FAYETTE — It is not uncommon to be touched by the struggles of others. Whether it's pledging money for earthquake victims in Haiti or giving canned goods to a food bank to help feed those who are hungry, people often respond and do what they can.
An example of this phenomenon recently occurred in Fayette , where the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the “lost boys" displaced by civil war in Sudan in the 1980s, brought people at Central Methodist University together in unanticipated ways.
To hear a 2006 interview with Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng on National Public Radio, click here.
Deng was scheduled to speak at the university Feb. 25, and preparations had been heavily underway for nearly two months. But life got in the way. As of Sunday afternoon, Deng's appearance on Thursday evening at Central Methodist has been canceled due to family troubles. Carrie Flaspohler, the information services librarian at Central Methodist, said the university is hoping to schedule another speech or event on the topic at some point this semester.
Still, getting ready for the event has had a mobilizing and expanding effect on Central Methodist, a close-knit campus of around 1,000 students in the community just west of Columbia.
Flaspohler read “What is the What” three years ago for a book club. Written by Dave Eggers and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the novel is closely drawn from Deng’s struggles in both Sudan and America.
Deng was born in southern Sudan, located in east-central Africa, in the village of Marial Bai. Life as he knew it ended dramatically at the age of 6, when the violence and uproar of the Sudanese civil war forced him to leave home. He moved through several refugee camps and was eventually relocated to the United States. With roughly $800 in financial aid and limited knowledge of his new country and its customs, he set out to carve a life for himself.
Deng dug in. In a situation where mere survival could be counted as a success, he found a way to give back to his home country. Using profits from “What is the What?” Deng and Eggers worked together to establish the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. The organization aims to increase access to education in southern Sudan, with special emphasis on providing access to females.
The group’s first major project was the Marial Bai Secondary School, which opened in May 2009 and was the first high school in the region.
Flaspohler was so moved by the book that she immediately began trying to contact Deng, and since last year has been working to get him to visit the Central Methodist campus.
Scheduling conflicts and financial restrictions made the visit seem impossible, but on Dec. 23, after months of being denied, Flaspohler got what she described as an “early Christmas present” – a phone call saying that Deng was available to speak at the university as part of a larger tour.
What followed was a hurricane of preparations and activities.
“Lots of professors got invested and got the kids started by putting the book into their curriculum ,” Flaspohler said. “Once the students started the book they were drawn in from the very first page, and then they started to get involved on their own.”
Getting involved took several forms at the university, and each group brought its own touches to the effort.
“There are so many different groups of people on campus, and they all came up with their own ways to help,” Flaspohler said.
One strategy that involved many students across the university was the introduction of “What is the What?” into campus book clubs . Their meetings have provided an opportunity for frank discussion.
“The book describes this chain of events where things just keep going wrong," said Danielle Perez, a junior in music and fine arts. "It’s really heavy, and the mind can only take so much at one time.”
Amy Wells said it opened her eyes not only to what happened there but to what happens here. “We take freedom for granted, but over there people are fighting to survive in hopes that they might see it someday,” said Wells, a senior in physical education.
The story so affected Wells that she came up with her own idea to help — a pen pal program with students in Deng’s schools.
“We can enlighten them on our world, and they’ll enlighten us on theirs at the same time,” she said.
Putting personal skills to use
Flaspohler organizes January hobby classes, which also provided an avenue for involvement. They were so well-attended this year that she decided to introduce a project with a purpose: a quilt that would eventually be raffled off to benefit the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. Participants reacted with enthusiasm, and the project attracted even more people to the cause.
Students, staff and faculty worked together to craft tiny yo-yos, circles of fabric gathered into rosette-like shapes, which were sewn together into a coverlet awash in shades of green, blue and white. Although the quilt had been intended to be the grand prize at Deng's speech and reception, the process of creating it served to unite many people with a common goal.
Nina Assefa, a pre-med sophomore from Ethiopia, said the university atmosphere is conducive to this unity.
“This small town and small university — they’re like home,” Assefa said. “Everyone knows each other and is very friendly, and it has been a great experience to get to talk and work together on a project like this.”
Growing up in Sudan's neighbor to the east, Assefa felt close to Deng’s story.
“The book is touching and real, and you can just tell that he has courage,” she said. “Getting out of there and becoming somebody is hard.”
As a member of Central Methodist's small international student population, about 32 students are from outside the U.S., Assefa said she and the other African students are excited to see international cooperation at the campus level.
Central Methodist's branch of Alpha Phi Omega, a coed service fraternity with branches throughout the U.S. and in Canada and the Philippines, got in on the act with a unique type of fundraiser.
The fraternity was tossing around ideas one day when a member mentioned cow chip bingo. The group began thinking not about cows but chickens, and suddenly an idea was born.
“We wanted a different kind of raffle, instead of just pulling a name out of a hat,” said Marshall Temple, a senior history education major and president of APO.
The chicken chip bingo fundraiser, or “Dang, there goes that chicken!” scheduled for Feb. 24 involves selling chances on each of 100 squares drawn on a tarp. A live chicken is set loose on the tarp and spectators wait to see where it does its business. The person holding the ticket for the pooped-upon square wins one third of the money collected, and the rest goes to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation.
“We all thought it was a cool idea, and it just broke itself down for us,” Temple said. “One of the librarians could provide a chicken; another faculty member did a similar fundraiser and already had a tarp with squares on it; an APO member’s parents have goats and could give us chicken wire. Everything just fell into place.”
APO is a community-oriented fraternity, Flaspohler said, and this sort of fundraising is right up their alley.
“This is still the same sort of community fundraising," she said. "It’s just a different community that happens to be thousands of miles away.”