By VIRGINIA ROSS
NORTH LIMA — A young nursing student in the center of battle weary Africa can rest a little easier, maybe, knowing much of her tuition has been covered.
In Jamaica, dozens of children can play basketball on a new court and swing on new swing sets.
Here in the states, Danielle Downie and Anna Couchenour can easily explain why they feel connected to those places — and how it occurred to them to devote their required high school senior projects to people living so far away from rural Ohio.
“You start thinking about your senior project when you’re a freshman,” Downie, of Green Township, said. “You think about what other kids have done and what you could do. Anna and I looked at it as an opportunity to do something we’ve been wanting to do for a long time anyway. Something good that maybe could make an impact on someone else.”
The girls, both 17, friends, and members of the same basketball team at South Range High School, partnered and worked together on a combined senior project.
For Downie, doing something for someone in Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo seemed fitting because that’s where she was born, to missionary parents, when that area was still called Zaire.
Couchenour, of Beaver Township, chose to help a family friend, Karen Brunk, who spends much of her time in Jamaica, provide a safe place for children there to play.
At the get-go, the girls agreed to work together to raise money for the two efforts and to split the funds evenly. They put their mutual love of basketball into play and organized and hosted a 3-on-3 basketball tournament at South Range in early March.
They raised $2,166, giving them each $1,083 to put toward their individual projects.
“That might not seem like a lot of money to some people, especially in this country,” Downie said. “But in Africa, it’s a fortune.”
While it will cost her family $17,500 to send her to Ohio State University next year, she can help 22-year-old Nyashi Nyengele complete her classes at the Good Shepherd Hospital in the village of Tshikaji, D.R.C., where Downie was born, for about $650 a year.
“It’s amazing to me,” Downie said. “Just a little of what we have here goes a lot farther there. Anything we give helps so much, and it’s so appreciated.”
Downie’s dad, Alex, worked at Good Shepherd when he and her mother, Chris, served as missionaries in Zaire for the Presbyterian Church. Her parents encouraged her to sponsor a student at the hospital’s nursing school.
In corresponding with the man who helped deliver Downie, Dr. Walter Hull of Columbus, Downie’s family discovered Hull and his wife, Nancy, also former missionaries, sponsor a nursing student there.
“They had all the contacts already and helped me line everything up,” she said. “It all fell into place.”
Meanwhile, a great portion of the senior project included Couchenour’s hands-on effort in Jamaica earlier this year. Couchenour, a daughter of Scott and Jennie Couchenour, traveled with her family to the Jamaican province of St. Elizabeth to help build the new basketball court and playground equipment for the children there.
Brunk, a native of the Canfield/Salem area, serves as a foster mother, opening her Jamaican home to children as needed.
“She’s so dedicated to the children there and helping them,” Couchenour said. “I wanted to help her. They had a merry-go-round, and that was about it. They really weren’t very familiar with the concept of basketball and didn’t know much about it at all. But once the court was done and the balls started bouncing on the concrete, kids came running from everywhere to see what was going on.”
Couchenour’s crew helped conduct a Bible day camp for the children and a daylong basketball camp to acquaint them with the game.
“It was culture shock for me,” Couchenour explained. “The people in St. Elizabeth’s are so content with what they have. They use anything and everything. Nothing goes to waste. They even eat the bones of the animals. It amazes me.”
More than recognition
Downie and Couchenour, who graduated in June, received A’s from the school district for their projects and were recognized for their work at a senior awards breakfast.
“We’re glad the work paid off for us and happy about the grades and recognition,” Downie said. “But that’s not all it ended up being. It’s become so much more than a grade to us. I’ve learned a lot about Africa and what some of the people there have gone through. And even with all of my research and studying, I can’t in any way begin to imagine what their lives must be like.”
Downie intends to study education at OSU. Couchenour plans to study early childhood education at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, Mount Vernon, Ohio.
Downie said she hopes to travel to Africa to meet Nyengele within the next few years. Couchenour hopes to return to Jamaica to continue the work started there.
“It wasn’t easy putting it all together, the tournament and everything. There were times when we thought we’d made a mistake because it didn’t look as if we were going to get enough participation or support. But we did,” Couchenour said. “It was amazing that it all ended up working together. Our school, our whole community came together and made it happen.”