To visit Roseville High School was a first for me. Of the worthiness of the cause bringing us, there was no doubting. In the wake of two civil wars and the devastating Ebola crisis, Africa’s Liberia had been reduced to a virtual mausoleum of maimed and starving orphans. A priest had told of a region where all residents were reduced to one spoonful of soup per day. Shortly before 9 a.m. our own bellies, mine and Dar’s, were fortified with a good breakfast and doing what bellies were supposed to do. (It was a badge of privilege that never ceased to puzzle me.)
Thankfully it hadn’t rained after all. Having found our way to the reception area we were welcomed by Anna Marie Clark, coming from her office as vice principal, and driven in a go-cart out to my dauntless friend David Dionisi, swiftly working to set everything in readiness. There too was Gabriel, his son, being busily competent. We had met KC Wachs, the kind of classroom teacher you dream of, and a few other of Anna Marie’s worthy colleagues. Now we were told by David what seats we were to take. For Dar and I were to be the event’s VIPs. Yes… because it was I who had had an idea.
The real hero, however, was this man Dionisi. After well over a decade working through the organization he had founded, Teach Peace, in the interest of the orphanage he’d created in Liberia, and after putting his life on the line at the peak of the Ebola crisis, sponsors had come forward permitting him a new start. His freshest endeavor dedicated to Africa’s thousands of unfortunate children was his newly formed inspiration, Children of Compassion. Streaming with a website offering dozens of on-site videos superlatively designed to appeal to donors, this new thing pivoted around a cunning notion: that with technology’s help and the right encouragement, American school children could be enlisted to raise money for innocent victims the other side of the world, even as they raised it for their own school.
It was at 9:30 that all heaven broke loose, our tranquility out there on the athletic field’s immensity shattered by the bell ending class, and dozens of high-spirited adolescents, somehow brought to come forth like animals tamed, shambled eagerly [note oxymoron] along the running track. Soon nearly 80 youngsters had come to a halt, and to the voices of teacher KC, Anna Marie and David, were listening. Yes, actually quiet, actually listening. For such was the rare power of these three speakers, but particularly Dionisi. And this sorcerer David had an additional magic at his command: technology. In the hours to come, thanks to his expert prep, a laptop as well as a huge screen was constantly before us, connecting Roseville by Skype with a village in the environs of Monrovia, Liberia. Skype was showing the event in progress, late in the afternoon in Africa, upon which Roseville High’s had been modeled: the Great Water Carrying.
Even as water was pivotal for the event, it was symbolic as well—for it was the failure to have access to drinkable water that was causing thousands of Liberia’s orphans to die. David gave careful information on a device that was being implemented: another angel’s whisper of technology, a formula that chlorinated the H20 that killed till it was lifegiving.
Only conceive the tremendous preparations (in classrooms and in conference rooms) that had to go on, led by David and Anna Marie, before November 3 could happen. For the desired response, one’s reaching out must be directed with the greatest delicacy. But just such delicacy was that that had been brought to bear by two sensitive devotees. Now this day was their reward.
On command, in an orderly fashion, the volunteers now took up previously filled buckets of water and cheerfully walked with their small sloshing burdens the four laps around the track comprising a mile. A prize for the group (one out of four) that came through with least water spilt was in the offing. But there was no real contest, and all might have been anticlimactic were it not for the fact that something historic was taking place. Water carrying was a necessity but a “sport” as well, one devised by impoverished Africans for whom organized sports were largely inaccessible. Now their improvised experience was being shared, simultaneously and visibly, by caring Americans of their own approximate age. And the best was still to come.
Dar and I were led in from the athletic field and seated in a spacious room. Spacious as it was, it was crammed literally wall-to-wall by the entire number of participating volunteers and teachers who had preceded us. Already in charge at the front, David stood before a large screen on which the Liberian contingency were being Skyped into our presence. California, embodied by an articulate youngster front and center, was engaged in an exchange with Liberia, as represented by a lad by the name of Benjamin. This Benjamin was something of a protégé of David’s, one who had first come under David’s care as an orphan some fifteen years previous, but had thriven until he had gone on to take a degree at the University of Liberia. Now he was “on board,” Dionisi’s “man in Liberia,” efficiently managing, even while quietly assimilated into the milling throng of animated dark faces.
Many of the faces on the screen were familiar to the Rosevillians , as in the week or so leading up to this Friday in fall, these students of Roseville High, given the opportunity, had volunteered to raise amounts of money each of them individually signed on for, and had been introduced by Skype to many who were to benefit. Now, with technology efficiently wielded, David brought these students in California and in ones in Africa into contact, close and personal contact. The Californians had confronted, in living motion, brave, smiling faces topping bodies many of which were mutilated, or with limbs missing. With his genius for organization, David had arranged it so that monies collected sped immediately to Liberia. Imagine what Roseville’s youngsters must have felt to see the first $200 they’d raised go to work: a child who had had to drag himself along the ground raised up into a newly purchased wheelchair!
