It’s difficult for Dana Rensi to sit still while describing her summer adventure through the steamy, primordial, mosquito-infested depths of the Peruvian Amazon, let alone tell the story in its proper sequence of events.
No, when it comes to recounting the scores of fascinating people with whom the Ashland High School (AHS) media specialist crossed paths, and the sights and sounds that blitzed her senses while visiting remote villages in the jungle, delivering first-world internet technology to third-world schools, the constraints of anything approaching a linear account quickly shatter.
Instead, Rensi blurts out the highlights in a series of enthusiastic, oral flash non-fiction installments, jumping from the medical boat she took down the river while serving as a translator to the meeting she had with Guanajuato Senator Juan Carlos Romero Hicks to the Frisbee-sized piranha she hooked along the way, from which she extracted the jaws to serve as quite possibly the toothiest gift ever to pass from grandma to grandson.
But what Rensi lacks in narrative discipline she more than makes up for in pure, almost childlike enthusiasm as she recounts in painstaking detail her summer partnership with Project Amazonas, a not-for-profit non-governmental organization that specializes in medical care, conservation, education, research and sustainable community development.
“Oh my gosh, the highlights are so incredible,” she said Monday from her office in the AHS library, pausing occasionally to scroll through a laptop loaded with pictures from a trip that began July 4 and ended Aug. 14. “It went way beyond anything I could imagine.”
Rensi’s trip began in Mexico City, where she met Hicks — the two have known each other since they were linked by the Amistad student exchange program 40 years ago — to share details of her journey into South America.
“He’s president of the education commission for the entire country and he’s secretary of the science and technology commission, so I’m not going to go somewhere without showing him this stuff,” Rensi said.
Rensi left with Hicks three items which represented the bulk of her trip’s purpose: a Raspberry Pi, essentially a stripped down, bare bones computer (it retails for $35) developed to promote basic computer science education in developing countries; Foldscopes, $1 microscopes ingeniously designed to pop out of cardboard cutouts and fold origami style, for science education and experiments; and reusable, washable menstruation kits from Days for Girls.
Even before she packed her toothbrush, Rensi’s itinerary greatly expanded from a plan that was already ambitious from the outset.
Inspired by what she witnessed in the jungle while on a Fulbright exchange in Iquitos, Peru, during the 2005-06 school year and emboldened by technological advances which have rendered former barriers to her vision mere hurdles, Reni decided to head back to the jungle with equipment that would give hundreds and possibly thousands of school-aged children who have no access to electricity, let alone the internet, the ability to tap into solar digital libraries loaded with educational content.
She accomplished that with the Raspberry Pis and RACHELs (Remote Access Community Hotspot for Education and Learning), digital libraries which shoot out wireless signals that can be picked up by any laptop or mobile device with standard Wi-Fi capability.
The project quickly expanded after Rensi contacted and later met Manu Prakash, the Stanford bioengineer who invented the Foldscope. Prakash gave Rensi a box of 100 Foldscopes which she used to train before handing out at every stop along her journey. Then came the menstruation kits and Menstrupedia, a menstruation explainer written in comic book form.
“It’s just incredible,” she said.
Rensi was in Mexico City three days before shoving off to Guatemala, where she met with representatives from World Possible, the organization that created the RACHEL server and Raspberry Pi. By then, Rensi was well-versed in the capabilities of both, having attended a Picademy at University of California, Irvine in June. Thousands applied for the two-day class and Rensi was one of 40 chosen, and the only one who wasn’t a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) teacher.
“You can make weather stations, you can make infrared cameras, you can control things in your house, you can do all this kind of stuff, so they were teaching us that,” she said.
In Guatemala, where she spent a week, Rensi observed Pi training sessions in Spanish — she’s fluent — so that she could then replicate the class in Peru, and led Foldscope workshops. After that, it was off to Peru, where Rensi’s objectives included identifying remote schools in which to install the solar digital libraries. She knew the high-performing private school at which she was stationed during her Fullbright trip there 12 years prior probably didn’t need a RACHEL, but that school employs an outreach program to help other, less fortunate schools. One of the schools it serves in the very poor village Belen was one of several that Rensi toured while on the lookout for good fits.
