On the night of Oct. 30, 2005, 16-year-old Vanessa Pean left a party at the home of a friend, and rushed to make it back to her Great Falls home before the state's midnight teen curfew. Without fastening her seatbelt, Pean navigated her SUV through the twists and turns of Beach Mill Road at high speed. As she maneuvered through one particularly sharp turn, she reached for her cellular phone, lost control of her vehicle and collided into a nearby tree.
Vanessa Pean's death left the community reeling. A junior at the Potomac School in McLean, Vanessa had been a good student, an avid soccer player and a young woman who exhibited compassion and concern for those less fortunate than she.
Today, Vanessa Pean's memory and spirit still reign strong in the Great Falls and McLean communities. In October 2006 at Great Falls Nike Park, a landscape memorial was dedicated in her name, and family and friends gathered to officially recognize the newly named "Vanessa Pean Field." And on Feb. 24, , a "VIP World Cup" soccer tournament was held in honor of Vanessa's memory at the Potomac School, and the registration fees for the event were donated to the Vanessa Pean Foundation, which raises money for the education of children in her father's native country of Haiti.
On Wednesday, Feb. 28, her memory was honored once again when the Potomac School held its first annual Vanessa Pean Memorial Lecture in honor of Vanessa's commitment to the impoverished people of Haiti. Prior to her death, Vanessa had been supportive of the educational efforts made in Haiti by the international non-profit organization Save the Children. Subsequently, Wednesday's lecture featured a panel of Save the Children education experts representing the organization's offices in Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Malawi, Bolivia and the Philippines.
In the panel discussion "Innovating to Reach Vulnerable Children," each panel member briefly summarized the general details of the educational situation of impoverished children in their particular country, and also discussed current strategies employed by Save the Children to advance educational opportunities in their individual countries. According to Jill Lucas, director of communications at the Potomac School, the annual lecture series is intended to "educate future generations of Potomac students and inspire them to action on issues facing children and adults who are vulnerable to conflict and poverty."
MANY POTOMAC SCHOOL students are already involved in initiatives to raise awareness of global issues. A group of Potomac students has teamed with a school in Germany to raise awareness of child labor issues and develop potential solutions. The students will share their solutions at an international conference scheduled for June. Additionally, the student group STAND (Students Take Action Now Darfur) recently raised more than $4,000 to help internally displaced and refugee Sudanese, and last summer, a group of Potomac School students and faculty participated in a service learning trip to Ethiopia with the Center for International Education. This summer, a group of Potomac students will travel to Kenya with Potomac history teacher Ken Okoth for another service learning trip.
Okoth grew up in a Nairobi slum but was able to attend one of Kenya's top high schools through the sponsorship of Save the Children.
"I had no money to go to high school and if it had not been for the generosity of a sponsor from Save the Children, I would not have had the chance to go to high school," said Okoth at Wednesday's lecture.
Okoth said that he hoped Wednesday's Save the Children panelists would inspire students to help the organization and its cause.
"We want to make sure our students are thinking as global citizens," said Okoth.
Chloe O'Gara, Ph.D., associate vice president of education for Save the Children, said that there are currently 77 million children who are not enrolled in school, and she urged students to imagine what the world would be like if every child could receive the quality of education that students receive at the Potomac School.
"It would be a completely different world," said O'Gara.
PANEL MEMBER Feleketch Baharu, deputy chief of party in the Save the Children Ethiopia country office, said that Ethiopia is crippled by poverty, disease and drought. She relayed the story of one 12-year-old girl who was left to feed and care for her four younger siblings after her parents died of AIDS.
"She was carrying water, cooking and then coming to school and she was suffering a lot," said Baharu. "You just cannot imagine how these children are living their lives."
Similarly, panelist Augusto Costas, national education advisor in the Save the Children Bolivia office, said that children in his country are also forced to fend for themselves at shockingly young ages because impoverished parents living in rural regions often send their children to the city for schooling. Costas said he knew of one 8-year-old girl living alone with her 6-year-old brother in a city apartment.
"She wakes up at 5 a.m. and prepares the food for her and her brother, and then they go to school together at 8 a.m.," said Costas. "We call this functional abandoned — they have parents but their parents are barely surviving."
Vanessa's mother Gail Pean attended the Wednesday lecture, and was also presented with a an $800 check donation for the Vanessa Pean Foundation. The money had been raised the previous weekend by the Potomac School Community Service club. An emotional Pean choked up as she accepted the check from the students.
"This is beautiful," said Pean through tears. "It's hard to keep my composure because Vanessa would have been 18 on Friday, so it's just a really difficult time — but it's just so great to think of you all helping children around the world."