The pre-K through eighth grade school in upstate New York teamed up with Sabre Technical Services, LLC to build a playground that generates electricity from the students’ kinetic energy and develop a coinciding curriculum. Play for Power will come to fruition next July when a similar playground is built at the sister school, the Sinai School in Tanzania.
Karen Cavanagh Mason and her husband John run Sabre, a company that specializes in destroying and controlling biological contamination in industries across the nation. Mason decided to apply the company’s mission in a philanthropic way by creating Play for Power—with her children at the school, Woodland Hill was the perfect place to start.
“The company deals with decontamination of water, and water is life,” says Mason, Sabre’s chief operating officer. “The concept of the program is to build a model playground here and then pair it with a sister school anywhere in the world and build one there. In many poor countries, children spend hours that would otherwise be classroom time constantly going back and forth to the well miles away. With a playground that creates enough energy to power a water tower and pump, kids can spend their time learning.”
Last summer, Mason and her husband flew to Tanzania to find a school that would fit in with their program. They teamed with Livingstone Tanzania Trust, which had built a model sustainable school with running water, crops, and livestock. After visiting the Sinai School and witnessing their startlingly different lifestyle without water, they decided it was the perfect match for their program.
“We found that small children, particularly girls, were trekking over a mile to get water,” Mason says. “Their classrooms had termite mounds in the middle of them and they had no learning materials or lights. Their bathrooms were open pit latrines with no privacy. So many girls drop out when they hit puberty; it boggled our minds that with a simple nurse’s station or some kind of sink, this could be avoided.”
Mason returned to Tanzania in November with four teachers, three engineers, and scientists to assess the Sinai School’s specific needs. She compiled footage from the trips and presented it at a school-wide assembly. The video jumpstarted students’ curiosity and brought the project home.
“The first question I got was, ‘Why are they so happy?’ They saw the kids smiling and laughing and realized that they were exactly the same,” says Mason.
Almost immediately, students started to work on small projects. The playground is the pinnacle of the program, but the projects that stem from it will really benefit their friends at Sinai. In Tanzania,48 kindergarteners meet in a supply closet and must pay $1 a month to attend, so kindergarteners at Woodland Hill created a Fund-a-Friend program in which each student will bring in a dollar a month to send to Sinai.
While the entire school is involved in the curriculum, it is the newly created Water Club that really got the ball rolling; about 15 students met with Mason after school to raise money for Play for Power. The end result was an Earth Day benefit and auction at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady that raised about $13,000. “I have never seen people give money and be so happy about it,” says Mason.
A video of students from the Sinai School and Woodland Hill in the same poses was shown and the Water Club performed a play they wrote about the staggering numbers of water-related issues in Tanzania. Tori Gernert-Dott, 10, still remembers her lines.
“In 2006 the United Nations estimated more than 1 billion people—one sixth of the population—lacked even a gallon of safe drinking water a day…2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation,” Tori Gernert-Dott rattles off.
Club members Jonathon Hillengas, Lucas Phayre-Gonzalez, and Elyssa Blakeman-McClain, all 13, believe the play’s ending is what makes Play for Power so special.
“One in eight people die of a water-related illness every eight seconds. When there are none left, who will speak for Sinai School?” they recite together. “We speak for Sinai, for our playground, our own and for theirs. I play for power, I play for water, I play for peace.”
While the playground and program won’t be completed until next July, five students, five parents, and four teachers traveled to Sinai School this July to build a kitchen, plant gardens, and patch up classrooms. Perhaps the biggest struggle will be to find a way to teach 616 students how to play baseball, something they asked to learn.
But students at the Sinai School aren’t the only ones learning. Students at Woodland Hill are quick to emphasize they’re not only doing this to help—they’re doing it to learn.
“We consume so much stuff and want more and more, but we don’t see what’s right in front of our faces,” says Phayre-Gonzalez. “These kids don’t have what we have and we’re going to learn why they’re so happy. Maria Montessori thought a child could be a citizen of the world but only if they really listened to another country and learned their culture. That’s what we’re doing.”
Other students are excited to carry out Montessori’s vision and encourage others their age to make a difference.
“We’re the first kids to really do this and we’re showing the world that every person can make a difference,” says Haylie Gernert-Dott, 13. “People think one person can’t but other people will say ‘Wow, kids can make a difference.’”
When the project is completed, Mason hopes to pass the baton and make Play for Power a national program that any school can adopt. Lower elementary school teacher Sandy Blakeman is overwhelmed by the experience and hopes other schools can help spread it.
“I’ll try to speak without crying, but this trip was probably the highlight of my life,” says Blakeman. “It was a fantastic experience and I learned so much there. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people and I’m very excited for these students to have this exchange program and learn from them. It’s a Montessori dream, it really is.”