Wigan teacher inspires school community to make a difference in Africa

An assistant principal’s annual volunteer trip to Africa inspired the whole school community to make a difference.

Kate Penarski, from St John’s CE Primary School in Abram, has travelled to The Gambia with her family every year since she was a sixth-form student.

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They sponsor families and have been involved in a variety of projects, including building wells and providing materials for whatever is needed.

Teacher Kate Penarski with children in The Gambia

As she prepared to return to The Gambia for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, Miss Penarski gave a talk about her volunteer efforts to key stage one pupils learning about Africa.

She also led a school worship about the Good Samaritan and helping others in times of need.

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Staff and pupils alike were inspired by what they heard and decided to help Miss Penarski make a difference.

She said: “I have not asked for any supplies or materials, but children started bringing things in. One child, named Harrison, found 60 teddy bears in his house. I flew them over and then I took them to a baby hospital. They don’t have any mosquito nets, the beds are falling apart, they have absolutely nothing.

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Teacher Kate Penarski at a school in The Gambia

"Lucy in year two gave me baby clothes, bibs and blankets, and I took them too.”

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The manager of the baby hospital was so touched by Harrison’s donation of teddies that she decided to name a cot after him.

Miss Penarski said: “They said it would help 60 families. They have never seen a teddy before and to have that is prestigious in the village.

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"They didn’t have any clothing and wrapped the children in cloth, so to have actual baby clothes too was nothing short of a miracle.”

Kate Penarski teaches in a classroom in The Gambia
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Other donations from the school included 150 friendship bracelets made by year four pupil Olivia, 200 pens, pencils, paper, toothbrushes and footballs.

Cash was also given, which helped to pay for a new floor at the school, for children to attend lessons for a year and other costs for people in the village, such as medical care.

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Miss Penarski said: “I went to three different schools and gave out paper and pencils. I did teaching in the morning and I took some videos of them saying hello to St John’s Abram. They didn’t even know what books were – I tried to read a story to them and they didn’t know what was happening.”

The donations from the St John’s community were “overwhelming” and Miss Penarski was delighted to return to the school to tell children and staff about the difference they had made, as well as show photographs and videos of people in The Gambia with their new items.

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Harrison, a pupil at St John's CE Primary School in Abram, with teddies donated for children in The Gambia

She is now setting up a partnership between the school and St John’s, which will see the youngsters become pen pals.

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"It’s like a cultural exchange,” she said. “Some of our children will never get to see Africa and to learn about this has opened their horizons and they know they have made a difference.”

Ideas for more ways to help people in The Gambia are now being considered by members of the school, ahead of Miss Penarski returning next year.

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Pencils donated for the African children