Ruth Reilly steps up to help children of South Sudan
By B.C. Manion
Ruth Reilly began praying about her next phase in life long before retiring from her high-ranking career in Pasco County Schools.
The Land O’ Lakes woman found her new calling, serving as a volunteer educational advisor to help school children in Akot, South Sudan.
It didn’t take Reilly long to discover the vast differences between the conditions in the schools of South Sudan and those in Pasco County.
Reilly, who visited South Sudan in October, said it took two days to reach her destination, and the last leg of her journey was on a small chartered airplane. The pilot had to buzz the dirt landing strip to shoo cattle away before he could touch down.
She was one of a seven-member mission team that made the trip. She and another retired educator spent four days in the community’s two primary schools.
Living Water Community Transformation, a Tampa-based ministry, supports the schools, Reilly said. The ministry operates as Akot Christian Ministries.
A total of 600 students attend the two schools, which are called Abundant Life and Living Water. Both schools have open-air classrooms with thatch roofs supported by wooden poles.
Materials for the schools are in short supply, Reilly said.
“Every child is given one activity book, which is a little notebook of paper that’s actually provided by UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund),” Reilly said. “It might be 50 pages and it’s for the entire year. … That is all they have. And, they’re given a pen for the entire year.”
The retired assistant superintendent noted that when she was in Akot, the schools were approaching the end of their academic year. Many of the children no longer had their pen or paper.
That makes learning difficult, especially because the schools have few textbooks, she noted.
“Typically in a classroom, a teacher would have a little chalkboard, a piece of chalk, their own book and that would be it,” she said.
“In their English classes, they tended to have more copies of books,” Reilly said, adding that in those classes, there might be 10 books for every 30 children.
There are other challenges, too.
Reilly said the teachers are not college educated.
“They’re all from the community — and they are all very dedicated, very committed, very capable individuals — but lack training,” she said.
Reilly is working to find people who are nearby and have expertise to provide teachers additional training. So far, she’s found one person who lives within a couple of hours that she hopes will be able to help.
Reilly doesn’t believe the government will be able to provide much help.
“South Sudan is a country that is newly independent. They became an independent country in July of 2011. So, they really have very little in terms of government resources,” Reilly said.
She tracked down curriculum, written in 2002, which apparently is the most current that’s available there. Copies are being made here to distribute to teachers there because even printing is not easily accomplished in South Sudan, Reilly said.
Despite the challenges, Reilly said she was impressed by the students’ eagerness to learn and by the commitment of the local parent organizations.
“The people value education and they are doing whatever they can, within their resources, to support the school,” Reilly said. She added, “We had a very interesting meeting with the PTA (parent teacher association) board. There were tribal leaders and parents from the community. These are parents that are really very involved in supporting this school. … These parents were really a very vital link with many parents who live far out in the bush. The PTA would actually physically go out and talk with people that the school couldn’t reach.
“The other thing that really, really impressed us was how well behaved the children were,” Reilly continued. “The children would sit for hours underneath these thatched huts on these benches that were rough logs. They were just so excited to be at school.”
Reilly is available to give talks or presentations to community or church groups by emailing her at or calling (813)996-5079.
To learn more about the ministry, visit livingwaterct.org.
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