Our 'Junk' Aids African Orphans

But this is the 21st century and the modern teenager -- thanks to Google Maps, Wikipedia, and Skype -- is very much a citizen of the world, as comfortable following English Football or breaking news in Sri Lanka as he or she is with events taking place just down the street. They span the world with just the click of a few keys and so the idea of doing a project 12,000 miles away is no more intimidating than doing one in the next town.

So Tad e-mailed Moses and asked what he could do to help. Tellingly, Tad just assumed that Moses would have e-mail -- and was surprised that it took several weeks to get a reply. Moses, it seemed, had to travel four hours down a rough dirt road to get to an Internet café in Lusaka to check his mail. Tad hadn't considered that the developing world might not be as wired as Sunnyvale, Calif.

In the course of their exchanges, Tad informed Zulu that we would be in Africa the following summer and asked if we might stop by. Moses happily agreed and in July 2006 Tad found himself exhausted from a three-hour drive down that same rutted road, depressed by the miserable poverty that had surrounded. Eventually, the road turned into the immaculate grounds of Children's Town -- with Moses, wearing his perpetual grin, waiting to meet us.

Children's Town was an oasis in a landscape of poverty and squalor, but that was only the result of pride and care, not money. The immaculate classrooms with their carefully aligned desks and swept floors, typically lacked glass in the windows and had only a single bare light bulb for illumination. But the teachers were inspiring and committed, the students healthy and happy, and Moses was accomplishing miracles against impossible odds.

Tad spent four hours walking around the school with Zulu, clipboard in hand, taking notes on everything the school needed (which was, essentially, everything). He came home at the end of that summer inspired and ready to create his own miracle.

If you know anything about Eagle projects, you won't be surprised to learn that in the course of this project Tad grew in confidence, in his ability to communicate with adults and navigate bureaucracies, and in his organizational skills.

But you may be surprised to learn three other lessons from Tad's project:

First, there is the power of the Web, not just as an information gathering tool, but as a persona. Tad was not only able to locate container resellers, shipping companies, corporate donors, etc., but he could communicate with them, via carefully crafted e-mails, that made him appear far more experienced and confident than he ever could as a teenager making a phone call to a middle-aged corporate executive.

Second is the incredible productivity of the U.S. economy. Tad's shipping container is entirely filled, end to end, top to bottom, with what can best be described as the stuff the average American leaves on the curb for the annual pick-up day.

There are nine pianos (donated by the local school district because it has stopped putting one in each classroom), two dozen generation-old (and thus obsolete) iMacs, several hundred used school uniforms, 5,000 textbooks (some never used before the state once again changed its standards), dozens of chairs and desks (from a company that was moving to new offices five miles away and didn't want to ship used equipment), 20,000 sheets of toilet paper (because the schools changed their dispensers).

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