Fifth and sixth grade students at Seven Hills Middle School in Nevada City have made new friends in Papua New Guinea, a country on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. The sixth grade classes of Mrs. Facchini and Mrs. Waechter, as well as the fifth grade class of Mrs. MacIntosh, exchanged biographies with students in grades five through eight at the Airmen’s Memorial Primary Schools on the island of New Britain.
Howard Wilson, a member of the 49er Breakfast Rotary Club of Nevada City, in late 2013, traveled to the Airmen’s Schools as a representative of both Rotary and a United States foundation established by the late Fred Hargesheimer, a philanthropist and World War II veteran.
Hargesheimer, a long-time Grass Valley resident, was a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot who was shot down by Japanese forces in 1943. He parachuted to safety and survived in the jungle for 31 days before being rescued and protected by local villagers. Over the years, he returned to Papua New Guinea many times, where he built schools and created economic opportunity for those who saved his life. His work is chronicled in the book, “The School That Fell From the Sky, a WWII Pilot’s South Pacific Tale of Grit and Gratitude,” which has often been described as one of the best stories of the Pacific War.
He lived in Grass Valley from 1978 until his death in 2010, at age 94.
The cultural exchange between students of the two countries is an ongoing Rotary program which begun in 2011, when a number of 49er Rotarians traveled to Papua New Guinea. During that visit, the volunteers conducted a dental clinic that treated hundreds of children and adults, constructed housing for teachers, as well as created the biographical exchange between students.
A core principal of Rotary International is the promotion of world peace. Rotarians believe that establishing cultural understanding between youth of different countries is an essential element in this quest, according to the organization.
“The exchange in 2011 was a tremendous success as both the Seven Hills students and the New Guinea students loved learning about the lives of each other,” Wilson said. “That goodwill was continued by the 49er Rotary-sponsored, Seven Hills Interact Club when it sent an enormous package of school supplies back to the Airmen’s Schools in 2012. I felt compelled to make an effort to continue the program by returning to Papua New Guinea.”
In October, 2013, the fifth and sixth graders at Seven Hills each filled out a single page biography about their family and schools, as well as information about their other interests and activities. Most included a picture of themselves.
Wilson returned to New Guinea in late 2013, carrying those Seven Hills biographies.
“I had established wonderful relationships with the adults in the villages, but the kids were the real draw,” he said.
Upon arriving he delivered those biographies to the students at the Airmen’s schools and said, “I tried to match interests of each New Guinea student with a Seven Hills student having similar interests. The enthusiastic response from the students is a joy to experience as students in both countries have a great thirst for learning about cultures so different than their own.”
When he returned home, Wilson presented pictures and told the Seven Hills students of his experiences. They were given the responsive biographies, as well as a number of gifts from the students at the Papua New Guinea schools. The gifts included bracelets, seashell jewelry, carvings, and traditional native dress.
“Though nearly all the residents are extremely poor by Western standards, their generosity is unparalleled, “ said Wilson.
The Seven Hills students were elated with the response from the New Guinea students. They quickly composed letters to their new “pen pals” and included a variety of gifts, such as photo albums, books, baseball cards, jewelry, jerseys, and sports hats, all of which were sent to the Airmen’s schools just a short time ago.
“The response from the students makes it so worthwhile,” said Wilson. “I truly believe that this kind of cultural exchange will lead to a better future for my children and grandchildren.”