Teacher runs non-profit to help South African schools

April 28, 2011 (CHICAGO)

Zio Perez has worked with little ones for 14 years. She teaches all-day pre-K at the Nettlehorst School and says preschool is her passion. So it's no surprise that she and a friend who also teaches visited a school in Swaziland while in South African in 2007.

"Immediately both of us just wanted to do something," Perez said. They earned a travel grant from the Chicago Foundation for Education to pay for a return trip. This time they wouldn't go empty-handed.

"We then started fundraising with our students and their parents. So, in my class for example, I had my preschoolers collect spare change," Perez said.

The children raised about $500 and helped pick out what to give to the African students.

"I explained what we were going to do that we were going to put together goodie bags because they are all familiar with that concept," Perez said.

Perez returns to Swaziland every summer with 50 goodie bags containing treasures, like sunglasses, and school supplies and other necessities, as well.

"Some of the communities that we visit, quite honestly they're so poor, something I didn't anticipate. I've given goodie bags to some adults. It's made them just as happy, believe it or not," Perez said.

The teachers also raised an additional $6,000 online.

"What we did with the money that we generated online was we bought furniture for a preschool in South Africa, everything from cribs to tables and chairs and we also gave them a surprise library which was the best experience ever," Perez said.

They also started a student sponsorship program since free public education stops after the second grade. Perez and her friend have now turned their efforts into an official non-profit called SwaziKids International ( swazikidsinternational.org).

"Never in a million years did I think I'd be traveling across the globe to work with other children in some capacity. I just never thought that," Perez said.

Next month, Perez will receive the Kohl McCormick Early Childhood Teaching Award (a href="http://www.kohlmccormickawards.org" target="_blank"> www.kohlmccormickawards.org) for her innovation both in and out of her classroom.

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