Gabriel Boldang has not seen his family in over 20 years.
Boldang doesn’t know if his parents and siblings are alive or not. He was separated from them during the civil warfare in his native Sudan. Boldang spoke of his journey from Sudanese “lost boy” to American citizen in a presentation to students in Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES’ new alternative high school program, taught out of the Career Training Center off Morgan Road in Liverpool, last Friday. After his speech, the students launched 500 red balloons heavenward, one to commemorate each life lost in the Sudan every day. The balloon launch was held to raise awareness of the continuing genocide in the African country’s Darfur region and was organized by the alternative high school’s student council.
“It’s important for us to study events in the world, not just books,” said Pam Hogan, social studies teacher and student council adviser. “We need to bring the reality of it to the students.”
The reality of the humanitarian disaster in Darfur certainly seems real to the students at BOCES now. The students completed a unit on the genocide and the preceding civil war in order to prepare for Boldang’s appearance and the balloon launch. They expect to continue to aid Boldang’s efforts to build schools in Africa.
“Before we studied it, not many [of the students] knew about the genocide,” Hogan said. “But now they’re really passionate about making people aware of it and bringing it to an end. They want to change the world.”
Once they learned of the genocide, the students decided to take action to raise awareness of it and hopefully spark a drive for aid to the country. The student council, led by President Cameron Mistietta, came up with the balloon launch, which provided a moving and tangible reminder of the havoc wrought by civil war in the Sudan. The biodegradable balloons were provided by Balloons Over Syracuse.
The students found the event and their studies prior to it to be very powerful.
“We do activities like this so that we can understand what’s going on in the world,” said student Stephanie Lewis. “It really makes you appreciate what you have.”
Mistietta agreed. “Everybody should be aware of the genocide,” he said.
In addition to the launch, the student council raised $125 to give to Boldang to help build a schools in Africa.
Boldang was moved by the display. “You are making a difference,” he told the students. “You are sending a message that we can’t turn our backs.”
Boldang, who is now an American citizen, will return to Africa in May to search for his family and to begin building schools. He is currently working with an attorney to get his nonprofit organization 501c3 status.
Building stronger citizens
This isn’t the first community service project in which the students at the alternative high school have been involved. They kicked off the year, the program’s first, by painting the house of a neighbor of Principal Colleen Zawadski.
“She had, I think, two daughters who died of breast cancer,” Lewis said.
“We worked in groups of three,” Mistietta said. “We finished in two days.”
Every Friday, the students either have an event day like the balloon launch or take a field trip, usually to area businesses.
“We get a feel for what people can do in business,” Mistietta said.
“It’s a very hands-on school,” Lewis said.
The alternative high school program, which includes students from Liverpool, Baldwinsville, and Cicero-North Syracuse high schools, provides a different environment for kids who struggled in those schools.
“These are at-risk kids, and a regular school setting just wasn’t working for them,” Hogan said. She noted that students struggled with poor grades, low attendance and behavior problems. “This is a different setting.”
Each class at the alternative school has only 14 kids per class, allowing teachers to give students one-on-one attention and promoting much more involvement from the students.
“It’s wonderful for a teacher,” Hogan said. “You can do so much and give the kids so much personal attention. You’re really able to develop relationships, whereas in the larger schools, teachers don’t always have time to get to know every kid. The smaller setting is really beneficial.”
In addition to the smaller class sizes, students in the BOCES program are exposed to different kinds of learning. Textbooks are rarely used; instead, teachers rely on more hands-on or visual activities to engage learners of all types.
“Kids want to do and see and feel,” Hogan said, “not just study.”
That doesn’t mean it’s an easy program. All students are still expected to follow the state’s curriculum and get a Regents diploma.
“It’s very rigorous,” Hogan said. “We just go about it differently.”
That different way of teaching is certainly paying off. Hogan said students who struggled with poor grades are now on the honor roll, and kids who never showed up for class have perfect attendance.
“They care about school now,” she said. “This is what our kids need.”
Schools as a road to salvation
That passion for education is something Boldang certainly understands. That’s why he’s raising money to build schools in Africa.
“Schools never existed in my village,” he said. “But education has had such an enormous influence on my life. It’s given me so many more options.”
Boldang said that he hopes a proliferation of schools will help to end the fighting in his country and spark development. “Peace cannot come without development,” he said. “We need to act now When you’re educated you have to think things through before going to war.”
Boldang was thoroughly impressed with the passion and the drive he saw in the students in the BOCES program. “I’ve never seen spirit like this in students,” he said. “I’m very moved. They are making a difference.”
Hogan summed up both Boldang’s mission and the goal of the alternative high school: “We believe we can change the world through education.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.