- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

A chance meeting on a Mississippi River boat has led to unique relationship and special act of charity between an Alexandria school and one in rural Arkansas.

Students at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Alexandria yesterday bestowed a Lenten donation of 4,000 books to their new friends at DeVall’s Bluff Elementary School in eastern Arkansas.

The relationship started when St. Mary’s Principal Kathleen Dolan met DeVall’s Bluff second-grade teacher Elizabeth Hutson while on vacation.

They soon became fast friends — sharing their love for teaching and their experiences working in such different environments. The relationship continued when their students started writing letters to each other.

“I think my children, who are very entitled, realize now that there are other children who are not as entitled in this country,” Mrs. Dolan said. “It’s not just kids in Iraq who are suffering.”

St. Mary’s is a suburban school about 10 miles from the nation’s capital with a student population of about 700. The town of DeVall’s Bluff is a rural farming community east of Little Rock and has a population of 750.

“Our children are very disadvantaged,” Ms. Hutson said.

When Mrs. Dolan learned that Ms. Hutson’s students needed books, she suggested that St. Mary’s students “adopt” the DeVall’s Bluff students and donate 2,000 books to their library and classrooms.

The students started a book drive last month on Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, which is the Christian season of repentance and self-denial that precedes Easter. When the drive ended yesterday, the students had collected 4,000 new or “gently used” books, double their goal.

Ms. Hutson and DeVall’s Bluff Elementary Principal Scott Jones visited St. Mary’s yesterday morning to accept the gift.

“You’re lucky,” Mr. Jones told the students at an assembly.

He also said many of his students do not have books in their classrooms and that the library is outdated.

“I want to thank you for helping those children,” Mr. Jones continued. “We feel lucky, too. We feel lucky to have friends like you.”

St. Mary’s students said they were happy to help.

“Once you finish a good book, you should share it with someone,” said eighth-grader Brendan Riley, 13. His class built a large pyramid of donated books that sat on stage during the presentation.

Mrs. Dolan said beyond fostering new friendships the letters also revealed that life in rural America has its advantages.

“They can’t believe we don’t have grass to play on,” she said. “They don’t know what blacktop is.”

Students at DeVall’s Bluff also asked their St. Mary’s pen pals what they named their cows.

Still, the students found common ground.

St. Mary’s second-grader Kate Karou, 8, said her pen pal likes to “writes about kind of girl’s stuff, like dolls and fashion.”

The books must still be transported more than 1,000 miles to DeVall’s Bluff so Mrs. Dolan and the St. Mary’s assistant principal might have to rent a U-Haul and drive them.

“We’re praying for a beneficiary,” she said while looking up and folding her hands. “Come and help us Lord.”

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