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Very different women share the same dream

It was December 2005. I drove to the restaurant feeling both excitement and anxiety. I didn't want to let her down. Yvonne Maponga was waiting for my arrival, waiting to discover how we might help her and others.

I parked the car and dropped the visor mirror to do a quick once-over. My reflection said it all: a middle-class, white teacher from Sweet Home Middle School. Would I be accepted? Would I have answers? Would I be a disappointment?

Yvonne, born in Zimbabwe, is an accountant. Her husband spends countless hours researching cures for diseases that take the lives of millions of Africans each year. I was born in Pennsylvania and went to school to become a teacher and eventually the adviser of the Global Ambassadors Club at Sweet Home.

Somehow, as fate would have it, Yvonne's daughter Leona came to the very first club meeting. She, along with 20 other energetic students, described her visions for what a club like ours should do. Afterward, she said, "I think you should meet my Mom."

That thought was now a reality as I sat across the table from Yvonne and we embarked upon what would become a joyous journey.

Yvonne told me about her recent trip to Zimbabwe, in which she had visited her childhood school. She shared pictures of Ezekiel Guti, of the dark and barren classrooms that barely accommodate the school's 750 students and 19 teachers. Students in grades one through seven, crowded onto benches, sharing small tables, one pencil between three and one textbook between many. The smallest students stood outside under a large tree that served as their classroom. With no building for them, class is canceled when it rains.

Yvonne returned to the United States with a dream to help the school that had given her so much. As I listened to her talk about this school without electricity, plumbing or running water, without fencing to keep children safe from animals, I knew we had been perfectly placed in one another's lives.

I told her of my recent trip to the Yale Global Educators Conference, where I learned how to inspire students to become global citizens and to appreciate diversity and other cultures. I returned from the conference determined to broaden the minds of students and started the Global Ambassadors Club.

As students shared their visions during that first club meeting, they planted the seeds for a dream of partnering with a school somewhere in the world. We could learn from each other, and create opportunities to unite our cultures and share our hopes.

As I spoke, Yvonne looked at me and smiled. I smiled back as I realized that two different women from two different worlds were sitting in that restaurant sharing the exact same dream.

Ideas flew, excitement grew and plans took hold. In December, our club sponsored a school supplies drive. In January, we sponsored the "We CAN change the world" bottle and can campaign. We are currently sponsoring a "Hope Candle" sale to raise money for electricity.

Recently we celebrated how far we've come. It was a night filled with African drumming, dancing and storytelling, UB coach Reggie Witherspoon talking about growing up in Amherst and hip-hop dancing performed by students and the AG-1 Dance Coalition.

Yvonne and I stood together, proudly. We looked at each other and shared our universal language -- smiles of joy. We reveled in our first "Celebration of Unity & Hope" -- and it truly was!

Debbie Carlson-Stephans is a foreign language teacher at Sweet Home Middle School in Amherst.

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