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Middle schoolers work to help save third world babies

Date: 5/23/2012

May 23, 2012

By Debbie Gardner

WESTFIELD — The 250 seventh grade students from North Middle School can say they've done something out of the ordinary this school year.

They've raised money to help families they'll never meet in countries they've only come to know through the pages of social studies books.

These young men and women — all students of Patricia Mahoney's health class — have taken up the cause of infant mortality, pledging to raise money to provide low-cost, portable incubators for premature and low birth weight infants born to poor mothers in third world countries.

They've set a lofty goal — to raise $20,000 by the end of the school year — to help purchase and distribute these small, self-contained, non-electric warming units produced by a non-profit organization called Project Embrace.

Mahoney said the students set the goal in an attempt to best the efforts of seventh grade students from two years ago, who needed two years to raise $20,000 for a non-profit program called the Nothing but Nets Foundation that distributes mosquito nets in malaria-plagued countries.

Originally developed by a graduate student at Stanford University's School of Business in Stanford, Calif., the Embrace portable incubators, which cost $250 apiece and look like a small sleeping bag, use specially designed wax pads that can be warmed in a variety of ways — in an separate electric unit powered by house current or a generator, or in boiling water — and inserted into the back of the papoose-like bag to keep the infant's body temperature stable for up to six hours.

Mahoney said she learned about Project Embrace while watching an ABC News program co-hosted by Diane Sawyer called "Be the Change" late in 2010. She showed a videotape of the Embrace segment of the program to her first semester seventh graders this fall.

She said those students, along with those in her second semester class, were stunned by the infant mortality statistics in the poor countries where Project Embrace distributes its product.

"Four hundred and fifty babies die every hour [in third world countries]," Rebecca Stephens, a second semester student in Mahoney's class, said. "And 3,942,000 premature babies die every year."

Meghan Murphy, also a member of Mahoney's second semester health class, said the statistics really hit home for her.

"I was a preemie; without an incubator I probably wouldn't be here," Murphy said. "But some kids die every day because they don't have incubators in third world countries."

Mahoney said her students eagerly embraced the infant warmer project and began brainstorming ideas to raise money, with every student charged with coming up with a way to raise awareness for the health class's chosen charity and contribute to the fund-raising goal. Those projects so far have ranged from walking around a student's neighborhood collecting donations to hosting bake sales, operating nail and face-painting booths at the school's Arts & Crafts Fair to creating products and selling them. Items created by the students have ranged from golf ball "clackers" — two balls connected by a string that can be hit together to make a clacking sound — which students sold during lunch break, to bookmarks and necklaces.

This semester, Shayna Buchanan and Sarah Circe made and sold bracelets, bows and flip-flops out of duct tape, Lauren Hawley conducted a basket raffle at a German school attended by a friend, entrepreneurial jewelry maker Johnna Farnham has been donating a portion of her profits to Embrace and Katherine Kalill, a member of the Dan Kane Singers, organized and performed in a benefit concert for the cause.

In addition to the student's fund-raising efforts, the classes received multiple donations from other sources, including $200 from student Jaydon Wood, donations from two fifth grade students in the Southampton Road Elementary School following a presentation on Embrace, money from teachers, and a $4,075 check from the business where the father of one student is employed.

Mahoney said the first semester students raised $5,000 toward the $20,000 goal, with the second semester class reaching the $11,000 mark before Kalill's concert.

She said the purpose behind the project was more than just teaching the students how to plan a goal, strategize to reach it, organize resources and work through problems. It was about making them more aware of their world around them through the health issues that exist outside of their own country.

"I believe it is imperative to get the younger students learning about volunteerism, altruism, co-operation versus competition, compassion, kindness, empathy, tolerance and responsibility as they proceed into [becoming] our next local and global leaders," Mahoney said. "Many people discount this age group as a powerful voice and focus [instead] on the negative things especially the bullying issues.

"This age group is a challenge," Mahoney continued, "But once you have their interest, their input [and] their voice, it is easy to galvanize them to become pro-active participants [in a cause]."

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