A world away, Oakland students help light classrooms for Kenyan students

- On separate continents and with an ocean between them, a group of Oakland kids have built a connection with and illuminated the lives of hundreds of students and teachers in rural villages in western Kenya.

During the school year, 8th graders from Oakland's Hillcrest School constructed power generating solar suitcases. Two of the devices were distributed to schools in Kenya, where they are now taking the place of generators, lanterns and flashlights which are considered highly unreliable and unsafe.

"It has enabled us read well and saved us the problem of power shortage," wrote 17-year-old Kenyan student Jasmine Evet in a letter to Hillcrest.

Evet attends the WISER Girls' Secondary School located in the Nyanza District of Kenya, where its 360 children and 35 staff members are benefiting from Hillcrest's solar project.

On its website WISER states that it seeks to help its students "transcend poverty HIV/AIDS, and gender-based violence," and to empower them to bring about change in their community.

"This support has enabled the girls to do their studies both at night and the morning preps without interruptions as was the case before installation," wrote the school's principal Dorcas Oyugi in a letter of appreciation. 

"Previously we experienced power blackout interruptions which adversely affected study time... This solar connection is an invaluable contribution touching the study life of our students in special way," Oyugi added.

The other school that received a solar suitcase is the Ichinga Secondary School located in Kenya's Siaya County, where the device is bringing power to 161 children and 16 staff members, according to the project organizer, Berkeley-based We Share Solar. 

"The Solar Suitcase will be used to light six classrooms to increase evening study time, teacher prep time and add much needed security," said We Share Solar which has installed more 100 suitcases at schools in rural regions of Kenya over the past two years.

Nationwide more than 250 schools have participated in its suitcase program, which provides the material to build the portable solar generators.

The group says its high-quality solar electric systems are assembled by students as part of a project-based learning STEM curriculum. 

"Students are exposed to engineering with a purpose and develop a sense of themselves as global citizens," according to the We Share Solar website.

Last summer, Hillcrest's middle school science and humanities teacher, Noah Canton, applied to participate in the program, which is made possible through a grant from Wells Fargo.

He was among 13 teachers chosen in the Bay Area.

Canton said the first time he tackled assembling one of the suitcases, it was apparent how complicated the process is. 

But the hard work he and his students put in resulted in the assembly of three power generating devices. "Two were sent while Hillcrest gets to keep one," Canton noted.

Since the installation of the solar suitcases, WISER and Ichinga have sent photos, videos and letters to show what an impact the devices have had on their community. 

Touching images demonstrated how a group of kids from Oakland are now linked to these students in Kenya. Photos from the Ichinga Secondary School show students examining and studying the suitcase. And in many of those photos is a picture of the Oakland kids who built the device for them.  

Through this global partnership Oakland students have brought the gift of light and generated gratitude among students a world away.  

"The privilege to be provided with the portable solar suitcases is just great and we even do not know how to thank you," wrote 16-year-old WISER student Herine Joan.

The effort by Canton and his students has also reached beyond the two Kenyan schools where their solar suitcase landed. 

"I would like to inform you that the portable solar suitcases were also shared to other schools around,"  Joan wrote, "this shows a greater love that we have with our community. We have plenty of sunlight this sides of the world and we are really going to enjoy."

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