From the first day of the semester, students in Mary Sytsma’s ’76 writing classes hear her mantra:
Write to change yourself.
It’s a mantra, they soon learn, that she lives.
In five compositions, Sytsma’s students at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill., must write about the AIDS pandemic. “It’s the holocaust of their generation,” she said. “I tell them, ‘No matter what field you’re in, you are going to have to deal with this.’”
In their fifth paper, Sytsma asks her students to answer the questions, “Why should I care about HIV/AIDS?” and “What can I do about it?”
When she first gave the assignment five years ago, Sytsma said, “I had to answer those questions myself to be an authentic teacher.”
Five miles from her house, she discovered a housing development for families coping with AIDS. Besides getting her students involved in service learning there, Sytsma herself became its volunteer chaplain, leading prayer meetings and recovery groups.
Then one Sunday morning in her church, she said, “God brought me someone who would push me further.”
Beatrice Kadangs, a Nigerian in the United States for graduate studies, told Sytsma about a center she had established in her home village of Kwoi. There 60 children orphaned by AIDS and usually HIV positive themselves, are given three meals day, HIV medications, school fees and uniforms, Bible stories and comfort. Widows, too, come for food, help with earning a livelihood, counseling and comfort. The board of Nigerian women who run it have named it The Gwaimen Center, meaning, in their Hausa dialect, a center of peace, tranquility and hospitality.
Soon Kadangs and Sytsma were friends, and Sytsma was serving on the center’s American board. Then, Sytsma said, “I realized I wasn’t a good board member if I hadn’t seen the place myself.”
In January 2007 she traveled to The Gwaimen Center to spend the month helping in whatever way she could. “It doesn’t seem like a big deal to us,” Sytsma said, “but showing up says, ‘There are people in America who know about you and want to help.’”
People all over America now know about the women and children of Kwoi thanks to a picture Sytsma took on that trip.
She brought her camera hoping to deepen the connection between kids worlds apart. Sixth-graders at Timothy Christian School in Elmhurst had collected money, soccer balls and books for kids at The Gwaimen Center and had written them letters. Sytsma asked the Nigerian kids to write back and took pictures of them to include with their letters to Timothy Christian students.
Back home Sytsma noticed in a Costco magazine that the warehouse store was sponsoring a photo contest. From among 22,000 photos entered, hers won first prize in the U.S. division. When it published Sytsma’s photo, Costco also included a story about how she used the $1,500 gift-card prize to buy basic medicines, school supplies and books for The Gwaimen Center.
Sytsma now spends every January at The Gwaimen Center. The other 11 months she talks about it to school, church and community groups—and, of course, to her writing students.
“It’s energized my teaching, and it’s energized my students,” Sytsma said. “They write passionately about AIDS. That changes them, and they will change the world. Isn’t that what teaching’s all about?”Note cards of Mary Sytsma’s winning photo (and other photos) are available from the Campus Store.
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