Saddle River school extends helping hand to Cuba

Before relations reopened between the United States and Cuba, the students of the Saddle River School District were already extending a helping hand and making connections.

Saddle River resident John Lasalandra joined the People to People non-profit organization last year as part of its ambassador program traveling to Cuba on a good will tour.

As a Saddle River school board member, he hoped the children in the Saddle River School District would like to help others, especially children their own age who may not have the same supplies and resources they do.

What he got was more than a few volunteers and supplies.

“They made true connections, student to student,” Lasalandra said.

Wandell Superintendent William Ronzitti said when he learned that the non-profit was seeking supplies to bring to a school in Cuba, he thought Wandell could do better than send a few pencils and backpacks.

“I thought, ‘What a great opportunity for the Wandell students to connect with kids in Cuba,’ so I suggested our fifth-graders pen pal with the children in Cuba,” Ronzitti said.

Pretty soon, students, staff, teachers and community groups were collecting education supplies, as well as recreation equipment, such as basketballs and baseballs. The children were also writing getting-to-know-you letters.

Just before packing everything up, Ronzitti suggested making it even more personal and creating a better connection – offering brand new T-shirts and caps left over from a previous Wandell Field Day to give to the children in Cuba.

Though Wandell is small compared to other school districts, Lasalandra said they have as big of a heart as any and brought several boxes for the children in Cuba through a desire to have a positive impact and make a genuine connection to students in another country.

When the school board member returned, the Wandell fifth-graders could hardly wait to hear what the students in Cuba were like – they learned that the children in Cuba were “tickled with excitement” to receive their letters, even finding the differences funny. In return, they sent letters back to Saddle River.

One of the differences Lasalandra shared with the children is that the streets in Cuba are very clean for an interesting reason.

“That’s because they don’t have anything to throw away. Everything gets reused,” Lasalandra said.

The school board member brought in a typical soda can and said in Cuba they sell it – they remake it into something else, like a little car or toy camera.

Ronzitti said it was a “unique” opportunity to integrate information about Cuba in the social studies classes using this newly-developed relationship. In addition, it bridged the two languages – Spanish and English – as the letters written back to the Wandell students were written in Spanish and then translated into English.

“You could see in their expressions when they were reading the letters from Cuba that they were connecting to one another,” Lasalandra said.

Ronzitti agreed and said it was “a real pen pal moment. It was history in the making – child to child, reaching across nations.”

He added, “We were already establishing the Wandell footprint at a time when it was rare.”

Lasalandra said last year he wasn’t sure how easy it would be to do this type of project. Now that the relationship between the two countries has changed, the school is interested in continuing this connection.

“We at Wandell are very proud to be able to help – it’s really caring in action,” he said.

They hope is to do that through the Wandell Cares program, which was started last year. It’s a program that occurs once a month and engages students in learning about communities outside their own, Lasalandra said.

“It’s to teach children community values about life outside Saddle River,” he said.

The superintendent said this exchange with Cuba is one example of children making a difference just by being themselves.

“That’s the way we change the world: When kids make connections with one another it helps everyone,” he said. “It starts with a question and a conversation.”

By Karen Kleimann,

October 27, 2015

Email: [email protected]

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