AFT Everyday Hero awardee addresses RIC students

A fifth-grade teacher from Newtown, Conn. – recently named the 2011 Everyday Hero by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – spoke to RIC elementary education classes on Wednesday, April 20, about using global issues to develop student curiosity about the world, and life lessons that follow.

Karen King with a newly recruited volunteer at the UFS clinic in Buduburam Refugee Camp in Ghana.
Karen King, teacher at Reed Intermediate School, won the award for the multiple volunteer projects she has taken on with her students, from working at the Dorothy Day house in Danbury to collecting pencils for students in Kosovo and shoes for people in Haiti.

There were 350 nominations for the Everyday Hero award, but only six finalists. King won for grades K-12, and will be honored at the AFT divisional conference in July in Washington, D.C. King is the sister of Kristen Salemi, director of the Student Union at RIC.

King said she spent most of her life thinking of herself as a “future teacher,” though she had been a sales and marketing manager for about 12 years. At age 40, King returned to school to fulfill a desire to become an educator.

Now, 11 years later, King knows she made the right decision.

“Love your job,” says King. “Your passion will show and your children will love what you love.”

King's first large volunteer project began in 2004 when she learned of a friend's efforts to help in Kosovo, which had been devastated in an ethnic conflict between the Albanians and Serbs. King's class got involved in helping the Shala school by creating "Pencils for Peace," a drive to collect pencils and other basic learning materials, which were scarce.

King's students set the goal; they wanted to gather 10,000 pencils for Kosovo.

Each child chose a local business that they wrote to requesting pencil donations. Curtis Packaging offered to match the students' collection of 10,000 pencils with 10,000 more once the goal was met. Within days, the goal was exceeded.

King with pen pals in Carolyn A. Miller School in Buduburam Refugee Camp.
Nearly 29,000 pencils, $12,000, and other school supplies were collected for “Pencils for Peace.” King wrote to the Newtown Rotary Club explaining her desire to travel to Kosovo to see the results of her own students' labors. The Rotary Club paid for King's airfare in full.

“My trip was priceless to me,” said King. “When I went on behalf of my school, it made the trip so much more meaningful, and the world so much smaller.”

A year later, King volunteered in Haiti with the Connecticut-based Haitian Health Foundation where she met a Haitian woman who asked for her shoes. This led to a second project, named “A Mile in Their Shoes," to collect 1,000 new pairs of shoes for Haiti.

King's class made a commercial for a local cable station to promote the fundraiser. The tag line, written by a fifth-grade student, became “People in Haiti have so little, we have so much, let them walk a mile in our shoes.”

King returned to Haiti in July 2006 for a teacher-training program called "Project Teach." Since teachers in Haiti often teach up to 100 students in one classroom with limited training and no school supplies, King and other international teachers provided what may have been the only professional development the Haitian teachers would ever receive.

One teacher that caught King's eye would take notes after class ended because he couldn't see from the back of the room. She decided she wanted to help create an eye clinic next to the teacher-training center in Haiti so glasses would be available to teachers there in the future.

King contacted Jennifer Staple, a Newtown resident from Unite for Sight (UFS), to inquire about possible eye care services in Haiti. Though UFS wasn't currently operating there, Staple connected King to the Carolyn A. Miller Elementary School (CAMES) in Ghana's Buduburam refugee camp, near a UFS partner clinic, where the students were seeking pen pals.

Karen King and her students work at the Dorothy Day Hospitality House in Danbury, Conn.
Though it hadn't been the project King was searching for, she assigned her class pen pals from the school regardless.

“When you're a teacher, opportunities present themselves,” said King, taking this particular opportunity to teach her class about Ghana's culture, and refugees who lived there. “If you plant a seed for global awareness and empathy, it will stay with them for life.”

King and her class wrote letters to CAMES, delivered at no cost by UFS volunteers, quickly leading to community-wide interest and the beginning of a fundraiser for CAMES school supplies.

A $500 grant was given to King's class from the Reed School's INTERACT Club, which was used to create bracelets similar to those from “Pencils for Peace.” About $3,600 was raised from the bracelets in one week, which they used to buy a copy machine and two computers for CAMES.

In the summer of 2007, King flew to Ghana to meet the pen pals. She brought a digital camera and a portable printer with her, which she used to take family portraits, leading her to imagine what it would be like for Newtown and CAMES students to see their pen pal's lives up close. This thought led to the creation of “Eye to Eye,” a project beginning in 2008 in which disposable cameras were distributed to students from both schools.

“People will think you're crazy when you get an idea like this,” King said. “But if you feel strongly about it, keep thinking about it, keep talking about it, and it will happen.”

King teaches children in Ghana.
For the first phase of “Eye to Eye,” students were assigned what to take pictures of, including their faces, families, chores and something they wished they could change.

King wanted to go back to CAMES during winter break to teach the children about “Eye to Eye,” but didn't have the money. She emailed the president of a U.S. based airline explaining her reasons for going to Ghana to further the project, and he gave her complimentary tickets for King and two other teachers to travel there.

Each CAMES student received a donated notebook, pencil and a fanny bag for the cameras. Local service clubs helped to lessen the cost of developing the film, and students at both schools compiled photo albums with their pen pal's pictures next to their own.

“Eye to Eye” inspired more creative works from Reed students based on the photographs, which were displayed in the June 2008 culminating project, “Finding Our Way Home.”

At this time, the Ghanaian government announced that the Buduburam Refugee Camp was closing and refugees would return to Liberia. “Finding Our Way Home” raised about $20,000, which was used to transport the school's items to Liberia, and also paid CAMES rent for two more years so it could open there.

King is currently working after school hours with UFS and Rotary Clubs in Connecticut to raise the $82,000 needed to begin a New Sight Eye Center clinic in Liberia. After an article appeared in a local newspaper regarding King's Everyday Hero award and her efforts for the eye clinic, the NBC game show “Minute to Win It,” contacted her about being a contestant to raise money for a cause.

King and her students filmed an audition tape, and are waiting to hear if they will be selected for the show. She is well on her way to developing the eye clinic, and will be able to arrange for pen pals from Liberia with her students once the clinic opens.

At the conclusion of King's story, she offered a few last pieces of advice to the RIC elementary education students who aspire be teachers: connect kids to kids, follow every penny you raise, always mark the end of a project with a celebration, and most importantly, love your job.

For more information on Karen King's volunteer efforts, contact her at or (203) 270-4880.