Article Published: Wednesday, December 29, 2004
Boulder 2nd-graders adopt African island nation

By George Merritt
Denver Post Staff Writer

Boulder - A sign, handwritten in second-grader script, hung in the hall of Flatirons Elementary:

"Help us save the rain forest and the people of Madagascar."

The last couple of words grew increasingly smaller and smashed against the right edge as the writer ran out of room, but the message was clear.

"We want to help the people in the villages," said second-grader Will Sheerin. Will and his classmates have raised more than $1,500 selling bags, place mats, coasters and other products woven by villagers in Madagascar.

With the help of a local advocate, the students learned the African nation's location - an island in the Indian Ocean, east of Mozambique - and a little about the people they were helping.

"This little boy came by and he wanted to save the rain forest, and I said, 'Sure,"' Fanja Rakotonirina said. She is from Madagascar and runs Tropical Items Madagascar with her husband, where they import crafts made of raffia fibers woven by women in Madagascar.

They work with a nongovernmental organization that helps the artisans. A portion of Tropical Items sales goes toward environmental and educational activities as well as community health programs.

"We are just excited," she said. "It becomes like heart to heart for these children and the people of Madagascar."

The second-grade arm of the outfit began a short time after Sue Sheerin told her son that he had to put a little bit of his allowance aside for sharing.

"He just walked up to me one day and said, 'Mom, I know what I want to spend my sharing on,"' she said. "'I want to save the rain forest."'

Will then had to recruit his classmates. They were in.

"They've really enjoyed it," teacher Cheryl Spear said of her students. "The parents too. It's just been great."

The class developed teams for all aspects of the operation - from advertising to sales. Rakotonirina and her husband, George Raelisaona, came to the school and taught a little about their native land. And the students sold authentic products before and after school, and are giving the money to help the couple's work.

"He's been talking about it for days," Lynn Prielipp said of her son Nicholas, 7. "All of them were just so excited."

So why all the effort for a place most of their parents probably had to find on a map?

"I learned about it in first-grade, and I kind of liked the animals," Will said.

George Merritt can be reached at 303-247-9948 or

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