These African boys and girls did not appear bereft, but to the contrary, merry, spontaneously erupting into sudden song, abrupt fragments of dance. They were benefiting from food supplies that had recently been supplied them, and now, facing their benefactors on the other side of the planet, their broken English proved a sally of merriment and curiosity tempered by warm gratitude.
Most striking among those in our own chamber was the relative orderliness. Was it, because this was transpiring as part of an actual school day that “school room aura” kept them subdued? Partly, no doubt. And particularly as this was given force by the amazing KC, a sort of perfect schoolmarm exercising magical control to her very fingertips. But above all, along with speechless awe at the miracle they were seeing, it was David. To say that David Dionisi is one endowed with a rare gift of speech is inadequate. Speech tumbles forth from his lips with as natural a fluency as water cascading over a weir, his words never self-involved, always functional, meaty with significance. When David speaks his auditors hang on his every syllable.
For the most part, however, David now only watched and listened as impromptu persiflage passed back and forth between those on view and their viewers. What I was seeing suddenly hit me with all the clout of an electric current. Hands stretched across the world—a platitude—had become a virtual reality. It was as if these Africans thousands of miles away were in the room with us, grinning and exchanging gibes. As questions passed back and forth, cultural exchange was in this moment, however fragmentary, emotionally achieved. My own emotion was beginning to come untethered; I was fighting back tears. These youngsters sitting all around me were not, after all, merely a passive audience; through their joint resolution under the structuring of David and his superbly crafted website, they had already sent their African companions nearly $4000. Simple math revealed what instant philanthropy had occurred, once it was realized a single dollar could save a life. What had been enacted was a pilot program to be pondered for possible extension school-wide, with eyes already directed to a high school nearby. The pilot had safely landed.
The eleventh hour approached, the hour that would send Roseville’s students to routine duties elsewhere, and it was KC who, as the on-screen images blurred to blankness, stood and pronounced commentary for the benefit of her charges. Her remarks were brief but powerful. I was deeply impressed with how deftly, how without slightest trace of preachiness, she got across a hope that Anna Marie had previously articulated for me… Yes, when thousands of innocents were dying a horrific death, wherever David’s ingenuity should manage to push his clever scheme to promote funds to relieve them, this was of utmost importance. But what had happened at Roseville High had its own importance. Perhaps by little more than whim, a bunch of chancy young scholars had been led to participate in an adventure of the spirit in every sense extraordinary. Invited as guests to a feast—the feast of their higher selves—of their own volition they had accepted the invitation. Was it not possible that, at least with a goodly number of them, something might have been planted, a “higher pleasure” that would steer their outlooks and their pathways favorably through their lives? Such, at least, was KC’s eloquently understated closure, that this was the consummation devoutly to be wished.
One thing hasn’t been explained, as perhaps you’ve noticed. Why were Dar and I given VIP treatment?
One day earlier in the fall my friend David had called me. He had been putting the finishing touches on his remarkable website for Children of Compassion, a website being for David something like a large granite boulder attacked by Michelangelo—and he was brimful of excitement. So how, I asked, did he feel the whole new project was going? To my surprise there was a hesitant pause on the line.
Then it came out. His efforts to activate his plan to rescue Africa’s starving had met with resistance in Sacramento schools. What forces have blocked him are still a mystery, though the fact he has his political enemies are nothing new.
“So what will you do?”
“Don’t quite know. Still trying to figure that out.”
Almost within the first instant, as I was still absorbing the shock of his answer, a light went on in my head. I had suddenly thought of Anna Marie.
Anna Marie had once been a student in my lit class at American River College. What had survived my retirement was a book group I ran. After nearly four decades, uninterrupted, it still meets, and Anna Marie is still loyal to it, reliably bringing her brilliant contributions to our small cluster of friends. Anna Marie, after her many years of award-winning teaching at Roseville High, had been promoted to vice-principal. So I asked David, what if—?.
Much as I hate clichés, this one is irresistible: the rest was history.
A dear friend, one Laurel Nelson, bestowed a cognomen on me that pleased: I was the lynchpin. Bringing Anna Marie Clark together with David Dionisi was an idea as fruitful as bringing chlorine into interaction with H20. Even so did Dar and I get our day in Roseville as VIPs.
But one more joy was mine. This one, beyond the thought of Children of Compassion rescuing untold numbers of innocent young lives from starvation and adversity, beyond the gift that Roseville High’s students may well have given themselves—was the secret joy of the team I had created, joining the vice-principal of Roseville High School with the founder of Children of Compassion. Both were my friends, so obviously it was about love. But love comes in different packages. Ask yourself how many of your friends command admiration to the point of awe. How many of them would you describe with that epithet of ultimate commendation, the highly evolved?
By cosmic good luck, I got to be the lynchpin that effected their alliance.
Dr. Tom King, November 3, 2017