@ the ThinkQuest 1999 Awards Weekend
by Janine (on the whole experience of working together)
At the start of 1999, my elder brother and I entered ThinkQuest, a competition in which international student teams design, build and maintain an educational website. It was during this time that I got to know Sizwe from the South African Ningizimu School for the Severely Mentally Handicapped. It was to be an exciting adventure which would mould and change my life.
I first learnt about the Ningizimu School through its art teacher, Robin Opperman. He felt that art could help his students forget their problems as well as express themselves. He also strongly believed that his students, despite their multiple handicaps, should not be excluded from 'normal' activities such as ThinkQuest.. After being rejected by many teams around the world, Mr Opperman finally contacted my brother and I, hoping that his students could work with us. We were deeply touched by his warm e-mail message and welcomed them with open arms. Sizwe, a mentally challenged but artistically talented 16-year-old boy, eventually became the third member on our team. This was the first time a Special Needs student participated in ThinkQuest, and will hopefully pave the way for many more to come.
Throughout our months of work, we faced many challenges. Considering that this was an Internet project, Sizwe was highly disadvantaged because he had never seen a computer, and obviously could not type or browse the Internet. Furthermore, Sizwe spoke mainly Zulu and little English. Mr Opperman faithfully acted as our bridge, translating, e-mailing, scanning and getting all the nitty-gritty details completed. Sizwe, a bright and motivated student, produced amazing artwork for the site. With initiative, determination and courage, we finally completed "20th: The Passing of a Century", an interactive history site on the 20th Century.
In time, I discovered that Sizwe has lost his mother and lives in a poor township with his grandmother, who struggles to provide for him. His story is not uncommon among the 200-odd other Ningizimu students. In fact, the Special Needs school itself constantly grapples with insufficient funding. We could definitely help. In November, I made an appeal to my school for donations. Collectively, we managed to contribute over S$900 as well some clothes and art supplies to the Ningizimu School. All of us are deeply grateful for everyone's support and generosity.
Amazingly, our story made it to the newspapers and radio in Singapore, South Africa and the USA, as well as the Singaporean Embassy in South Africa. We were also encouraged by numerous e-mails from educators and well-wishes across the globe. Even now, our history website is being used by thousands worldwide.
Late 1999, our site made
it to the selective ThinkQuest finals in Los Angeles, where the three of us
met for the first time, courtesy of ThinkQuest. (Part of the money collected
at school helped pay for visas necessary for Sizwe and Mr Opperman to travel
to the States.) It was an extraordinary experience. Sizwe was a bright and well-mannered
boy with an intense desire to learn. We could see his English and computer skills
literally improve by the day while he tinkered at the computers and chatted
with us during the 4-day Awards Weekend. Eventually we received a Silver award,
each of our schools receiving US$1000. The Ningizimu School is using that money
to buy the first computer for their students. Hopefully, many more Ningizimu
students will soon be benefitting from the Internet. After that enriching weekend,
we parted with great reluctance. Nevertheless, we know that our friendship will
remain strong…over the Internet.
>>> Jason talks about Friendship @ ThinkQuest
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