpart in Fiji, “Ana,” and the children attending 18 newly established kindergartens in the island nation.

On an anniversary trip to Fiji in 2005, Cooper, a former kindergarten teacher, looked beyond the luxurious accommodations and was struck by the poor living conditions and lack of early childhood education.

After thinking and praying about it for two years, Cooper returned to Fiji two years later with her family, accompanying a medical and dental mission at Natuvu Creek. Missionary Lois Oldham recalls Cooper wondering how she could help since her only qualification was as a kindergarten teacher.

Oldham directed Cooper to Ana, who recently had asked for help finding a “kinde” teacher for her village. Ana said she would pray for one. Then Cooper showed up.

“When I connected Ann with Ana in Vunikura, you could just feel the synergy as they formed an immediate bond,” said Oldham. “…I believe that both of them recognized this was God’s doing and it was exciting to be part of what He was doing.”

Lacking supplies but full of excitement, Cooper visited Vunikura the next day and taught an improvised kindergarten class for a week. Three months later, accompanied by an art teacher from Irvine and armed with suitcases full of pre-school supplies, Cooper “planted” her first kindergarten.

She returned in the spring of 2008 with two student volunteers and planted a second kindergarten. That fall, with the help of intern Amy Williams, she planted eight more. And a “planting” trip last spring brought the total to 18.

“I think this project has changed my life,” said Williams, now a sophomore at Cal Poly in Pomona. “And seeing Ann’s joy and willingness to do whatever is necessary, and how much she loves what she is doing, makes me want to help.”

“Planting” a kindergarten involves a week of orientation and hands-on training for the teachers, who receive a preschool “starter kit” complete with a lesson plan book and such items as chalk boards, flash cards, picture books, puppets, building blocks, alphabet letters, crayons, markers, learning games and materials, etc.

Kits, costing about $750 each, also include toothbrushes and toothpaste, bringing the children an element of hygiene that is usually overlooked there, and the students keep their toothbrushes at school, since at home they might run the risk of being repurposed.

The villages in question have no electricity or running water. They have a pump well for drinking water and the creek serves as a place to bath and wash clothes, and sometimes as a toilet. Cooper said these children aren’t offered school until the first grade. Most have never seen crayons or markers.

The kids were “giddy with excitement,” said Oldham as Cooper set up the first kindergarten. “They were thrilled to have something just for them!”

Cooper’s initiative was reported last August in the Fiji Times Online, which noted her residence 8750 kilometers from Fiji. “Yet she has initiated a kindergarten project…”

In 2008, Cooper earned nonprofit recognition for the Fiji Kinde Project, which brings early childhood education to the islands of Fiji. She also met with Fiji’s minister of education, which now assists Cooper in organizing teacher training and has formalized preschool teacher registration.

Word has gotten out. Now villagers who want a kindergarten get their name placed on a list at the ministry, which helps gather prospective teachers when Cooper arrives with kits. They all converge at one village for a week’s training, staying with locals. Then they return to their villages with supplies and a teaching certificate.

“I just really am that kindergarten teacher that wants to be in the classroom,” said a bemused Cooper, who, in addition to filling “kinde” kits in her garage, has a full-fledged nonprofit to run. She returns to Fiji on Sept. 20 to set up six new kindergartens and evaluate and restock the 18 already established.

It helps that she learns on the go. Her first kits she prepared in plastic tubs. Now she uses large canvas luggage bags with wheels for ease through airports and for Fiji moms to haul back to their villages. Chalkboards replaced dry erase boards when it became apparent that markers were scarce locally, while chalk was in ready supply.

With kindergartens flourishing, Cooper now is turning her attention from kits to cash.

She and her husband so far have footed most of the bill, though they have received some donations from family and friends, and through church fundraisers. Through a connection at Air Pacific, the extra cargo fees for their kits are waived.

While Cooper readily concedes that she can’t indefinitely continue to shoulder all expenses, she remains optimistic. “Doors one after another have just opened up,” she said.

Pepperdine University, where Cooper’s son is a sophomore, is opening one. Its service organization class will take on the Fiji Kinde Project this fall. And Cooper’s passion was added as a destination for the college’s “Project Serve,” which organizes educational trips for students to take during spring break next March.

Students will help Fiji Kinde with organization, said Andrei Constantin Duta, an assistant professor at Pepperdine. Start-up nonprofits face many challenges, including developing a strong board, for example, he said. But he, too, is impressed by Cooper’s passion and entrepreneurship, or he wouldn’t get involved.

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church fundraisers July 31, 2010 at 4:33 am

She and her husband so far have footed most of the bill, though they have received some donations from family and friends, and through church fundraisers

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