When Zoom meetings became commonplace during the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida Gulf Coast University’s Wings of Hope used them to full advantage, spreading its message to other parts of the world.
The program – which traditionally buses fourth- and fifth-graders to the university to teach them about sustainability – went virtual along with most other education. Wings of Hope instructors devised a program with videos, interactive exercises and slides to teach children about the endangered Florida panther, other wildlife and their habitats.
Since its inception in 2000, the nonprofit Wings of Hope’s Panther Posse program has touched the lives of 150,000 Southwest Florida students from elementary school to college. Now that bus trips to the university have resumed for Southwest Florida students, the online version has found new life in an international program, the Planet Posse, that reaches students some 8,000 miles away in Kenya.
Last August, Wings of Hope’s Panther Posse team members – instructors, student volunteers and a handful of supporters – connected with the Karundas Primary School science club and students from Marimanti Secondary Girls School, located on opposite slopes of Mount Kenya.
Clustered around the computer, Karundas school’s head teacher, Rosa Ndono, and several students who had stayed after hours for this unique learning opportunity look intently into the camera. Meanwhile, Ann Godsea, the Wings of Hope education coordinator, sits in the Panther Posse room in Reed Hall with a (fake) stuffed panther and a large Azul cardboard cutout, photos of panthers and nature-themed objects behind her, preparing to engage with the Kenyan youngsters.
As the somewhat glitchy internet connects, everyone cheers. “I have goosebumps!” Godsea tells the group in Kenya. “It’s great to see you!”
She introduces herself and explains that Wings of Hope and its Panther Posse program exist to save endangered species.
“Here in Florida, it’s the panther,” she says. “The panther is an umbrella species. If we protect its habitat, it protects the habitats for many other species – snakes, frogs, otters, owls.”
Over the next two hours, Godsea, program founder and director Ricky Pires and their three FGCU student helpers lead the Kenyan youngsters on what must seem as exotic a journey to them as a safari through their country would seem to us.
They watch raptly during a short video where “Ms. Ricky” participates in the capture of a panther by Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission officials. Godsea and Pires show photos of panthers, discuss their habits and diet and explain there are only 150 or so left in the wild. The children fill in their information worksheets as the program progresses.
After some time has passed, a person clad in a panther outfit appears on camera and begins to dance, front paws up, to “Fly Like an Eagle.” The FGCU posse pack urges the Kenyan students to get up and dance, too. After a moment’s hesitation, the students rise, bend their arms at the elbows like the panther and start to rock back and forth by their seats.
The session ends with Godsea giving the students an assignment: “Educate one other person about what you learned today. This is how we save endangered species. You can do the same thing with other species.”
Speaking for her students, Ndono pronounces it “a very nice presentation. We love to see the panther.”
Fast forward to October. Since that first session, the Wings of Hope team has held a similar session for a group of secondary students from the Marimanti Girls School on the other side of Mount Kenya from Karundas Primary School. They focused on the panther, which is not common in their region.
The high school girls then took a nature walk in the Mount Kenya National Forest and saw rhinos, elephants, giraffes and other native animals. There are plans for the two Kenyan schools and the FGCU team to meet again so the Kenyan girls can talk about what they learned and teach the younger children.
“We all teach each other,” says Annah Wambua, principal of Marimanti Girls School.
This Florida-Kenya connection came about because of connections developed by FGCU assistant professor Peter Ndiang’ui, coordinator of the Child and Youth Studies Program. It was through that program’s internship network that this collaboration with Wings of Hope was initiated. Ndiang’ui also serves as director of operations for Global Diaspora One Voice Consortium, which brings together Africans all over the world and sponsored the Panther Posse partnership.
Ndiangui arranged for Pires and some of the program’s interns to speak at an international education conference last spring, where they talked about Wings of Hope and met representatives from schools from Kenya and Ghana. Following that meeting, the U.S. group helped provide cameras and internet connections for their new African friends.
Things began to fall into place from there, and the Zoom-based Planet Posse gatherings were the result.
In a follow-up email, head teacher Rosa Ndono included comments from two students.
“Veronica says, ‘Watching the panther (kittens) is so exciting.’”
“Jackson says, ‘Tell the presenters, Anna and the students, we enjoy telling others about the panther.’”
And, Ndono concludes, “From the Karundas family, we say thank you.”
Wings of Hope depends on donations to continue its mission of promoting research, awareness, education and kindness in regards to wildlife. Donations can be made on the Wings of Hope website.