republished from The Commercial Appeal

Julia Schuster, who teaches religion at St. Agnes Academy-St. Dominic School, had grown up in the flower industry in Memphis, and actually delivered flowers to Elvis’ funeral.

The "prayer wall" at the back of Julia Schuster's classroom at St. Agnes Academy contains photographs of student pen pals from the Saruwe Junior School in Selous, Zimbabwe (photo by Dave Darnell).

When her students raised enough money for World Vision in 2009 to build someone a house in Siberia, they wanted to know who exactly was getting the house? And why? What was their story, and what were their names? Could they meet them or at least write to them?

Schuster tried to explain that the program didn’t work that way, but the students weren’t satisfied. Neither was she. Schuster and her colleague, Kathy Boccia, the lower school dean, continued to look for ways to engage their students in the wider world, but in a more personal and spiritual way.

About the time “Flowers for Elvis” was published, Schuster and Boccia went to Panera restaurant in Germantown to meet with Dan Nisser, a fellow teacher’s husband who was working for the Cargill Co. in Africa.

They told him they wanted somehow to connect their students to students in Zimbabwe. He told them harrowing and heart-rending tales of life in Zimbabwe.

“What you spent on that coffee could pay a whole term’s tuition at a school in Zimbabwe, you know,” Nisser told Schuster. “If you’re interested in connecting with people in a developing nation, your idea of normal will have to be checked at the door.”

A few weeks later, Nisser called from Selous, Zimbabwe, and put Eunice Sengayi, headmistress of the Saruwe Junior School, on the line.

“Helllllluuuuu? Mrs. Schuuuuuster? Are you there?” Mrs. Sengayi proceeded to tell Schuster about the school. There are 650 students in nine grades in 12 classrooms. They have no desks, no electricity, no running water, no textbooks and no supplies.

“Of course, we wanted to help,” Schuster recalled, “but as her list of needs grew longer, I wondered if the challenge was already too immense. … “

“Suddenly, our excitement about making a ‘global connection’ suddenly seemed naive and self-serving. What had we expected? A happy story about how easy it would be to introduce our students to our beautiful world.”

Schuster and Boccia decided it would be easier to make those introductions one student at a time. So seventh- and eighth-grade students at St. Agnes-St. Dominic in Memphis began corresponding with students at Saruwe School in Zimbabwe.

Sam wrote to Bekezeia who wrote back: “I am 11 years old. I live in a beautiful farm. My favorite food is sadza and vegetable. My favorite sport is foot ball.”

Kelly wrote to Rutendo who wrote back: “Maybe you may not understand my name. Rutendo means faith. I love God so much. Do you?”

John Terry wrote to Courage Tom who wrote back: “I want to be an athleletic (sic) and I have a belief that you will be a pastor. You will give me advise about how to walk by faith not in sight.”

Melissa wrote to Rosemary about her family’s Thanksgiving traditions, which include deviled eggs. Rosemary wrote back: “I am going to try to make deviled eggs. This is my first time to hear about deviled eggs. Thanks for giving me the recipe.”

Soon, teachers at the two schools were corresponding with each other.

Julia Schuster, who teaches religion  at St. Agnes Academy-St. Dominic School, was looking for a way to engage her students with the wider world in a personal, spiritual way. Now they are trading letters with and donating supplies to students in Zimbabwe (Photo by Dave Darnell).

Students at St. Agnes-St. Dominic launched a website and formed a Global Ambassadors Board to raise awareness about Third World issues as well as to raise funds for Saruwe School.

In February 2010, Schuster and Boccia flew to Africa with 350 pounds of school supplies — $5,000 worth of paper, pens and pencils, chalk, markers, crayons, educational posters, teacher materials, soccer balls, basketballs, a portable DVD player and six Nooks downloaded with 700 books.

The Memphis students didn’t have to ask who it all was for or why. They already knew it was for Albert and Edward, Synodia and Evernice, Prince and Lordlight, Precious and Bright and all of the students they know in Zimbabwe.

Last week, Schuster got a large package in the mail. It was from Mrs. Sengayi and the students at Saruwe.

Inside were photographs, crossword puzzles, a handwritten list of words in Shona (Zimbabwe’s primary native language), handmade small boxes and sun hats, and a copy of the constitution and bylaws of the Zimbabwe teachers’ association.

There also were 120 sweet, friendly and joyful letters. The Memphis students read them aloud to each other in class. The Saruwe students wrote about their schools, their families and their new friends in Memphis.

“It’s amazing to think that some kid halfway around the world cares about me,” said eighth-grader Sam Elder.

“They make you count your blessings because they feel so blessed,” said eighth-grader Emma Efkeman.

Gretchen Kirk, director of religious education at St. Agnes-St. Dominic, says such insights are becoming common.

“This has helped our children see that contentment comes from having joy and family in your life, a value that we in this country take for granted,” Kirk said. “They are beginning to see that people do not need things for happiness.”

Schuster is beginning to see things differently herself.

“I used to see the hand of God in retrospect, from a distance,” she said. “Now I see it all around. It has changed my thinking. It has changed my writing. It has changed my mind about what really matters.”

Schuster the educator hopes to begin a student and teacher exchange program with Saruwe School. Schuster the novelist hopes to go back to Zimbabwe and spend more time with Mrs. Sengayi and her students.

“I have a nagging desire to tell their stories,” she said. “Not just a desire, a responsibility.”