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0000017c-83f8-d4f8-a77d-b3fd0d820000Just before the pandemic shut everything down, WNIN's Steve Burger traveled to East Africa to learn more about a deep and lasting connection between Evansville and the people of Kenya. This story has many layers, inlcuding an unlikely meeting in the dead of winter in Chicago, Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Signature School and the village of Ekerenyo in Southwestern Kenya.Thanks to a partnership with the Youth Cafe in Nairobi, producer Angela Noi also contributed to this series.

The Amani Connection- The Sig Kids Get Involved

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It was a fun and wide ranging discussion when we got the original group of Signature School students together on Zoom with the current group supporting the Amani Center.

As we’ve discussed previously, Signature School students were inspired by Peter Mageto to raise money for a library in Ekerenyo. Sixteen years later, Signature students are still involved in fundraising for the Amani project, which now includes a medical center.

The current Signature students have never met Peter Mageto. Neither have they met any of the former students who started the Amani project in 2004.

It sounded like a great idea to get the various groups of Signature students together, until the pandemic shut down in-person meetings and everyone became preoccupied with the virus. With much help from Lynn Renne, we were able to get all of the current and former students together on two Zoom calls.

In the relatively short history of Signature School, there is a nearly legendary teacher named Julia Gregg, who is now retired. I asked her to relate how the Amani Center idea was formed one day during her English class in Room 203.

“It just took off in the classroom. Everyone was riveted. I can still see them sitting in a circle. Peter was at the front of the room on a stool if I’m remembering correctly, and just to watch the excitement was life-giving.”

“This is Elizabeth Bareman. I remember he talked to us about literacy and HIV and it was really important."

"This is David Moore. Certainly the impetus for all that was Peter. Here we were just a bunch of white kids in the wealthiest country in the world and we were just beginning to understand the breadth and depth of our own privilege.”

Peter said, “So I gave them my story and told them I went to school. When people talk about textbooks in chemistry, in physics, in geography, I never saw any. So I told the Signature kids, I say, my hope and prayer is that one day, I will build a community library."

Sarah Moore said,  “One of the things that was key to me in my upbringing and in my schooling was books. So that was one thing where that’s not OK and let’s do something about it and we just kinda’ did.”

Peter added, " Interestingly, five or six of them came up and said, ‘We would like to accompany you with that project.’  Now, there was no project! I had just a dream. And that’s how it started. That first class I will never forget."

We should note that Jim Coy and the Beacon Group of Evansville played a big role in helping with fundraising and architectural drawings for what was known then as the Amani Reading Center.

Elizabeth Bareman said,  “I don’t know why, but I think we were just, ‘We’ll build you a library’ and I don’t know where it went from there, other than we raised thirty thousand dollars and before I knew it, we were building a library and before we knew it we had Lynn and it changed our lives, changed the lives of the people in Africa. It changed my life, too. It was just something we did, as silly as that sounds.”

One of the original students, Catherine Forston, traveled with Lynn Renne for the dedication of the library in Ekerenyo in 2006. Catherine caught the excitement of the moment in her journal.

July 21, 2006. This is all so amazing, just standing, actually standing in the dream. Me. Everyone. And there is so much more to come. -Catherine Forston journal entry about the dedication of The Amani Reading Center.

“This is Catherine. I was able to be lucky enough to go to the dedication. I remember Lynn and I constantly locking eyes and not really having words to say. Being over there and kind of seeing everything come to fruition was, as a college freshman who had been involved with the project for less than a year was- It was absolutely incredible.”

It was about this point in the Zoom call with the current and former Signature students that one of the current students, Chloe Yune, said something profound enough that it changed the course of the rest of the conversation.

“A lot of people use the term like being part of something that’s bigger than yourself. And that’s so true, especially with this. You guys talk about how this project started like fifteen years ago and like, I was two years old when this project started.”

The original group got quiet for a time while digesting that bit of news. Elizabeth Bareman tried to answer later with an equally profound statement, but couldn’t quite do it. The original students broke out laughing at the realization of the longevity of Signature support.

