Emily Rhyner is home for the holidays.
The 23-year-old Kenai Central High School graduate got a break from her work in Cape Verde, Africa, where she serves as a Peace Corps volunteer, and is spending Christmas with her family.
While the vacation is a special holiday treat for both Rhyner and her family, it also provided a rare opportunity for a group of students at Mountain View Elementary School.
Rhyner, who attended Mountain View herself, has spent the last year and a half corresponding with the children who pass through John and Bernie Wensley's fourth-grade classes, teaching them about a different culture and the mission of the Peace Corps.
Last week, those students finally got a chance to meet their long-distance pen pal.
Rhyner, who graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2002, spends most of her time working with youth in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, a small, island nation off the west coast of Africa.
A neighbor boy carries a cooler on his head past kenai resident Emily Rhyner's host family's home in Sao Domingos, Cape Verde. Rhyner lived with a host family for the first several weeks of her two-year stint in Cape Verde.
Photo courtesy of Emily Rhyner
Her original assignment was to work on special education, but now she works on what she calls "catch-all" projects involving education. She has helped put on summer camps for children, provided environmental education and is working on an AIDS awareness project with high school students.
Another of her responsibilities as a Peace Corps volunteer, however, is to educate American youth about the government-run volunteer organization. That's why she hooked up with her neighbors, the Wensleys, to establish a pen pal program with Kenai students.
By exchanging letters with the Wensleys' classes, Rhyner has taught two years worth of fourth-graders about life in Africa, the culture of Cape Verde and the Peace Corps. Her letters have opened doors to social studies lessons, as well as reading and writing projects for the local youth.
Last week, those lessons became a little more tangible. Rhyner, joined by her younger sisters, Tessa and Laura, brought artifacts, pictures and stories from Cape Verde to the students in the Wensleys' classes.
She showed them toy cars made from scrap metal by Cape Verdean children, passed out escudos (the equivalent of pennies) and let children sample the African country's national dish, a sort of gumbo made of corn, beans, sweet potatoes and fish.
More importantly, though, Rhyner was able to show the students the face of a Peace Corps volunteer and answer their questions firsthand.
And the kids had plenty of questions.
Mostly, they wanted to know what life is like in Cape Verde for children their own age. Rhyner explained that 9- and 10-year-old children in Cape Verde go to elementary school, much like children here.
However, she said, Cape Verdean children often walk many miles to school and spend only half days there. They also are responsible for taking care of their families' livestock (goats and cows are popular; horses are rare) and helping with physical labor, like hand-washing clothes. Children have fewer toys, but enjoy spending time outside with their friends and making the toy cars Rhyner brought to display. They also watch television, if their families have sets, and see American movies at one of the two theaters in town.
But while there are some similarities, life in Cape Verde and America has its differences, too.
The people of Cape Verde speak Crioulo -- a mixture of Native African languages with Portuguese (the official language of the country) -- which Rhyner has learned while living abroad.
Few people drive cars, instead using vans and minibuses as public transportation.
Life moves more slowly, with less "busyness" and emphasis on time, and the 80-percent Catholic population has a strong sense of family.
The land itself is different as well. The 10 islands of Cape Verde are all unique. Some are mountainous, while others are large beaches. All are hot, with an average temperature of about 86 degrees, Rhyner said.
Despite the sea surrounding the islands of the country, water is scarce, and life and food depend on the erratic rainy season. Droughts are prevalent.
As an American, Rhyner garners a unique reaction from Cape Verde residents.
She told the children that many citizens there learn all they know about America from movies and believe all Americans are rich. She also said, though they know America is a large country, many Cape Verdeans believe all Ameri-cans must know each other, as citizens in their country do.
Because of the perception that Americans are rich, Rhyner said she has to be careful in the capital city. Though violent crime is rare, being an American makes her a target for robbers.
Still, she said, Cape Verde is a relatively safe country for Americans. The country is considered by the U.S. government as one of the most stable democracies in Africa.
"There has never been a war in the history of Cape Verde," Rhyner said.
The repeated droughts in the country, however, have led many Cape Verdeans to emigrate to other countries, and many have moved to the United States. In fact, the 412,000 Cape Verdeans living on the islands are outnumbered by the more than 500,000 in the United States.
Life in Cape Verde isn't always easy, Rhyner said. She said she has suffered a range of illnesses while living in the country, and life for Cape Verdeans often poses a number of challenges.
"There are basic things (Ameri-cans) don't have to worry about," she said, citing the drought, insects and poverty in the Cape Verde.
Still, she said, while she is glad to be home for the short break, she still is looking forward to her remaining seven months in Cape Verde.
"I feel they really have their priorities in line, it's really nice," she said, referring to the strong family base in the country.
The students in the Wensleys classes also are looking forward to continuing to learn about Cape Verde from Rhyner's letters.
"We like you writing to us," fourth-grader Austin Malston wrote in a Christmas card he made for Rhyner. "It was fun listening to them."
Fun, and educational, the students said.
At the end of Rhyner's visit, John Wensley asked the students who would be interested in volunteering with the Peace Corps when they get older. Almost all the students raised their hands.
The reason is simple, according to one student's handmade card: "Emily makes the world a better place."
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