Changing the world – one pencil at a time

“Every one of us can make a difference,” says Robin Mednick, as she talks about her upcoming trip to Africa. She is making this journey across the world because her grassroots not-for-profit organization – Pencils for Kids – is about to inaugurate a new school in Niger, Africa.

“I mean, look at us. We had nothing. No organization, no money – we only knew that we wanted to find a way to help.”

Pencils for Kids started with a mission to ship school supplies to a community in need – a community where, amazingly, 30 children in a classroom had to share a single pencil. Two years later, the small organization had not only shipped thousands of pencils, school bags and other supplies, but had laid the foundation for a brand new school.

So how did they do it?

“It started with a simple phone call,” says Robin, recalling a conversation with a friend, Dan Galbraith, a photographer who had attended the 2005 Games of La Francophonie in Niger. “Dan was telling me about his trip – and how he couldn’t get the images of the children of Niger out of his mind. I listened to him for awhile and then said, ‘Dan, let’s stop talking about this. Let’s just do something.'”

“What?” he asked.

“I have no idea,” she told him. “I’ll call you back.”

Later that day, Robin – who is an executive producer in Toronto for the Good Life Show on Sirius Satellite Radio – found herself dialing up the Canadian Embassy in Niger. Through the embassy she was connected to the Mayor of a small, rural commune called Libore. In this community of about 25,000, she was connected to one of the few people who spoke English – the Mayor’s son, Mamoud.

Robin told him about her friend’s trip to the region, and how they wanted to find a way to help the children. “Just send me your community’s wish list,” she told him.

After that Robin and Mamoud struck up a correspondence, which is how Robin learned of the local schools that had no pencils, no supplies and no books. Here, she thought, was something tangible and useful she could work towards: provide children in this community with the basic tools of learning.

So Robin, along with the help of a few friends and donations by companies such as Office Depot, BIC, DHL Express, Pivot Design and Adlure Media started shipping pencils and other school supplies to Libore.

“We thought if we could send one pencil, one ruler to a child, it would be a symbol of hope – it would show them we cared,” Robin says. “Every child deserves to dream and to learn. Every child deserves to have a future.” (Watch a media interview with Robin.)

Two years later, Pencils for Kids, had shipped over 2,000 lbs of pencils, school bags and supplies and provided thousands of children with more than just the tools for learning.

From schoolbags to an entire school
The Pencils for Kids primary school, which opened in the fall of 2007, is located in a village of Libore called Oulmantama. It is the village’s very first school.

In fact, Libore has only 24 schools and only one of them a secondary school, reflecting a harsh reality of life: most children don’t stay in school beyond the 6th grade. Typically, they are pulled out to help support the family or in the case of girls, to be married off.

Libore, which is located just outside Niger’s capital city of Niamey, has twenty-one villages, 16 of which have no electricity. Villagers perform tasks the old-fashioned way: they use oil-lamps to light their huts. They make pottery by crushing river stones into sand and then mixing it with water.

“I felt like we had gone back to the time of the Bible,” Robin reflects. “It was as if the world had gone racing ahead into the 21st century and left Niger behind.”

The Pencil for Kids school, which was funded by the Canadian Embassy, was the result of an introductory meeting initiated by Pencils for Kids with Libore government officials, local NGOs and embassy personnel and followed by a successful proposal by the local parties and months of work. The opening was executed with considerable local fanfare including celebratory dancing, food and speeches as well as national news coverage.

After receiving 31 boxes of donated school supplies, the commune’s Mayor presented plaques offering Honourary Citizenship to Pencils for Kids and its supporters and sponsors.

“This school is a true partnership,” Robin says. “All we did was open some doors – make introductions, bring people together. Within weeks of our first meeting, the necessary proposals were presented and approved. And three months later, the school was up!”

While it seems unlikely that it would take a mere 18 weeks for a school to evolve from an idea to an on-the-ground reality, this is in thanks to the professionalism and determination of all parties involved, Robin says.

The design for the 3-room school is simple and function-oriented. But it is a place where children can learn – and dream. It is a start.

Light up a village
“Soon people across the world will be lighting up their Christmas trees,” Robin says. “And in the coming months, Pencil for Kids wants to light up the villages of Libore.”

The cost for providing electricity to each village is about $10,000 CAD, she says. For people interested in contributing to the organization’s fund-raising efforts, a community or corporation can ‘adopt’ their own village or simply contribute to Pencils for Kids general campaign.

In addition to raising funds for “lighting up” Libore’s villages, Pencils for Kids will continue to provide the community with school supplies and other essential tools for learning, Robin says.

In a time when it’s all too easy to become jaded by news reports of aid programs compromised by corruption of officials on the ground or the large overheads associated with some relief organizations, Pencils for Kids can see the immediate results of their efforts.

The organization operates through the efforts of a group of dedicated volunteers, including Molly Killingbeck, 3-time Canadian Olympian and silver medalist – which means that 100 per cent of funds raised go directly to the cause.

“And I completely trust my team on the ground,” Robin says. “We have full accountability for every dollar spent.”

Pencils for Kids is committed to the continued development of Libore in the hope that the commune will eventually become self-sustaining.

“Education cannot happen in a vacuum,” Robin says. “Other programs that stimulate the economy — such as social lending programs like women and microcredit – help to ensure that children can stay in school and not be pulled out after the primary level.”

The gift from Niger
On one of her visits, Robin was approached by a woman who handed her a tiny scrap of paper with her name on it. Beneath her name, she had written, simply, ‘friend’.

“She wanted to be sure I knew I had a friend in her, in Niger,” Robin says. “I will always keep that note.”

It does seem to be a gift that gives both ways. “The people I’ve met in Niger have enriched my life,” Robin says. “As much as they [the people of Libore] say thank you to us, I say thank you to them. They are good, friendly, warm people… they want the same things as we do: they want their children to be educated, healthy, to have a future. We are all the same.”

If you’re interested in becoming involved or learning more about Pencils for Kids, visit the website at Or to watch a video, click here.