Beginning in 2014, the cities of Preston, Idaho and Yechila, Ethiopia began an exchange of service and fellowship that continues to this present day.
While serving as a teacher with the Peace Corps in Yechila from 2014-2016, I worked to connect students and community members from the two cities. I encouraged my students to write to their counterparts in Preston, beginning a pen-pal letter exchange.
Realizing Yechila’s desperate need for basic education resources, I worked with Preston residents to raise funds that built latrines, purchased desks, textbooks, and other school supplies for Yechila’s high school. In 2016, Yechila’s high school principal recorded a video message to thank the community in Preston for their support: “We are thanks to for giving their special donations...so we are too happy. Thanks very much to Preston students.”
In 2018, this history of engagement continued. I returned to Yechila with my wife Haylee Westerberg and Principal Lance Harrison to train local teachers on classroom management at the request of Yechila’s school district. Visiting Yechila’s high school before the training, we saw classrooms where students had once sat on concrete floors, now filled with desks built through donations from Preston. Touring the rest of the school, we saw shelves of hundreds of books, also gifted through contributions from Preston, being used by students preparing for exams.
Prior to beginning our training session, we presented two dozen Ethiopian teachers with Preston t-shirts which were generously donated by Preston School District (with special help from Dr. Stuart Knapp and Shelby and Sydney Hull). We watched as the group excitedly picked out their different shirts, complimenting friends on their selections and posing with each other for photos.
For days after our training session with Yechila’s teachers, it was nearly impossible to walk through the red, dusty streets of the city without seeing bright blue Preston t-shirts dotted throughout the populace. As we prepared to leave the school, the teachers surprised us with their own gift, giving each of us beautiful handmade Ethiopian cultural clothing.
While visiting Yechila, we made several visits to the city’s orphanage to meet with some of my former students living there. Without family, the children support each other while striving towards their educations. Some of them still keep the letters they received from their Preston pen-pals years before. We played games, helped them with homework, and learned more about their needs to prepare for future projects to support the orphanage in the months to come. We also distributed additional shirts and school supplies donated by Preston community members.
When I completed my Peace Corps Service in 2016, I left Ethiopia expecting the connection between Yechila and Preston to fade with my exit. As the years have passed, I have been surprised to find that engagement between the two communities has continued and grown. Many people in Yechila still fondly remember and benefit from acts of service given from Preston years before.
More recently, Yechila residents have experienced improvements in education with assistance and resources from Preston community members. Indeed, if there is any indicator of the mark Preston has made on the community in Yechila, it is the fact that in the middle of the arid mountains of Ethiopia, there is a city whose residents can find Idaho on a map and tell you how this friendship from afar has blessed their lives. Thank you Preston, Idaho.