High-tech is connecting world’s cultures

When Newport High School senior, Matt Eschbach first stepped off the plane in Jamaica, he walked out of his comfort zone and into a life-changing experience.

When Newport High School senior, Matt Eschbach first stepped off the plane in Jamaica, he walked out of his comfort zone and into a life-changing experience.

Eschbach was one team of students who took part in the Tyee Middle School Jamaica Service Project, led by Bellevue teacher James Burke.

The Jamaican Service Project was contrived by Burke, a former Peace Corps volunteer in the West African nation of Mali.

As an advanced computer-skills teacher at Tyee Middle School, Burke wanted to continue his volunteer work and integrate computers and technology to foster relationships with other cultures.

His vision of creating interconnectedness will soon expand into cross-cultural-classroom communication between students in different countries.

“The project started as a way for me to continue educating the people in America about my Peace Corps experiences and to continue my services to the planet,” explained Burke who was joined by Bill Kinney, his business partner and fellow Peace Corps volunteer. “I tried to take that idea and intergrate it into my classrooms and my curriculum at Tyee.”

His students quickly got on board with his vision and journeyed down to Jamaica for the first time in June 2007. During the trip, the students installed brand-new desktop computers and hardware to create a ten seat mini computer lab in the Sheffield All Ages School in Negril.

The project’s initial funding came from local organizations including the Rotary Club of Bellevue Sunrise, who donated $5,000 for the project and continues to raise ongoing support. As a non-profit organization focused on local hands-on projects and international initiatives, the Rotary Club of Bellevue Sunrise hopes this project will lead to strengthened community relationships with Rotary clubs in Jamaica.

With funding in place, Bellevue students returned to Negril this past summer.

Burke and two other teachers traveled with 12 students down to Jamaica, including Eschbach who took on the role of student leader and cultural liasion. During the 2008 Jamaica Service Project, the team collected laptop computers and brought them down to the Sheffield All Ages School, setting up a 15-mobile computer lab for the teachers.

Prior to their arrival, the school had no computers and little knowledge of how to use them. Burke and his students spent 12 days training the Jamaican teachers on computer basics.

“It’s great because there’s this cultural learning exchange that goes on,” Eschbach said. “It’s about building bridges, knowing that you can be there for each other, and creating friendships across boarders.”

Walking around Negril, Eschbach experienced many cultural differences. He noticed graffiti and tagging similar to back home, but in place of gang signs, the words “Be Happy” were sprayed on the side of buildings and fences.

“Jamaica is just this kind place. It was a pleasant surprise to be in a place where people are telling you to cheer up, enjoy yourself and life is for living. It was a shock,” he added with a smile.

He also learned that music is universal. Encouraged by Burke, Eschbach brought down his guitar as a small side project.

Bringing the guitar down was a really good way to break the ice because music is so encompassing, it really brings people together, Eschbach said.

Burke plans to continue maintaining the Sheffield computer lab, bringing students down to Jamaica each year.

“One thing I learned in the Peace Corps was instead of spreading yourself thin, it’s better to do one thing really well and stick to it,” he said. “With our project, we are centering on one school and focusing on sustainability. Then our plan is to move to another area and create another model.”

The majority space of the Sheffield school is outdoors. A single enclosed room with a roof currently serves as the site for the new computer lab. The school will eventually become a community technical center in the evenings that will grant the community access to the lab. The Jamaican Government has agreed to rebuild the school on the condition that a new high-tech computer lab be installed and maintained by the Tyee Middle School team.

The next step will be to connect the school to the Web.

“It’s becoming easier to communicate and stay connected through the Web and tools like Instant Messanger,” explained Eschbach, who hopes to one day become MySpace friends with the Jamaican students. “The main goal is to create sustainability where we teach them how to use the computers and they can then teach others in the community and keep it going.”

This coming spring, Burke hopes Bellevue will become host to a teacher from Jamaica, inviting her to immerse in the educational system and experience classroom learning.

We are trying to create a model of intercultural relationships and intercultural teaching, Burke explained. We are trying to get the government to install internet in all of the schools around Jamaica and connect those with schools around the United States. The approach that we’re taking is baby steps, in hopes of eviduatlly taking giant strides, he added.

For Eschbach and the other team members, the Jamaican Service Project has been a life changing experience.

“It has shown me that I can make a difference and has led me to be an advocate for myself; to know that I can go out there and change things and do the good that I wish to see in the world,” Eschbach said. “With support and hard work you can achieve the unthinkable.”

If you would like to donate new desktop computers, software, or gently used lap tops to the Jamaica Service Project, contact James Burke at burkej@bsd405.org.

Lindsay Larin can be reached at llarin@reporternewspapers.com or at 425-453-4602.