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How one NPR story made a difference

Friday, February 24, 2017

Kiwi Sundeen, a junior at Breck, was looking for an opportunity to continue giving back to the community.

After spending a year volunteering during Breck’s weekly community partnership program, she realized the impact we each can have in our community. Last year she worked with first-year immigrant children enrolled in the NABAD program at Anderson Community School in Minneapolis.

“This one teacher would have forty new students coming in at all times of the year trying to learn English,” says Kiwi. “Her job was to prepare them to go into the English public school system. They had one year to learn all the English they needed to be able to succeed. The teacher would say, ‘I am so grateful you’re here. I cannot do this by myself.’”

Realizing the importance of her volunteer work, Kiwi was inspired to do more. It was something she had dreamed about for a long time.

“I know I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” says Kiwi.

She started to dream exceptionally big.

“I thought, ‘I could build a school and have the [immigrant kids] go there,” Kiwi remarks. “But then I realized that probably wasn’t realistic. I talked about it more with my mom and she brought me to this NPR podcast. I started sobbing.”

The podcast was an American Public Media presentation called What it Takes, and features stories from Miami, Florida’s Booker T. Washington High School, a high-poverty school challenging educational norms to improve graduation and attendance rates.

“I would hear all these stories and I think about Breck and how lucky we are,” says Kiwi.

One of the organizations helping Booker T. improve their graduation rate is called Diplomas Now. Kiwi heard the name and grabbed on.

“I reached out to Charles Hiteshew, the CEO of Talent Secondary Development. I didn’t think I was going to get a response,” says Kiwi.

But a response and so much more is exactly what she received.

“He said, ‘I really got inspired by your email and would love to talk with you,” Kiwi recalls.

The brainstorming began, which started with the idea of a book donation for schools in Louisiana affected by the August floods. That led to connecting Kiwi with a Diplomas Now staff member in Louisiana, Jennifer Zeringue – or Miss Z for short.

“Miss Z told me the first time the CEO reached out to her about connecting with Kiwi, she said no. She had so much work already and didn’t need another thing,” says Kiwi.

But the connection happened, with Miss Z feeling less than optimistic that anything would turn out of the conversation.

“Kiwi and I got to talking and—using this as a teachable moment—I said, ‘You want to do donations, that’s amazing. It’s definitely something our community could benefit from. But you have to think about how you’re going to get them there,” says Miss Z. “And that’s where the real cost comes in.”

Miss Z used the example of how there were nearly 24,000 books housed at Johns Hopkins University but, due to shipping costs, couldn’t get to Louisiana to support school there. Miss Z encouraged Kiwi to look around her own community and find out how she could effect change in Minnesota.

But Kiwi would not be deterred.

“I used the example about our books as just a way to reinforce what I was trying to tell her,” adds Miss Z. “But three weeks later we had another conversation and she pretty much said, ‘We’re going to do that. We’re going to raise the money to ship the books.’”

Shortly before finals, Kiwi started fundraising. She sold concessions at sporting events, organized small fundraisers like “Chuck-a-puck” at a hockey game and “A Crush for a Crush” at Valentine’s Day.

While Kiwi was working hard to raise enough money to ship the books, she and Fred Schmidt, community partnership manager, started thinking about opportunities to get other students involved. A service trip seemed like a perfect opportunity.

“I started talking with Miss Z and she said we could come and help repair the schools,” says Kiwi.

And that’s what they did.

“The service trip became [Kiwi and I] trying to create an experience that would capture the students’ effort, but would also allow them to absorb the similarities as well as the differences in our cultures, in our communities, in how education is enacted,” says Miss Z. “And just to see, if I’m being honest with you, to see the disparities in our world.”

In early February, the necessary funds to ship the books finally came in and the service trip was ready to go. In total, nine students and chaperones attended the trip, not including Kiwi.

The trip didn’t include Kiwi because she was also captain on her gymnastics team who just-so-happened to be competing in the section meet that same weekend.

But she still had the chance to assist on the ground in Louisiana.

“I went down ahead of time on Wednesday morning, the rest of the group came down on Thursday night,” adds Kiwi. “So while I was there, I sorted through the books because there were 10 different schools and each school wanted different things. So I went down and sorted the books with Miss Z in the warehouse, and the rest of the group got there and actually donated them.”

Members of the service trip also did flood relief, where they helped clean up and then they also helped rebuild houses and experienced authentic Louisiana culture and cuisine.

For all of these students, there was a lesson to be learned.

“When you’re walking in with this huge cart with all these books, the students are like, ‘Oh my gosh, thank you so much!” and the teachers said, “You don’t know how much this will mean. When you go from nothing and you give us these books, it just means the world,’” Kiwi recalls. “It made me realize things like this really do happen. It made me realize, although I did go down to Baton Rouge, stuff like this can be done in our own community. And I think I need to start taking more action in my own community.”

The group, including Kiwi, were recognized by the Baton Rouge School Board for their commitment and hard work to improving the lives of students in their areas. In total, more than 24,000 books were donated to ten different schools.