McNeal Elementary fifth graders address the elephant in the room.
Students in Lora Sevarino’s fifth grade class at Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary School knew adopting an elephant as part of its Leadership Project would be fun.
To get them excited, Sevarino even purchased a little stuffed elephant for each of her 18 students.
But leadership lessons also can be hard, and the story of Lemeki is proof.
Lemeki is a 3-year-old orphaned elephant in the care of Kenya’s Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which is an African nonprofit dedicated to protecting the continent’s wildlife and caring for orphaned elephants and rhinos so they eventually can go back to the wild.
Officials at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust don’t know what happened to Lemeki’s parents. They found her alone in a flooding river. Lemeki was the perfect candidate for adoption.
Upon hearing her story, the class took a vote on whether to adopt Lemeki as part of the Leadership Project, and it was unanimous. The adoption became a reality.
“It was awesome to think we actually adopted an elephant,” fifth grader Laura Staddler said.
One of the immediate lessons for Sevarino’s students was that human-wildlife interaction can lead to devastating consequences. Sevarino said elephants often are orphaned as a result of human interaction, such as hunting and poaching.
“The kids relate so much because of the age,” Sevarino said. “They think about what would happen if we didn’t have our parents to take care of us. It brings a level of understanding and empathy that they wouldn’t normally experience. They learned they can make a difference to help that animal.”
At McNeal Elementary, classes are tasked with a Leadership Project each year. This year’s mantra is “leadership habits pounce into action.”
“We talked about how we’re never too young to change the world,” Sevarino said. “We focused on not just what we do here in our school but how we can make a difference around the world.”
The students began doing research to find out more about elephants, Africa, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and how people could make a difference.
“They just want to learn everything there is to learn about elephants, where Lemeki is in the world and about the foundation,” Sevarino said. “They’re sort of little sponges wanting to learn everything about it.”
To pay for the adoption, Sevarino used $50 of the $500 she received from ABC 7 last year for being named one of the station’s Chalkboard Champions for her efforts with e-learning. The class will receive an update from the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust on Lemeki every month to see how she’s progressing. Students can watch videos of her being fed and playing with other elephants.
“It brings them so much joy to see that Lemeki is playing with other elephants and isn’t alone,” Sevarino said. “They know they’re helping this beautiful creature survive and get better.”
Fifth grader Evey Burge said she has learned plenty of interesting facts while researching elephants. For example, she learned that besides elephants breathing through their trunks, they use them to bring food and water to their mouth and for grasping objects.
“I love that we get to learn more about them because usually in a zoo, you just pass by them,” Burge said. “We get to learn more about what they eat and what they do.”
While researching elephants, fifth grader August Iturraspe said he learned about Africa. He was surprised to find out cocoa beans come from Africa and that copper was sent from Africa to France, eventually being used in the making of the Statue of Liberty.
“I’ve always been learning about America because that’s where we live, but we never had the time to learn about Africa,” Iturraspe said.
The class was hoping to visit the Myakka Elephant Ranch, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made field trips difficult. Sevarino is hoping to work something out in terms of a field trip.
Doing research and presenting information about Lemeki is just the first stage of the Leadership Project. Projects in three more quarters remain before the class — along with every class at McNeal — presents its Leadership Project at the end of the school year on Leadership Day. Projects are displayed outside the classroom, and students walk the halls to see what initiatives other classes worked on.
“Everybody can change the world as long as you have a little bit of kindness, and you don’t do it by yourself,” Staddler said.
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