Friday, February 12, 2010

To Senegal, with love

Community School fifth grade gives Gomis a spring break

Express Staff Writer

Community School fifth-grade class held a basketball and dinner benefit to send their classmate, Daniel Gomis, home to Senegal for spring break. Gomis is in the back row standing at 69. Photo by David N. Seelig

It was ostensibly a simple fundraiser sponsored by the fifth grade to send The Community School's international student, Daniel Gomis, home to his native Senegal for spring break. Guests were invited to enjoy a friendly parents-versus-kids (and star player) basketball game, followed by a Senegalese dinner featuring yassa (a chicken-and-onion dish), black-eyed pea fritters and homemade cakes iced in the colors of the Senegalese flag. It was an opportunity for the children to host and manage an event, but it turned into much more.

Dressed in custom-created "Gomis" T-shirts, aprons and chef's hats, Bev McNeal's fifth-grade students created an unforgettable evening. Each year the school's fifth grade chooses a community service project. This year they chose to send Gomis home for a simple reason: As a huge banner at the party venue (the school's gym foyer) read, "We love Daniel."

With authentic Senegalese music, ornate African décor and a meal that was prepared and served by the fifth grade, the real story emerged—that of the unlikely connection forged between an 18-year old from West Africa and a group of 10- and 11-year-old Idaho kids.

The 6-foot, 9-inch Gomis came to The Community School last fall to study and play basketball. He has drawn record crowds to Cutthroat basketball games this season with his grace, agility and amazing dunking ability. But, his impact has been felt way beyond the hardwood.

"When I was outside one day, they came right up and introduced themselves and I went to their class," Gomis said. "They invited me to teach them to play basketball and that's where the connection started. I really like them and they really like me."

During a toast, McNeal summed up the spirit of the evening.

"The heart of this event is the fifth grade," McNeal said. "You guys have driven this event from the beginning. You've loved Daniel and every time he stepped in the classroom, it was magical. You love him and he loves you."

Following dinner, the children were able to put into their own words what Gomis has meant to them.

"I love the way everyone lights up when he walks into the room, and I love his smile," said fifth-grader Betsy Sensenbrenner.

Classmate Ellie Polk concurred and said Gomis taught them some French and some basketball, and he means a lot to the class.

"When we first met him, we instantly loved him," said fifth-grader Lane Letourneau. "He is so sweet. He makes everyone happy. It's really interesting to meet someone from Senegal."

Saturday's party included a slide show presentation of Gomis' homeland, African drumming by the children and songs in both French and Gomis' tribal language of Wolof.

Saturday's dinner raised enough money for Gomis to return to Senegal for an extended stay during spring break in March. Since he came to America in May to train for basketball, he has not seen his family, which includes a brother the same age as the fifth-graders. According to his Ketchum host "mother," Jackie Flanigan, he may also have the chance to visit his seriously ill father in Paris.

"It was one of those magical evenings where we had a local community and a global community," said Pat Aluisi, Community School board member and parent of a fifth-grader. "This teaches us what we should be learning, how to be expansive and inclusive. It was a joyful, exuberant evening."

"Somehow the stars aligned and Daniel dropped in to our lives this year," McNeal said to an audience that was clearly touched. "Daniel, you have been am amazing ambassador for your country of Senegal. The kids will never think of Senegal without thinking of you. You emanate love from your heart. You can't fool children. Thank you for impacting their world in this way."

By the way, the kids and Gomis did win the basketball game, only by an 18-15 margin, but it wasn't as close as it sounds.

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