Most classrooms in Spokane County look the same. Walk in and you’ll see rows of desks and chairs, a whiteboard, stacks of textbooks and cups filled with pencils.
But when Joel and Jackie Wells visited schools in Malawi while serving as missionaries, they were dismayed at what they found.
Some “schools” met outdoors. The children sat on the ground and the teacher taught from memory, a rickety chalkboard propped against a tree. No books. No paper. No pencils.
“Malawi is actually considered a fourth-world country,” said Jackie Wells. “It’s sustenance living: They basically live on a day-to-day basis.”
The couple traveled to Malawi after Joel Wells lost his job at Kaiser Aluminum. “We had an opportunity to go to Africa for a year,” she said. “That was nine years ago.”
They fell in love with Malawi and its people, and ended up staying – returning to Spokane only to visit friends and family. Jackie Wells smiled. “We’re both adventurous people.”
Located in southeast Africa, landlocked Malawi is roughly the size of Pennsylvania.
“It’s truly the National Geographic image of grass huts and poverty,” Wells said.
In some villages, the people have been able to construct school buildings. “They fire their own bricks,” she said. A dirt floor and a thatched roof complete the school.
The student-teacher ratio in many schools is 100 to 1, and the lack of basic supplies is crippling.
While in Spokane a few years ago, the couple met with friends and outlined the desperate need they’d seen in the schools. “We said, ‘We have to do something,’ ” Wells recalled.” Five of us sat around a table and brainstormed – at the end, PAL was born.”
PAL stands for Portable Academic LapDesk, an injection-molded plastic lap desk that offers more than just a portable place to write.
After consulting with teachers and child-development specialists, the couple came up with a prototype – a 26-by-15 3/4-inch lightweight, waterproof desk designed for children in grades one through six.
The reversible, curved desk features a wealth of information. Copyrighted graphics contain the alphabet, a ruler, a multiplication table, a world map and much more. There’s a color wheel, a clock, a compass, an undated calendar and even musical scales.
“Music is the universal language,” Wells said.
She added her own touch to the project. Scattered across the desk are words and phrases of affirmation, like “You are beautiful,” “Loved,” and “Dream Big.”
“I said, ‘Let’s put some power words on there that kids will hopefully believe about themselves.’ ”
In addition to the desks, a lesson plan book will be provided to the teachers. The book will contain about 300 lessons in various subjects that coordinate with the PAL.
This project has propelled the couple to yet another adventure. “We’re transitioning to move back to Spokane,” Wells said. A few months ago they launched a nonprofit, Americans for Africa, in order to raise the funds needed to get PAL off the ground.
A company in Coeur d’Alene will produce the desks, but it’s an expensive project. The injection-mold alone will cost $50,000. In addition, $60,000 is needed to produce the first 2,000 units.
Permission to distribute the desks has already been granted, not only in Malawi, but also in Zambia and South Africa. Eventually, the Wellses hope to reach out into Uganda and other African nations.
It’s an ambitious goal, but one they feel is worth attaining. Wells said, “It’s exciting to think about transforming one child’s life, and this has the potential to transform so many.”