One former Mount Sinai educator is proving what a world of difference we can make if we share the wealth.
For the past four years, Virginia Armstrong, an English teacher for 28 years, has helped the district in partnering with the Maasai Good Salvage Outreach Organization to raise donations for communities in Kenya. After retiring with a love of teaching and for students, Armstrong first climbed 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania before deciding to teach in Africa. That’s when she met Chief Joseph Ole Tipanko, the leader of more than 5,000 Maasai tribal members who reside in Kenya and Tanzania. The organization builds schools for needy and vulnerable children, especially girls forced into early child marriage or who become victims to female genital cutting.
Armstrong invited Chief Joseph to Mount Sinai Middle School to give a presentation, and students and staff presented him with donations.
“We share our lifestyle and culture of the Maasai people,” Chief Joseph said of the assembly. “We got a good welcome and reception, and receiving their help is a very good feeling. It’s teamwork. They’re all able to bring us together and help my community.”
Small donations of clothing eventually grew to include sneakers and 40 laptops in 2015. Armstrong’s son Matthew, now carrying on the family’s teaching tradition at Mount Sinai, helped set up the clothing drive as part of Athletes Helping Athletes, and director of information technology Ken Jockers proposed the repurposing of the laptops.
“We were impressed with their presentation and viewed them as a worthy candidate for donation,” Jockers said. “We are happy to see that the Maasai can make some use of them.”
This year, the school handed over a batch of 140 eight-year-old netbooks that were deemed obsolete by the district.
“It opens up the world to them,” Virginia Armstrong said. “They come into the world with no electricity or internet and for them to have access now is a fabulous thing.”
Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal takes great satisfaction in the partnership between the schools.
“Knowing they’re going to schools to educate young children and young women — to raise them up — means a lot,” he said of the computers. “They’re such kind, gentle people and extremely grateful, but I don’t know if this would be possible without Virginia Armstrong. She still has all this energy and excitement. It’s amazing what she does with this group and she makes the Mount Sinai community proud. It’s hard to think she’s even retired because she’s totally dedicated to these people.”
The high schools for the Maasai people in Kenya were recently wired for electricity, according to Armstrong, who is also the organization’s New York representative, booking Maasai members to come to schools, libraries and churches, where they speak about their culture and sell handmade jewelry and other African-made merchandise. Chief Joseph said the schools have also been trying to make use of green power, so some of the schools are installing solar panels to generate electricity to charge the laptops.
Chief Joseph said the clothing and sneakers have meant a lot to his people, especially because most of the women don’t have shoes, but also said the computer donations have opened their eyes to how other people live, and they’ve also become a major teaching opportunity.
“It is new technology to us,” he said. “It enables teachers to access information, to do research. It helps them to keep records and it gives the students an opportunity to learn to use technology. They’re also learning how to type.”
Chief Joseph said personal donations given to his organization go toward feeding the children, or providing school lunches.
“It goes a long way changing their lifestyle,” he said.
The well wishes and support though, especially from the Mount Sinai school district, are unparalleled.
“It allows us to exist,” he said. “We look to continue this relationship for the betterment of our communities and share what’s happening on the other side of the world. It helps our students connect, and it shows people out there are thinking about them, love them and care.”
To find out more about Chief Joseph’s Maasai tribe, visit www.magsaoutreach.org. To find out more about the Maasai’s ties to Suffolk County or to donate, visit www.leavingfootprints.org.