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Published: Wednesday, 11/12/2008

Students link up to African country with help of Peace Corps volunteer

BY MARK REITER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Lozah Alomari, 8, and her brother, Mohamed Alomari, originally from Yemen, ask questions through a video link with Matthew Heller, a Monroe man who is a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. Their teacher, Angela Sneider, watches the exchange. Lozah Alomari, 8, and her brother, Mohamed Alomari, originally from Yemen, ask questions through a video link with Matthew Heller, a Monroe man who is a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. Their teacher, Angela Sneider, watches the exchange.
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MONROE - Fifth graders at Hollywood Elementary have drawn closer to Morocco without leaving their classroom.

For more than a year, students in Angela Sneider's class have been linked to Morocco through a special relationship with Matthew Heller, who is working there as a Peace Corps volunteer.

The 9 and 10-year old students can tell you that Africa is a continent that stretches across the southern hemisphere and that Morocco is an Arabic speaking-country in north Africa.


Matthew Heller's family, above, from left, grandmother Opal Wagner; his mother, Dana Heller; his baby nephew, Jaxon Brenton, 9 months, and sister Jessica Brenton communicate with Mr. Heller in Morocco through an Internet Web camera. Matthew Heller's family, above, from left, grandmother Opal Wagner; his mother, Dana Heller; his baby nephew, Jaxon Brenton, 9 months, and sister Jessica Brenton communicate with Mr. Heller in Morocco through an Internet Web camera.
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Last week, the class and the school got to see and talk to the 2002 St. Mary Catholic Central High School graduate as he celebrated a Muslim holy day at the home of friends in the north African nation through a video conference on the Internet.


Mr. Heller's image is projected on a screen in the gym of Hollywood Elementary. Mr. Heller's image is projected on a screen in the gym of Hollywood Elementary.
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Since Mr. Heller arrived in Morocco in September, 2007, he has been trading letters and e-mails with students taught by Ms. Sneider.


Seventeen of the 24 students in Ms. Sneider's class began the communication with Mr. Heller last year when she taught the fourth grade.

During an assembly before the surprise video hookup, students in the class gave a presentation to all elementary students, informing them about the culture, foods, and geography of the Muslim country.

Hollywood Elementary principal Ryan Starr said the correspondence with Mr. Heller opened the eyes of students to other cultures.

"This has been a real nice experience for them," he said.

Mr. Heller, 24, fielded a variety of questions from the children. One student asked about the schools in the country.

Mr. Heller told him that children attend school six days a week for about four hours each day.

Questions in Arabic were asked by Lozah Alomari, 8, and her brother, Mohamed Alomari, 7, who are originally from Yemen.

However, the children and Mr. Heller's friend had problems in understanding each other because they spoke different dialects of Arabic.

Mr. Heller, who studied Arabic and Spanish in college, told students he was slow to grasp the language but he has become fluent.

Mr. Heller grew up in Raisinville Township with his family. His mother, Dana Heller, is a teacher's aide in Ms. Sneider's classroom.

Mr. Heller, who graduated in 2006 from the University of Pittsburgh, will remain with the Peace Corps in Morocco for one more year.

Mrs. Heller said her son had always aspired to a career that would allow him to help people.

"He thought the Peace Corps would be the best way to do that," she said.



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