Do you know where Cape Verde is?
Most people probably can't answer this question, but the fourth-graders in John and Bernie Wensley's classes at Mountain View Elementary have no trouble with the query.
The cluster of islands off the coast of Senegal in western Africa is a key part of the students' curriculum -- and the new home of their pen pal, Emily Rhyner.
Emily, a former Mountain View student herself, is a 1998 graduate of Kenai Central High School and recently received a government degree from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. She is spending the next two years in Cape Verde working with special education with the Peace Corps.
"She likes to travel," said Emily's mother, Mary Rhyner. "She's a good people person and likes to help people."
Throughout her adolescence, Emily volunteered with autistic children, taught Sunday school, worked at a summer camp for adults with special needs and spent time at a hospice in Anchorage.
Emily Rhyner, right, poses with her host family in Cape Verde, off the western coast of Africa.
Photo courtesy of the Rhyner family
Continuing to serve after college was a natural choice.
"Notre Dame is big on community service," said Bernie. "About 10 percent of graduates go into service, from Habitat for Humanity to Vista to the Peace Corps."
But even dedicating two years of her life to volunteering in an African country wasn't enough for Emily -- she also wanted to do something for youth in Alaska.
That's why she hooked up with the Wensleys. John and Bernie, both longtime teachers in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, live down the street from the Rhyner family and have known Emily and her two sisters for years.
When Emily proposed communicating with the teachers' classes from Cape Verde, the couple jumped at the chance.
"It's an opportunity for the students to see a successful graduate from the Kenai school system helping other people and to learn about the cultural things," Bernie said.
People in Cape Verde, off the western coast of Arrica, enjoy the island beaches. Emily Rhyner, a KCHS graduate, is living in Cape Verde as a Peace Corps volungeer and sharing her experience with fourth-graders at Mountain View Elementary via leters.
Photo courtesy of the Rhyner family
Emily writes the classes letters about her experiences with the Peace Corps and about life in Cape Verde. In turn, the students write back -- providing her a taste of home and letters to share with the African children she's working with.
The exchange also offers the Kenai fourth-graders a cross-curricular project. Writing letters provides English letters. Learning about Senegal offers cultural studies. Teaching students abroad about Alaska makes the children learn more about their state.
And following Emily's Peace Corps adventures teaches the students the value of community service.
"Emily has a youthful enthusiasm,"John said. "We're hoping the kids will pick up on that and say, 'Look how much fun she's having doing kind things and being an altruistic person.'"
Emily already has written two letters to the classes. In the first, she introduced herself, her Kenai family -- her dad, Tom, a substitute teacher, her mom, Mary, a postal worker, and sisters Tessa and Laura -- and her Cape Verde family -- mom, Isabelle, sisters Karini and Denisi, brother Geson and niece Jelisa.
She also introduced the islands of Cape Verde -- where fish is a staple but served with the heads attached, roads are made of cobblestone or dirt, mountains surround the town, but without any snow, and the official language is Portuguese, but people speak Kriolu.
In her second letter, Emily told the students about her Peace Corps project -- working with special education. In Cape Verde, children with trouble learning, hearing or seeing don't get extra help, she wrote.
Her job, she wrote, is to "help schools and families make life easier for these kids."
Last week, students in the classes finished drafting letters back to Emily. Using her first letter as an example, they practiced introducing themselves, then plied her with questions about life in Cape Verde.
As students wrote about their families, pets and hobbies, they asked Emily about pets, sports, books and interests in Cape Verde.
"I'm 9," wrote Renetta Hensler. "I know girls don't like to tell how old they are, but how old are you?"
"I wonder if I'll ever go to Cape Verde," wrote Isaac Cryer.
A few students went even further.
"In the U.S., we have freedom. Do you?" wrote Courtney Parker. "Today we were talking about the World Trace Center. It's sad. Do you think about that?"
"I think it's really neat that you joined the Peace Corps," wrote Lincoln Wensley, a student and the Wensleys' son. "It's really nice to help people in need."
"You can see them wondering, 'If I was in her shoes, what would I find challenging?'" Bernie said.
The students will continue exchanging letters with Emily throughout the year, and possibly into their fifth-grade year.
"I haven't heard of Cape Verde, so it will be fun to learn about it," said Michael Wallace.
"With every letter we send, we get to see what's going on," added Rebecca Satathite.
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