Christine Epp, a teacher at Hayden Valley Elementary School, was awarded a grant to continue her classroom program to send supplies to a tsunami-destroyed school in Gizo, Solomon Islands, which is west of Papua New Guinea.

Photo by Jack Weinstein

Christine Epp, a teacher at Hayden Valley Elementary School, was awarded a grant to continue her classroom program to send supplies to a tsunami-destroyed school in Gizo, Solomon Islands, which is west of Papua New Guinea.

Teacher reaches across world with supplies for students

Hayden 1st-grade class to gather items for students in Solomon Islands

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— Christine Epp first got the idea to send books and supplies to a tsunami-destroyed school in the Solomon Islands after meeting a Hayden High School student, a native of the islands, whose sister taught there.

With the girl's help, Epp, then a kindergarten teacher at Hayden Valley Elementary School, began sending supplies to the Three Swallows School on the tiny island of Gizo, east of Papua New Guinea, in 2007.

One problem: It's expensive to ship things across the globe.

Last year, after Epp began teaching first grade, the project continued - under the name "Classroom Bridging Continents" - with help from a local grant provided by the Legacy Education Foundation. Epp's class sent books and supplies to the school, after it was rebuilt following the April 2007 tsunami.

And when the upcoming school year begins Sept. 8 - after being awarded a $2,000 Unsung Heroes grant from ING, a global financial services company - Epp's new class will continue the project, hopefully expanding it to elicit help from other classes at the school.

Epp, who was born and raised in Hayden and has taught in the district for 27 years, said Monday that she plans to get some of her students from last year's class as ambassadors to enlist the help of the rest of the school.

She said the project is important because it helps her students understand citizenship, stewardship and diversity, and it provides them with an idea about what life is like in another place.

"We're a pretty small rural community," Epp said. "A lot of kids here don't have experience with kids in other places. Our lifestyle - there's a range in different incomes, jobs and careers, but the diversity isn't as wide as bigger schools. Our kids don't have that different exposure.

"I've always thought it was important to expose them to different people and to help out," she added. "We have a responsibility to be good stewards and citizens to the community, country and the world."

Last year, she said, her students collected donations and used the grant funding to ship the books and supplies. This year, Epp said her students will create "ABC books," which will be sent to the school in Gizo as a teaching tool and to inform the students there about what life is like in Hayden.

She said the books would identify something for each letter of the alphabet. For the letter "A," for example, Epp said her students could write the word "airport" then take photographs or draw pictures of Yampa Valley Regional Airport.

Epp said the grant will pay for a digital camera, printer and paper to make the books, and the rest of the funding will be dedicated entirely to shipping costs.

Hayden Valley Elementary Principal Rhonda Sweetser described Epp as vibrant, exciting and fun to be around, in addition to being a loving and caring teacher. Sweetser said when she heard about Epp's project, she wasn't surprised.

"That's just the type of person Christine is," Sweetser said. "She's the type of person who's a go-getter and likes to do different things. : She sees a need and takes care of it."

Epp said the reality of last year's program sank in for her students when they received pictures from the school.

"That made a big impact," she said. "They really liked helping the kids and improving the lives of people in another place."

Epp was one of 100 teachers recognized by ING as "one of the nation's most innovative educators" from a group of more than 2,000 applications, according to a news release. It stated that the Unsung Heroes program has awarded $3.2 million to nearly 1,400 kindergarten through 12th grade teachers since the program began in 1996.

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