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November 12, 2001

ICIS reaches out to DeKalb school

By Eric Rangus


Dia de los Muertos. In Spanish, it means “Day of the Dead.” A morbid-sounding event, perhaps, but Dia de los Muertos is a happy occasion—one in which gifts are made for relatives who have passed away, and their lives are celebrated. It is a way to reconnect with departed family members.

It’s a holiday, Nov. 1, celebrated in Mexico and parts of Central America and the United States that carries a great deal of meaning at Cary Reynolds Elementary School in Doraville. And it’s one that the Emory community was able to help celebrate.

This past April, the Institute for Comparative and International Studies (ICIS) began a partnership with Cary Reynolds Elementary, representing the first major outreach effort under the institute’s Community Connections Initiative (CCI), which came together last April.

The core of the ICIS/Cary Reynolds partnership is a series of arts and cultural programs held in the school cafeteria. Emory faculty, staff and students all participate in the events, which are meant to enhance language skills and introduce and celebrate the world’s varied cultures in a fun setting.

“The partnership was conceived as a way for returning study-abroad students to learn new skills as well as keep their skills current, connect with the international community here in Atlanta and explore its research and academic possibilities,” said Alta Schwartz, ICIS outreach coordinator.

The centerpiece of the most recent Dia de los Muertos celebration was the construction of an altar in the cafeteria, which took on added meaning as it was dedicated not only to departed family members but to the victims of Sept. 11. Kindergartners and first-graders drew pictures and made paper flowers, earthenware figures and other crafts to place either on or in front of the altar, which was displayed for several days after the event so the entire school could learn about its meaning.

The Emory contingent taking part included Schwartz; Dana Tottenham, CIPA’s coordinator of academic services; Jackie Ochoa-Giddens of Latin American and Caribbean Studies; two faculty members, Vialla Hartfield-Mendez (Spanish) and Walter Escobar (biology); and several students.

While there was a serious and reverent tone to the proceedings, the focus remained on fun.
“They were very happy to have us there,” Escobar said. “There was really no shyness. The kids offered information about themselves and they were very playful. It was a happy event.”

And the joy was not exclusive to the Spanish-speaking children. Escobar said he spoke with one child of Asian background, he told her about the holiday and even taught her a few Spanish words.

“The children who spoke Spanish were so proud to have this event,” Schwartz said. “They were excited to have Americans come and speak their language. They were excited that a ritual that they were used to was being taught to the whole school.”

The Dia de los Muertos celebration was the second of the school year. The first came on Oct. 1, when the school celebrated the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Aimed at fourth- and fifth-graders, the celebration included an art project in which students made paper prayer rugs. Mahmoud Al-Batal, associate professor of Middle Eastern studies, also spoke to the students about growing up in Lebanon.

Future events are planned to celebrate the Vietnamese holiday of Tet in January and the Hindu holiday Holi in March. ICIS will host a pair of appreciation receptions for Cary Reynolds staff—one later this month and a second in the spring—in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library.

The effort was spearheaded by former assistant director Jeff Reznick. ICIS had a strong background in volunteer work with children at Egleston Children’s Hospital, and Reznick wanted to strengthen its ties with the Atlanta international community, particularly its school-age children. He and Colleen Medina, coordinator of academic services for the Center for International Programs Abroad (CIPA), performed a needs assessment of DeKalb County public schools and found Cary Reynolds, to be the most diverse elementary school in the state.

According to 2000 statistics, more than 80 percent of the Doraville elementary’s students speak English as a second language, and many students speak no English at all. A majority of these children, about 65 percent, speak Spanish. A total of 30 different languages are represented, including Chinese, Somali, Serbo-Croatian, Farsi and many others.

“Schools have to hunt for their own resources,” said Principal Jeffrey Rutel. “We’ve received incredible support from Emory. And this is not about dollars it’s about people power, and Emory has been wonderful.”


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