Students help Senegal children

Andrew Stephenson teaches English to children in Saint-Louis, Senegal, during his trip there in the summer of 2011.

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Five civil engineering students at WSU are designing a kindergarten for underprivileged children in Saint-Louis, Senegal, as part of their senior project.

Andrew Stephenson, the group’s leader, began researching the project in April 2016. He said he wanted to focus on a real project for his senior design course, Integrated Civil Engineering Design, rather than pick from stock projects.

“I just don’t see the point of designing something that’ll never be built just for education’s sake,” Stephenson said. “I like it to have a purpose.”

Stephenson recruited his classmates Deontae Elder, Abdon Godinez, Trevor Mitchem and Brett Johnson to work on the project.

“This is a way to learn and get my colleagues to learn in ways that they don’t normally learn,” Stephenson said. “We need students that are creative, proactive and take initiative.”

Elder said due to the project’s distant location, the group has had to rely on assumptions when designing, allowing them to apply their skills to the real world.

“It’s so far away, so we don’t have anything really,” Elder said. “It’s more hands-on than other projects.”

Elder said this project is a way for him to give back to those in need.

“The reason I wanted to be a civil engineer was to help others,” Elder said. “I think helping a third world country will have a way bigger impact than doing something in the United States.”

Stephenson fell in love with the people of Saint-Louis when he taught English there in 2011 through a British volunteer organization called Projects Abroad.

“I’ve never seen people so excited to learn,” Stephenson said.

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After his experience there, Stephenson wanted to continue giving back. He got in touch with Senegal-native Fina Senghor, one of Projects Abroad’s deputy directors as well as the founder of the Association for the Protection of Early Childhood (ASPE), to see what he could do.

Senghor originally grew up in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, but moved to Saint-Louis to attend Gaston Berger University. In 2011, Senghor and a few of her friends opened a kindergarten in Saint-Louis to help care for underprivileged children.

“Poverty is a big problem here in Senegal,” Senghor said. “You can see people all the time, in your neighborhood or in your family, facing difficulties and having hard living conditions.”

Because of high birth rates in Senegal, many families cannot afford to take care of all their children, especially boys, Senghor said. As a result, many families send their children away, leaving them to beg or steal in the cities.

For the families that don’t send their children away, overcrowding in Senegal’s public schools is another issue facing them, Senghor said.

“We have too many kids in the same class, and the teacher cannot be efficient enough to teach everybody,” Senghor said. “Some people don’t have enough money to put kids in a good school, so that’s why they prefer keeping their kids at home.”

However, because both parents in poverty-stricken households tend to work outside the home, there is no one to make sure children aren’t getting into accidents or being abused by others, Senghor said.

“There’s lots of bad things happening to kids and that’s why we opened that kindergarten,” Senghor said. “We taught kids, even babies and up to six years old, to prevent them from being abused by people.”

The kindergarten, which operated in a leased building, was only open for two years due to lack of funding, Senghor said. Thus, when Stephenson asked her how he could get involved, Senghor recommended he focus on building a kindergarten on a 300-square-meter property purchased by ASPE in 2010.

Stephenson said he and his group are designing the kindergarten to be self-sustainable, as well as free and open to the community.

“If you build a better foundation for children who otherwise don’t have support from their parents, they’re going to succeed,” Stephenson said. “This school does exactly that.”

Stephenson said he and his team intend to equip the kindergarten with solar panels, a rainwater storage tank and energy-efficient windows in order to use the least amount of electricity and water possible. This will keep costs down, Stephenson said.

The students will present their designs to WSU’s Civil Engineering Advisory Board panel on April 25 which will determine 10 percent of their grade in the course.

Once their designs are complete, Stephenson said they should be able to secure more funding for the building phase of their project. Stephenson hopes to start building by next spring.

Stephenson booked a trip to Saint-Louis during WSU’s spring break in order to gather soil samples for the group to analyze. These samples will determine the appropriate foundation for the building.

To donate to Stephenson’s travel and research expenses, visit his GoFundMe page.