The group wanted to go last year but couldn’t afford the airfare, and spent the year saving money for the trip, which lasted two weeks.
What they saw firsthand convinced them of the value of the students’ letter exchanges, and cemented their own relationships with their counterparts at Siyabulela Primary School.
“The conditions are terrible,” McKenzie said. “The school is the best thing these kids have. The average class size is in the 40s, and that included kindergarten. They didn’t even have enough seats, just 20 little plastic chairs. Anyone would be totally overwhelmed by what the teachers were trying to accomplish.”
McKenzie sees her retirement as an opportunity to develop ways to raise funds to keep the exchange going and introduce each new class of seventh-graders at Swampscott Middle School to new friends in South Africa.
“To see how well these teachers worked, how lovingly they worked with kids — they do so much with so little. We developed such a bond,” she said. “When I left there the principal gave me a hug and she said, ‘I am so glad I have gotten to know you.’”