The fact that a woman Rensi befriended on her previous trip there still worked for the school in Iquitos was more than a fortunate coincidence, Rensi noted. Cledy Grandez’s involvement, in fact, was absolutely crucial to the project’s success.
“I wanted oversight and help, and I knew that Cledy could do that,” Rensi said. “And you need relationships. Nothing works in Latin American countries without relationships. And I have this wonderful relationship with this school.”
Next, Rensi joined forces with the Institute for Investigation of the Peruvian Amazon on a bee hive project. From there, she hopped into a medical boat with two fifth-year medical students, two fifth-year dental students, a Peruvian medical doctor and a Peruvian dentist and served as the group’s translator while it cut deep into the jungle to remote villages, offering aid to those too isolated to receive it any other way. Serving 30 to 40 people per stop, Rensi’s group gave general check-ups, handed out anti-parasite medication and iron for those anemic, and so on. The week-long excursion also allowed Rensi to check another item off her to-do list, as she showed the Menstrupedia books and a video and passed out the Days for Girls kits at every stop.
It was on the boat in between villages that Rensi caught the piranha, which was “delicious.” Now, she said with a snicker, her grandkids will be ready for their first show-and-tell day once school starts.
Her medical boat trip completed, Rensi returned to Iquitos just in time to meet a representative from Powering Potential, an NGO which had already brought solar powered computers and digital libraries to rural Tanzania and was considering installing RACHELs in nearby schools. Rensi invited Powering Potential, was thrilled when they accepted her offer and was even more thrilled to serve as the binder between it and Project Amazonas.
Representatives from both then accompanied Rensi on her second extended foray into the jungle, a journey that took the group first by boat, then over land by moto-taxi and finally by boat again to a Project Amazonas field station.
“And we spent the night in these huts,” she said, “way out there, listening to the orchestra of the jungle.”
Rensi left one of the seven RACHELs the brought there to be installed later. Another taxi and boat trip took the group to the CONAPAC Amazon Library, which Rensi knew about but had never seen. There, she donated another RACHEL and several menstrual kits.
After they returned to Iquitos, Rensi met with the principal of the school at which she worked during her Fullbright exchange, Rosa De America, and decided to leave two more RACHELs there — one loaded with English curriculum, one Spanish. Pre-installed on each RACHEL is a long list of open source curriculum, everything from classic literature to math books, to biology textbooks and everything in between.
“I didn’t think they’d want them, but they were just like, ‘Wow,’” she said.
More demonstrations and more RACHEL hook-ups followed before Rensi began her long journey home. Now nearly two weeks removed from the jungle, she’s still overwhelmed by the scores of generous people who helped make her trip such a success, from the financial donors — one Florida man read her story in a newspaper there, went to her GoFundMe page and plunked down $1,500 — to those who contributed in other ways.
The work will continue, she said. A November trip to Washington D.C. to present on behalf of Fullbright is in the works, provided she can get time off work. Then, Rensi hopes, she’ll head to New York to lend her voice to Powering Potential.
How did it all come together so well? Rensi credits everybody but herself, and her faith in the power of good intentions and hard work may best be summed up in one of her many anecdotes leading up to the trip. She was in Irvine, California, for the Picademy when she threw caution to the wind and emailed the executive director of World Possible, Jeremy Schwartz. World Possible builds the RACHELs. Rensi was stunned when Schwartz called her but was able to keep her composure long enough to ask for a face-to-face meeting at a coffee shop. And, a RACHEL.
Rensi was prepared to drive her Honda Fit two hours to where she thought Schwartz worked. Turns out, she didn’t have to.
“He said, ‘As a matter of fact, we make them out there but I’m actually in Irvine,’” Rensi said.
Recalling the story, Rensi quickly pulled up a photo of her and Schwartz sitting next to each other.
“Look!” she said, “Jeremy! He’s so awesome.”
Schwartz brought to the impromptu meeting a French RACHEL, a computer that now sits somewhere in Haiti, opening doors for children who otherwise would see only walls.
“These people are so awesome,” Rensi said. “There’s this whole level of people who want to do good things in the world.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.