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Holladay• Students clapped, danced and sang in Swahili to the beat of an African drum at Cottonwood Elementary on Friday as they marked the beginning of a year-long cultural exchange and service project with a school in Samburu, Kenya.

The project includes writing to pen pals, collecting and sending supplies overseas, and learning about Kenyan culture in the classroom. Those projects, and others, will be completed throughout the year, culminating in an African festival later this year to celebrate the success of the student's newfound friendship with children in Samburu.

Along with the entertainment of an African-themed dance group from Repertory Dance Theatre, students at a Friday assembly learned about the serious side of their service project.

Christopher Johnson, a representative from Choice Humanitarian — the organization that will help coordinate the school's efforts in Africa — talked to the students about the different challenges children in Kenya face, one of which is gaining access to clean and safe drinking water.

"How many here have in your home a water faucet that [you] turn on the faucet and water comes out?" said Johnson to a roomful of little raised hands. "How many have water in your faucet that you can actually drink and you don't get sick? How about hot water coming out of your faucet? Woah. None of the kids in these villages have any of those things."

Cottonwood Elementary has done the "Friend to Friend" program twice before, once with Africa and once with India, school officials said. But the last effort was a decade ago.

Fifth grade teacher Megan Cundick is a part of both programs — she participated twice when she was a young student attending the school, and now she is a teacher who has returned to work at the school she once attended.

She said the poverty that other countries struggle with was "unapparent" to her as a kid growing up in Holladay.

"For me it was a real eye opener that there are children that are my same age that are like me who are not getting adequate food and water," Cundick said.

She said she hopes through writing to Kenyan students and focusing on the country's culture, her students will gain the same realization that she had when she was young.

"We're blessed as a community and we need to help others," said Cundick.

The school wanted to reach beyond its walls with the project in order to strengthen community, according to Jen Wunderli, co-chair of the "Friend to Friend" committee.

"We felt like we needed a program that put us outside of ourselves a little bit more," she said. "When you serve somebody else that's not within your community the community becomes stronger."

The goal of the project is twofold, Wunderli said. Students will learn not only about service, but also how to be a friend with someone who lives across the world.

"I want them to become friends, that's the biggest thing," said Wunderli.

Johnson agreed.

"The more we can be connected and be friends the happier this world can be," he told students.

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