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Baldwin grad gets help from teachers for Belize books project

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Baldwin High School graduate Adria Zern teaches health education to school children in a small village in Belize. She also is helping to improve the school library.

A teacher at J.E. Harrison Middle School who worked as the gifted coordinator at Baldwin High School stays in touch with a number of former students.

So when Baldwin graduate Adria Zern sent a Facebook message asking if teacher Debbie Reynolds could organize a book drive to benefit the primary school Zern works at in Belize, there was no hesitation.

Reynolds thought the book drive fit perfectly into the district’s theme, “BW Connects,” by having middle school students and members of the high school’s Literary Guild collect books for a Baldwin graduate working in a Central American country.

As of late last week, Reynolds said about 200 books have been donated. Zern said the books will help children in kindergarten through the seventh grade. The school library has limited materials for the 120 students.

Keith Harrison, high school teacher and sponsor of the Literary Guild, said the group’s service project for the past four years has been a book drive to benefit Pittsburgh Carmalt School in Brookline. Reynolds asked Harrison if the guild would want to help Zern’s efforts. Harrison taught Zern as a freshman in honors English. He said the project shows students that they can make a difference.

“She sat in this classroom,” Harrison said. “She has already made a real and lasting impression on the world. When kids leave Baldwin, we want them to have a global aspect. They can learn that their books can help a kid in another part of the world.”

A 2011 Baldwin graduate, Zern talked to the Baldwin students through Skype and showed a PowerPoint presentation about the school and village. Zern also talked to the middle school students through Google Hangout.

Zern earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering science and sociology from Vanderbilt University. She said during her senior year of college that she realized she wanted to work abroad. The Peace Corps offered her the opportunity to help get to know the people of another culture while improving the area.

Zern spends half her time as a community health worker, traveling by bicycle to visit homes. Her other duties are teaching health education at a primary school for students in kindergarten through seventh grade.

She promotes a healthy diet and exercise in an effort to reduce the rate of diabetes, which she said is the leading cause of death in Belize.

“It’s more of changing their eating habits,” Zern said.

She established a gardening program where the students grow vegetables that are used for snacks. She said lunch is the big meal of the day and students go home for an hour to eat, mainly rice and flour tortillas.

A second project that Zern started was improving the school library. She said English is the official language, but most children only hear Spanish, an English-based creole language or Mayan.

Most children have never heard English. The children in second grade are on a kindergarten reading level,” Zern said.

The teachers have accepted a library program to provide children with 30 minutes to select a book to read. A reading star program rewards children for learning new words or explaining what they read.

“The library section is limited, especially books for boys and chapter and picture books,” Zern said.

A library is in a larger town about 20 minutes away, but Zern said most people in the village rarely leave.

The school was approved for a grant to purchase new book shelves for the library. Zern said an artist in the village was selected to paint a mural in the library.

Zern’s two-year commitment in Belize ends in August. She said she plans to have to work in the public health field in the United States.

“Living in another country is one of the most unique experiences you can have,” Zern said.

Jim Spezialetti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5805 or [email protected].

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