One day while reading the newspaper in 1995, a story caught Pam Zimba’s attention.
It told of Iqbal Masih who was born in South Asia and sold into slavery when he was four years old. After spending six years chained to a carpet-weaving loom, at age 10 Masih was freed, and began to speak out for children’s rights. At age 12, Masih was murdered because in speaking out against child labor, he was “bad for business.”
The story stuck with Zimba, a Northdale Middle School (NMS) seventh-grade English Language Arts (ELA) teacher, especially after she returned to school after reading it.
“After reading about the murder I could have been upset but folded up my paper, recycled it and gone on with my life,” Zimba said. “But when I walked into class that day and looked at the kids who were the same age as Iqbal, I couldn’t turn away from that face.”
From there Zimba, who thought child labor had ended years ago, spent a year researching the subject. From that research, Zimba wrote curriculum for a “The Issue of Child Labor” unit which has led NMS students to positively touch the lives of children across the globe.
(As a result of her work, all seventh-grade teachers teach The Issue of Child Labor and a publishing company has distributed it to teachers across the U.S.)
Unbeknown to Zimba, someone else was deeply moved by the story. Craig Kielburger, a 12-year-old who lived in Canada, was so impacted by what happened to Masih he began to speak out against child labor.
After gathering a small group of classmates at his Thornhill, Ontario, school, “Free the Children” was born. The organization grew from just addressing child labor issues to an international charity and educational partner, helping some of the neediest communities on the globe. More than 1.7 million youth are involved and helping to support development projects in 45 countries.
Through her research, Zimba learned of Kielburger’s efforts. Zimba met Kielburger, age 14 at the time, when he spoke at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
From this meeting, Zimba got her NMS students involved with Free the Children. Each year as part of the child labor unit, students pick a Free the Children project to support.
As NMS students work through the unit, Zimba teaches that it’s important to take action on behalf of people who have no power and no voice. The students are not the only ones who have learned from this unit. For her work, Zimba received the Education Minnesota Human Rights Award in 2005 and received a Teacher Outstanding Performance (TOP) award in 2007.
“I have learned that seventh-grade students have enormous hearts,” Zimba said. “They have made a difference in the lives of many, many children.”
The students’ biggest project to date was in 2007 when Zimba’s 90 seventh-grade students raised $5,000 to build a new school in Naikarra, Kenya. (Zimba kicked off the fund-raising with the $1,000 she had received as a TOP winner.)
The original school, opened 30 years ago, was in mud structures and hosted 12 boys and one girl.
Zimba recently learned from Marie Fuki, an educational programming coordinator with Free the Children, that 789 children now attend the Naikara Primary School built with NMS’s students’ support.
“Naikarra is very proud to support female education and hosts a couple hundred girls in their classrooms studying right next to the boys and giving them good competition on their exams,” Fuki said. “Free The Children has mobilized 19 women groups, a men’s group and a youth group in the community.”
Fuki wrote that in 2011, Naikarra students did well on their average scores on a national exam.
“According to country standards, students within these scores are considered to have good to excellent marks and will be able to enroll in high performing high schools within the country,” Fuki said. “The efforts made by you and your students to break the cycle of poverty in Kenya are truly inspiring! Thank you so much for everything you do.”
Over the years, several of the students involved with building the school have written Zimba notes telling her they will always remember it and for some, it was a life-changing experience. Having graduated from high school in the spring, some students are now college freshmen.
Hawi Tilahune, a 2012 graduate of Coon Rapids High School and a freshman at Macalester College in St. Paul, has expressed interest in visiting the school in January.
“Hawi will be able to tell the students in Naikarra that she was one of the kids who helped build their school,” Zimba said. “We feel that that is our school and those are our kids. At some point in the future I’d like to go to Naikarra. It’s on my wish list to go see the school and meet the children.”
When the school year ends, traveling is one thing Zimba will have more time to do. An ELA teacher at NMS for 39 years, Zimba will retire this spring.
Zimba had originally wanted to be a journalist, but at the time she was in college journalism was a tough career for women to enter. Because she loved to write, Zimba decided to be an English teacher. She said it ended up being a good choice.
“I don’t know if I would have liked being a journalist, it was very cutthroat at that time,” she said. “And now I have so many cards and notes from students and their parents and I think ‘wow.’ It reminds me of ‘The Road Not Taken,’ by Robert Frost. It’s funny how things work out.”
As with The Issue of Child Labor, Zimba enjoys writing curriculum, something she hopes to do after she retires.
“It might sound sappy, but the pen is more powerful than the sword,” Zimba said. “Writing and communicating is how we can affect change.”
Zimba said she will probably “cry her eyes out” on the last day of school.
“After 39 years, how many people can honestly say, ‘I had a job I really loved,’” Zimba said. “It’s pretty amazing; I’m just so lucky.”