When Shari Densel returned from a five-week seminar in South Africa and the Kingdom of Lesotho, she couldn't shake the images of the orphan children.
"I worked with those children. It was heartbreaking. I couldn't get them off my mind," she said.
Mrs. Densel, visual arts teacher at Anthony Wayne Junior High School, knew she wanted to help the children. And, she knew, too, that her students would feel the same way when they learned about the plight of the youngsters, including some who struggle daily to survive.
In recent weeks, her students, as well as teachers, parents, grandparents, local college students, and a visiting artist from Tanzania, have come together to create a colorful connection between the Anthony Wayne community and the Lesotho community.
Armed with brushes and a strong desire to help, volunteers are painting scenes from here and there on a community mural, stretching the length of a wall in the school's cafeteria.
Layered with meaning and speaking its message to a wide audience, the mural was designed after input from AW students and Arabang Maruping, director and founder of Bana Pele Youth & Community Resource Center and Leratong Center in Lesotho.
A large display case in the junior high school features details about Mrs. Densel's 2008 Fulbright-Hayes group seminar in Lesotho. Ceramic animals - a cheetah, giraffe, elephant, pigmy hedgehog, and a spotted toad, among others - made by her students are nestled near a large map of Africa and photographs from Lesotho.
In colorful clothing, children wave hello. Shepherd boys gaze from one of the photos, and in another, 68 seventh-grade students and their one teacher crowd into their classroom. Mrs. Densel said education in Lesotho is free for students in grades 1 to 7, but in many schools, children must wear uniforms. Orphaned children in particular cannot afford the required attire. Children must purchase their own books and school supplies, another obstacle that keeps many kids out of the classroom.
The outreach center in Roma, Lesotho, assists more than 400 children, many whose parents died of AIDS.
Lesotho has one of the highest incidents of AIDS of anywhere on the planet, a primary reason for the increasing number of orphans. The size of Maryland, Lesotho is a landlocked kingdom completely surrounded by South Africa.
Basically, every part of what it takes to survive is left up to the children, Mrs. Densel said, explaining the mural's inspiration.
Orphans inherit their parents' homes, but must make their own money, grow their own food, and find their own clothing.
During her five weeks in South Africa and Lesotho, Mrs. Densel worked with some orphan families where the oldest members were between the ages of 9 and 13, and they were caring for siblings as young as 2.
One day at the center, Mrs. Densel noticed a sign encouraging visitors to ask for supplies if they wanted to help the children with art projects. She asked. And she was handed a box of chunky crayons. No scissors or glue, no construction paper or paint.
As word spread in the Toledo area about the woeful lack of art supplies at the center, donations came in, and then they went out, shipped to the children in Lesotho.
"We hope we can make a difference," Mrs. Densel said.
The foundation of the community mural, which has as its centerpiece the Tree of Life, is a pile of painted stones. Names of area families who "purchase" the stones for $20 each will be added to the mural.
"The idea here is that it takes families to support a community," Mrs. Densel said.
Above the stones are images familiar to Anthony Wayne area residents, including an old school in Neapolis; the Monclova Community Center; a white farmhouse, red barn, and red pick up truck; the Toledo skyline, and an old bridge near Waterville.
Inspirational words - understanding, community, support, values, believe, educate, hope, self-empowerment, intellectual growth, life skills, self-respect - will be painted onto the Tree of Life's leaves, Mrs. Densel said.
Katie Stombaugh, 12, who has painted the background on the Lesotho village scene, likes the idea of the mural. "It is a cool way to connect the two communities," she said.
It's sad, she said, that children there have so little "while we have it so good here."
She and other junior high students made artist trading cards to share with the children in the Lesotho village. Some cards were sent in March; others will be shipped out in May. Art supplies were sent, too, so the children there can make some of the trading cards, but Mrs. Densel said it likely would cost too much for their cards to be sent to the Anthony Wayne school.
Seventh-grade student Lauren Durnwald, 13, has added color to the stones. "Selling" the stones is a good way, she said, to raise money for the orphaned children. "It shows with the family names who wants to help benefit the children in Lesotho," she said.
Photographs of the mural project will be on display during the 39th annual Anthony Wayne District Art Show from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday in the Dick Albaugh Sports Complex at the high school. The art show's theme this year is "Connecting Communities."
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