On May 29, in the small village of Manandona, Madagascar, 320 students and their eight teachers gathered as the vice mayor presented them with a two-pound package of colored paper and pencils, postmarked Pine, Arizona, U.S.A.
Botanist Herinandrianina Andriananjamanatsoa Notahianjanahary "Tahiana" e-mailed photos and a "thank you" to his friend Teddy Cohen, who sent the paper.
"I was so amazed at the response to it -- to think that something as simple as paper and pencils could mean so much," Cohen said.
She met Tahiana a year ago when he was doing research on plants at the Henry Doorly Zoo's Center for Conservation and Research in Omaha, Neb., working on his doctorate. Tahiana came to Phoenix and spoke to the Orchid Society, of which Cohen was a member.
The topic he chose was the world's most labor-intensive agricultural crop, which is endangered in the wild and is a member of the orchid family -- vanilla.
Vanilla is the only edible orchid.
Vanilla beans cost a couple of dollars each and vanilla syrup, with no alcohol added, costs about $20 per 2.5 fluid ounces.
The vine orchid that originated in Mexico, and is now cultivated in Madagascar, Uganda, Tahiti and a few other countries, climbs wild on jungle trees.
In the morning, a yellow-green orchid opens that only lasts 24 hours.
Natural pollination occurs only in Mexico and not in a quantity large enough to reach worldwide demand for the crop.
Instead, vanilla flowers must be pollinated by human hand with a toothpick, Cohen said.
If the pollination takes, then the flower withers down and starts to grow a big green bean that must be harvested by hand, dried in the sun during the day and kept indoors during the cooler Madagascar evenings.
"It is a long complicated process to get to the vanilla you buy in the grocery store," Cohen said. "And it is not something you could afford to pay people a living wage to harvest."
Agricultural workers in Madagascar earn about $1 a day.
After Tahiana returned to his country to research endangered plant species and harvest them for the Doorly Zoo (where new plants would be grown, then sent back to the country of origin), Cohen wrote and asked them if she could do anything to help him.
He wanted nothing for himself, but told Cohen that although children in his country go to public school, there was not much at school once they got there.
What do they need? she asked, expecting to hear requests for computers and Nikes.
"The kids here often don't have paper and pencils, he told me and it surprised me," Cohen said.
She bought some pencils and lined paper then asked a few friends, Barb Wilembrecht and Brenda Martell, to contribute colored paper to the cause.
In his thank you e-mail Tahiana wrote, "The mayor, the director of the school, the teachers and the students tell you thank you and thank you very much for your generosity."
Since receiving the photos from Tahiana, Cohen sent a second package.
Paper is not light and postage to Madagascar is $21 per pound, with a six- to 10-day delivery time, but Cohen plans to keep sending packages and hopes that others will want to contribute.
The African schools need lined, construction and colored papers, No. 2 and colored pencils, small manual pencil sharpeners and simple math workbooks.
"If one little housewife in Pine can bring out the mayor and that one little package can bring joy to students, think what we could accomplish if we all got together," she said.
Paper and Metal Scrappers in Payson has agreed to be a drop-off point for the supplies. Cohen can be reached at (928) 476-2220.
"The children's needs are so primitive. You couldn't send them anything they couldn't use," Cohen said.