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Books for Kigutu

Agroup of retired Rogue Valley teachers is raising money to purchase textbooks and school supplies for a primary school in an African village thousands of miles away.

Katherine Leppek, who retired from teaching elementary school in Eagle Point in June, is hoping to raise $5,000 along with her friends to send to the Kigutu Primary School, a 270-student facility in Burundi, an East African nation that borders Rwanda.

"There is no literature there, no books for children to enjoy," said Leppek, who lives in Medford but taught mostly in Eagle Point for more than 20 years. "The need is so great."

Leppek said the school has no electricity, water or windows, and classes usually have 40 to 60 students and one teacher.

One book is usually used by the teacher, and few materials exist to teach the students, who are in first through sixth grades.

So far, no students from Kigutu have passed the exams needed to move on to secondary school.

"It's known as one of the poorest countries in the world," said Leppek, who learned about Burundi after reading an account of Deogratias Niyizonkiza, who escaped a massacre and traveled to the United States, where he eventually earned a degree from Columbia University.

Written by Tracy Kidder, "Strength in What Remains" tells Niyizonkiza's story, from leaving the country to living off the kindness of strangers in New York City, and ultimately traveling back to Burundi to open a public health clinic.

Leppek said that when she was researching the medical organization Niyizonkiza started, Village Health Works, she learned what the education was like in the region.

"I was really naïve," said Leppek. "It was my first exposure to the poverty and the neediness in this country."

Inspired by Niyizonkiza's efforts to improve health care in the country, Leppek raised $500 in donations over the last year and sent pencils, books and a few maps of Africa to the school.

"If you can imagine to be 8 years old and you've never seen a map of your country, or your continent," said Leppek. "I can't imagine."

Leppek said she received photos of the schoolchildren cheering with pencils in hand and using the maps she and others in her group, Books for Kigutu, were able to send.

"They were ecstatic," said Leppek. "It was like giving them the world."

Books for Kigutu is utilizing Niyizonkiza's Village Health Works to transport the school supplies they are able to purchase, because shipping costs to Africa are extremely high.

"They just need so much," said Marsha McHugh, a retired Eagle Point teacher helping Leppek raise money. "Katherine introduced me to the book, and as retired teachers, our hearts just really went out to the village."

McHugh said unlike some other poor areas in Africa, this village is relatively unknown by the outside world.

"The village is not supported by other organizations or churches," said McHugh. "They have fallen through the cracks."

Leppek hopes to one day meet Niyizonkiza and travel to Kigutu to see the school herself. But for now, she realized, the money she would spend to travel there would be put to better use buying more school supplies.

Books for Kigutu will hold a benefit yard sale today in hopes of raising $500 for the school. The group also has a benefactor pledging to match whatever they raise, Leppek said.

While books and school supplies are at the top of the list now, Leppek said, depending upon how much they raise, the group may want to pursue upgrades to the school, which has one latrine for all 270 students.

Leppek said that raising a few hundred dollars to donate school supplies is a small gesture that can be a big help, something that follows Niyizonkiza's philosophy, "where there's help, there's hope."

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.

A benefit yard sale will be held today in Medford to raise money for books for a school in the East African village of Kigutu. Photo courtesy of Katherine Leppek - Courtesy of Katherine Leppek