By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — When Kevin O’Brien was in fourth grade at Sacred Heart Cathedral School in Davenport, his teacher, Abby Shaw, organized a “walking challenge” to Orlando, Fla. Today, O’Brien’s mother is following that model, but her fifth-grade students are walking to Mozambique, Africa, where Kevin serves in the Peace Corps.
Eileen O’Brien’s students at All Saints Catholic School have been learning about Mozambique, and met Kevin in December. They were challenged to walk 9,000 miles by the end of the school year as a class. They began walking Jan. 3.
The students reached their goal on May 25 with a total of 9,048 miles. They had hoped to reach their goal by June 1, the last day of school. O’Brien received a blessing from Principal Jeanne Von Feldt to allow students to do a little extra daily walking. O’Brien promised that the exercise would not take away from their education.
Each day the students walk or run about one mile — 16 laps in the school gym or eight laps on the playground. Some students choose to run and tell O’Brien how many laps they completed. As for weekends, she figured that, in general, each student averages about two miles per day. “It all adds up,” she said.
For every 500 miles reached, she surprised the students with a bonus. On May 16, it was a chocolate chip cookie with the message “Way to Go! Almost to Moz 501!” The number refers to her classroom.
The week of May 14-18 was Mozambique Week in her classroom. O’Brien brought in fabrics and items from that country and wore outfits made from fabric she got in Mozambique. When a guest asked the students what they have learned about Mozambique, hands shot up in the air.
They said they learned the country is located in southeastern Africa. It is considered rude to wear shorts. The rainy season runs from November to April when water is collected for the dry season. School is held just three hours a day. Girls generally do not continue their education beyond grade school. The main industry is farming and open air markets. Many people do not own cars; they walk or take the bus as needed. Prices are low for items, but so are wages.
The people of Mozambique speak Portuguese because the country was formerly a colony of Portugal. Mozambique is seven time zones ahead of Davenport. Fruit is readily available and a delicacy is mice.
Kevin O’Brien wrote about the Peace Corps as a student at Assumption High School in Davenport, his mother said. “He was thinking about it back then.” After graduating from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, he applied for the Peace Corps, but ended up working for Loras and later for Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C. Then he decided it was time to join the Peace Corps. After completing two years of service, he signed up for a third year, which concludes in August. He will return to the United States and start classes at Boston College to study social work.
O’Brien said her son is a health volunteer assigned to help educate the people to help prevent malaria. He also has helped farmers with gardening tips and other advice. In his health volunteer role, he often works with patients who have HIV or AIDS. They need food to take their medicine. He showed them how to take peanuts, which are a common staple, and make peanut butter. “It was a hit,” she said. “It’s healthy and easy to make. They now sell it in the outdoor markets,” she noted.
O’Brien felt humble after visiting her son in Africa. “I don’t spend as much money as I used to. I am more aware of how much I have,” she said. In an email that Kevin sent May 16, he congratulated the class on their walking accomplishment. “What a cool thing to do. That’s a good bit of exercise too!”
He said his friends and neighbors have heard that about the walk challenge and are impressed. “What you are doing connects two places I love. I hope you are enjoying learning about Mozambique and the Peace Corps. I had fun getting to meet you all in December when I visited your class.
“Maybe one day, one of you will do the Peace Corps or travel to Mozambique. Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer has taught me a lot. I am grateful for the lessons I have learned here — and for the ones I learned at All Saints too!”