Across the ocean on the Ivory Coast, amidst political turmoil and social upheaval, is an orphanage where children are thinking about a distant world: the world of Oak Park. Specifically, they are thinking about a group of inspired students from Horace Mann School.

And here in Oak Park, a group of young, dexterous entrepreneurs have kept this same group of children in mind when making important decisions in regards to marketing, promotion, and other determinations that all businesspeople must make.

But the goal for the fledgling impresarios from Horace Mann School is not profit: it is fundraising. This garrulous and glib group, comprised of eleven savvy students, has a loftier goal in mind: to bridge the digital divide.

Cristen Vincent, the enrichment instructor at Mann School, is leading this group of adolescent activists on a service learning project designed to grow the students in far-reaching ways – beyond the curriculum’s set standards for traditional classroom learning. And the students have flourished indeed.

As I sit down to chat with these verdant industrialists, I am struck again and again by their keen observations, their highly developed problem-solving skills, and their benevolence.

Global Virtual Classroom is an educational program uniting children from different schools in the United States and abroad in an effort to nurture an interest in international affairs. GVC’s vision is to empower, enable and connect students around the world using Internet technology while developing essential skills like cross-cultural communication, collaboration through teamwork, information technology and website design. 

As a part of GVC, the students’ first task at hand is to decide what world issue they will tackle. If this sounds like an overwhelming task, you needn’t worry: these students have it under control. This group of socially aware students has varied interests that are all taken into account, and together they vote on one issue in which to invest their time and energy, with the ultimate goal of raising funds for the chosen cause.

The students’ interests include everything from endangered Puffins to extraterrestrials –and all are considered objectively. A list in the classroom reveals diverse and worthy causes such as cancer-research, veterans’ hospitals, child abuse, and global warming. One resourceful student thought of collecting pennies in an effort to raise funds to address hunger and gave it a clever name: Copper Stoppers.

Eventually the students settled on the gap between those with access to technology and those with limited or no access to technology or “the digital divide”.

The littlest of research unveils the disparity that exists between the lives of the students here and those living at the chosen orphanage in the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire. Micaela Goldstein shares, “They’re people just like us, only they can’t afford access to technology like we do.”

Grace Ciacciarelli adds that limited access to computers and the internet means limited access to information and knowledge. At the orphanage in the Ivory Coast, there are ten computers that work and thirty that don’t. And since electricity isn’t constant, a new surge protector would moderate electrical power.

So the students at Mann devised a plan: they would make and sell lanyards at school events and at participating local retailers to raise the funds necessary to purchase and ship a USB stabilizer to the orphanage in Africa.

The product was a great idea: colorful, durable, and functional, the students estimated it would practically sell itself. Grace Pederson explains enthusiastically, “The lanyards have multiples uses. They can be used as bookmarks, bracelets, and can be attached to backpacks.”

But unforeseen challenges cropped up and these resilient entrepreneurs regrouped, refocused, devised a new strategic plan, and forged ahead.

The first learning experience came when students realized early on that selling at school events yielded positive net sales in the beginning, but sales trailed off when the same client base (their fellow peers) showed up to each event. With keen insight, Adam Kuiken notes, “If we spread out, more people were going to buy [our product].”

And so they decided to approach Michelle Vanderlaan of the children’s retail and trading shop, Sugarcup Trading in Oak Park. Anna Kenig-Ziesler offers, “Sugarcup was a good store to sell the lanyards at because it’s a shop that’s all about helping kids of the world.”

Michelle’s initial response was “No.” Not without a presentation, that is. The students quickly learned their second lesson: as young professionals they were expected to construct a formal plan that included prices, delivery dates, and product information; and they were up to the task.

After drawing upon their collective organizing skills they presented their detailed business plan to Michelle. This time they got the answer they were hoping to hear, “Yes.”

And finally, the third most important lesson: educating consumers and sharing their passion. The lanyards weren’t moving as fast as they’d hoped. What to do?

Megan Shinker shares, “[Customers] were more interested in what we were doing when we were there at the store selling the lanyards.” So the students now volunteer to work at the store. They can be found at the shop, happy to inform the customer base about the great divide and how one small purchase can make a big difference in the lives of less fortunate children.

These tenacious students don’t shirk the additional responsibility. Micaela offers, “It’s just plain fun.” Matthew Quilling summarizes the learning experience thoughtfully, “What you learn through this project is pretty neat, and helping people makes [us] feel good.”

The students of Mann School will be selling their lanyards through March 31st at Sugarcup Trading. To support their cause, stop by at 110 N. Marion Street or call 708.524.5336 to place an order.  

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