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‘Raising kids who care’

Through the Uganda Art Project, young artists are raising money for clean water in Uganda

Kenowa Hills – Imagine being a young child and carrying a 40-pound vessel for miles to obtain clean drinking water for your family. It’s a reality faced by many children in Uganda. 

At Zinser Elementary, students are using their creativity to help carry that weight (metaphorically speaking), giving back to communities in need and learning empathy along the way. 

With leadership from art teacher Jen Rykse and help from Amiina Ministries in Grand Rapids, they created and sold artwork to friends and family and raised $2,100 to put toward a water tank in the community of Mityana, Uganda. 

“I filled 40-pound water jugs and had students try to carry it to experience what the kids in Uganda do everyday,” Rykse said. “Most kids could barely carry it around the classroom, let alone two miles.” 

Watering the Seed 

The seed of an idea for the Uganda Art Project planted in Rykse’s head when she read “The Water Princess” to her second-grade art class four years ago. Based on supermodel Georgie Badiel’s childhood, the children’s book tells the story of a young girl who dreams of growing up and bringing clean drinking water to her African village. 

“After reading the story in class, it inspired me to have my students create art to sell and donate to a community in Uganda,” Rykse said.

For four weeks, Rykse provided ideas and examples to inspire her students in creating their own African-inspired art. She also emphasized the purpose of the project, which helped her guide students through the process of creating and selling their art. 

“We watched videos from the Uganda Project and Amiina Ministries to show the students the impact of clean drinking water for kids in another country,” Rykse said.

Instructed to sell their artwork for at least $10 each, Rykse’s second-graders raised almost $600 the first year. The following year, the whole school got involved in the Uganda Art Project.

According to his mom, first-grader Simon Ratajczak was so excited to participate in the project. 

“He had fun trying to sell his artwork to the highest bidder,” JIll Ratajczak said. “I had to outbid everyone to be able to keep his artwork. When asked about the project, he said, ‘It made me really happy to help people get clean water.’” 

Principal Ross Willick praised both Rykse’s leadership and the project’s outcome. 

“She’s done an incredible job,” said Willick. “I’m very impressed and thankful for the project to be this successful. It encompasses our motto of teaching Kids Who CARE, Choosing an Attitude of Respect and Empathy.

“So many kids love to create things. My own daughter brought home her creation and was excited to sell it, knowing it was for a good cause.”

In fact, his first-grade daughter, Brynnley, even went home to make her own art and sold more pieces to raise additional funds.

“I really enjoyed drawing and painting the monkey,” Brynnley said. “I wanted to help raise money for Uganda so they can (have) clean water.”

‘A Lot of Compassion’

A mother of ten, Rykse’s passion for encouraging and raising empathetic students played a large role in launching the Uganda Art Project. Her involvement with Amiina Ministries also provided the opportunity to connect her students with their mission.

“I’ve witnessed a lot of compassion from my students,” Rykse said. “It breaks their hearts for kids to not have clean water, and this project has been really eye-opening for them.”

According to Rykse, one of her first-graders created and sold multiple pieces of his art and asked for donations to the project in honor of his birthday, raising almost $570 in the process.

“It’s really encouraging to see the kids have the drive to think of others,” she said. “We’re raising kids who care and seeing the kids live out that teaching.”

Both Rykse and Willick hope to see the Uganda Art Project grow in the future. 

“I’d really want to have Amiina Ministries host a parents night at Zinser, do a presentation, have students’ art on display and people can donate that night or take the art home to sell it,” Rykse said. 

Willick is thinking even bigger: “It would be nice to see all of our schools’ art programs combine in the future and raise even more money,” he said. “A big dream would be to send one of our own to Uganda to represent Kenowa Hills while building a well or water tank.” 

Rykse began her career as a science teacher before receiving the opportunity to teach art at Zinser. After nine years of inspiring creativity, the sky’s the limit for the teacher and her students. 

“I don’t think I’m the best artist, but my job is to inspire kids to create,” Rykse said. “It’s so fun to watch them create and take ownership of their art, and it’s been a fulfilling process for the kids.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids and is a roving reporter for GRCC, Wyoming, Kentwood and Byron Center. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN. Read Alexis' full bio

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