By Kristina Houck
At just 3 years old, Karen can sing the French national anthem. When her father comes home from work, she greets him with, “Bonjour, papa!”
Karen’s father, Theodore, is amazed his daughter is learning how to speak and read French at such a young age, said Agnes Barrelet, executive director of Hands United for Children. Karen and 35 other children are able to count and recite poems in French because of the Rancho Santa Fe-based nonprofit.
French is the official language of Burkina Faso, and understanding the language is necessary for children to succeed in school in the West African country. That’s why Hands United for Children is building a preschool for children in Sapone, a town located 30 miles south of the country’s capital, Ouagadougou.
“Children are going to school for the first time at 6 or 7 years old, and they speak a dialect, not French,” Barrelet said. “It’s very hard for them to learn what they have to learn and learn the language at the same time. The idea of the preschool is to actually get them to learn the language prior to learning whatever they have to learn in first grade, so the children are more developed.”
Hands United for Children raised $50,000 in 2012 to begin construction on Sapone’s first preschool. The first classroom, restrooms, kitchen and playground were completed last summer.
In late June, Barrelet visited the school’s first class, which included 36 children ages 3-5. She also launched construction of the second classroom and lunch area by laying the first handmade brick.
“It was just amazing,” said Barrelet, who has been executive director since June 2011. “Everybody there really wanted to show that they are doing what they are expected to do. The kids were very polite and showed me they could count to 17 in French. The teachers were so happy to show me the curriculum.”
For 11 days, Barrelet visited with the students, who she said all wanted to hug her and hold her hands. She brought school supplies and gave each of the children a teddy bear.
The Rancho Santa Fe resident also met with village representatives and the parents of the children. A few of the parents who were able to speak French thanked Barrelet for providing a “safe haven” for their children so they could work.
“By providing an education for the children, we also help their family to survive,” Barrelet said. “The preschool was designed because we wanted the moms to go back to work sooner instead of keeping their kids home until they are 6 years old. Now they have the ability to take their kids to school starting at 3 years old.”
In addition to learning French songs and poems, students learn hygiene, colors, numbers and shapes. The school also provides lunch for the children, which is funded by Hands United for Children and the students’ parents.
“The parents are motivated and feel like they are participating in the adventure,” Barrelet said.
An entirely volunteer-driven organization, Hands United for Children was founded in 2006 to provide education, shelter, health and individual welfare to underprivileged children.
“The organization is small,” said Barrelet, who is the nonprofit’s primary donor. “We are only volunteers. I try to keep the costs down so all the money that we raise goes to the programs.”
The $80,000 preschool will feature three classrooms when construction is completed in 2014. In addition to building the school in Sapone, Hands United for Children is currently raising funds and recruiting volunteers so O’Farrell Charter School in San Diego can open a health clinic.
“I really wanted to give back, and I always wanted to do something for the health and education of children,” Barrelet said. “I’m blessed to be doing this.
“Hopefully, our organization will grow and people will get to know us so we’ll have more funds and impact in San Diego and around the world.”
For more information about Hands United for Children and to donate to the organization’s projects, visit www.handsunited4children.org.