You guys talk about how this project started like fifteen years ago and like, I was two years old when this project started. -Chloe Yune, current Signature student on the longevity of Signature support for the project.

“It’s so beautiful to think about you handing it off to kids that are two now (chuckles) that will, you know, carry your legacy on (more laughter). You guys were two. That’s crazy. We’re old, Katherine and David. Old. Some of us have kids. It’s nuts. My daughter is almost two years old. That’s crazy to think about. We were doing this when you were two, there you go. OK.”

It was a moment of bonding for the two generations of Signature students through their common experience and shared sacrifice. And it begs the question why has Amani Center support lasted so long at the school?

After the library was built and dedicated in 2006, there are several years between groups of supporters at Signature School. In 2016, Peter Mageto came back to the school and met with another group of students.

From top left, Sydney McClary, Steve Burger, Grace Higgins, Michelle McClary, Anirudh Banuru, Abby Higgins, Kristian Lockyear, Lynn Renne, Angela Noi, Kennedy Williams, Zack Potter.

“Kristian Lockyear. The initial Signature School group from 2004 had a connection to Peter, they talked to Peter and saw his passion. And when he talked to Zac and Anirudh and I, all of us,  it really didn’t matter whether anyone after us had any contact with Peter. We wanted to show Peter’s passion through us and I think that’s why it’s continued for so long.”

“Zack Potter. I spent most of my high school years trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted my purpose to be. I think a lot of high school students do exactly the same thing. And I think this project appeals to high school students specifically because of this. Peter found what his purpose was. He found what his dream was. And that has helped all of us find what we want to do.”

“Anirudh Banuru. One thing you’re going to notice about all of us sitting here today. We’re all highly motivated individuals. When we’re given an opportunity, we make the most of it. I think that is something that is across the board with every student who’s on this call, who was on the call last time, we just don’t give up, and we won’t until the job is done.”

Anirudh Banuru, Zack Potter and Kristian Lockyear were all seniors at Signature School that year. A group of juniors stepped in to help, including two sets of twins, Michelle and Sydney McClary, Grace and Abby Higgins and Kennedy Williams. Sydney McClary is  a Castle High School grad.The McClary’s had known Peter Mageto and his family since they moved to Evansville many years before. The next big fundraiser was to stage a gala to raise money for an even bigger part of the project.

“I’m Abby Higgins. I was just scared that I would have to talk, until at the end, someone gave me the final amount for that night and I got so excited about how much we had raised that I felt like I just had to announce it.”

“I’m Kennedy Williams. My favorite part was seeing all of our hard work come to fruition at the gala. I just took a step back and looked at the room and looked at each other and said, Oh my gosh. We did this!"

What they did was raise over $50,000 to start a new building at the Amani compound, a medical center and accommodations for volunteers attending the twice yearly medical camps. The first group to use the new facility made the trip in February of this year.

Which brings us to today. We finished the first Zoom call with the Signature students by asking the current group what they would say to the original 2004 group.

“This is Chloe Yune. First, I’d say thank you guys. I mean, this, without you guys and Peter, Lynn and everyone, this project wouldn’t even exist. So, knowing that a group of students felt like they can make a big difference and then actually execute it and do it is just so cool to see.”

“This is Chloe Hess. This year’s sophomores, I’ve already talked to a few of them. I’m pretty sure Chloe and Paige have also talked to a few people. I think they’ll carry it on. And it won’t be an issue on like, is this just for a project for school or just for a grade. I think it’s really about experience.”

“This is Paige. I’m gonna’ say teachers and people at Signature wouldn’t be able to put so much faith in us as students if it wasn’t for what you guys did fifteen years ago. And, I’m really optimistic for the future, ‘cause you guys started off with a reading center and now it’s a full-on medical center. So, who knows? In the next fifteen years, maybe we’ll be starting a completely different branch of this project.”

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