Pencils for Kids: We Speak with Founder Robin Mednick

This article was published by Marsha Mowers on Travel Pulse Canada

Last week at The Travel Agent Next Door National Conference at the Iberostar Playa Mita in Puerto Vallarta, attendees had the opportunity to hear from a charity that is very dear to the agency’s heart – Pencils for Kids.

Founded 14 years ago, this writer’s not sure which is more inspiring: the story behind the charity’s creation or the intensity and dedication of its founder Robin Mednick.

TravelPulse sat down with Mednick, who has worked as a lawyer, event planner and radio producer, in Mexico where she told us how Pencils for Kids was sparked by a call from professional photographer Dan Galbraith who at the time had been working on the Francophone games in Niger in West Africa.

“I didn’t know anything about the country, and when I spoke with him on the phone, he couldn’t function, he was distraught,” says Mednick. “I asked him what was wrong and he said ‘Robin, I am just getting back from Niger, and the poverty was so astounding I couldn’t function’. He said some athletes had gone to visit the school and saw that 30 children were sharing one pencil.”

“It broke his heart. I was sitting on the phone listening and at the time was producing a radio show and I just remember stopping and my heart said instantly, without thinking, ‘Dan, stop talking, let’s just do something. He said ‘well, what are you going to do?’ and I said I had no idea but I’d call him back.”

Mednick immediately sprang into action and called the Canadian Government and the Embassy in Niger, who, speaking French, managed to connect her with a man named Amadou Madougou, who, it turned out, was the Mayor of a community named Libore and was a former Education Minister for the country. She asked him to send her a wish list of what they needed and the next day, the list arrived via email. It was a simple list, paper, pens, rulers, geometry sets. Mednick drove to her local Office Depot and asked for the manager.

“I said look, you don’t know me, but there are 30 kids sharing one pencil in a country I’ve never been to, and we want to help. And he looked at me and said, well, I decided this year wasn’t going to be about me and I’d love to join your team and help. And that was the beginning.” That man was Michael Williams, who now sits on the board.

They collected one box of items, but to ship the box to Niger was going to be approximately $500. Realizing that’s a lot to ship one box, Mednick reached out to the President of DHL, the preferred courier of Niger, and asked they sponsor the delivery. Soon, one box became two, then became three and many more.

The Mayor received the box and before he opened it, called the Canadian Embassy to come down to witness the opening of the box, something that spoke volumes to her. Williams subsequently helped with providing additional supplies, which DHL would ship and by then, Mednick was hooked. People started hearing about the organizing Mednick was doing and more shipments came in. It would eventually lead to the first of three schools being built.

She made her first trip to Niger to meet everyone and on the plane met a man from the UK who was asking why she was travelling to Niger. She explained the story and he gave her $100 US to use towards her work and that photo of the man and the $100 bill is now framed and hanging in the first school built by Pencils for Kids – Peter Enti’s name is engraved on the first desk as a thank you from the community for this very first donation

Mednick’s work hasn’t stopped with schools. Her husband Ed, is a Toronto-based ophthalmologist and has done work with Orbis, a revolutionary mobile eye hospital housed on a jet airplane. For two weeks, in 2010, a team of doctors, nurses and health care workers trained local ophthalmologists and nurses with new techniques, provided educational outreach, and operated on patients on board the “airplane hospital”. Close to 400 people were screened during the Liboré outreach program, with a quarter receiving follow-up treatment.

I mention to Mednick that it would seem all her past endeavors lead to creating Pencils for Kids and she laughs, saying “Look, you’ve added my life together in a way I never did!

“Sometimes you think everything you’ve done is a stepping stone to nothing, you don’t know. It’s only as you get older and you look back you think, you know what, these pieces fit. They may not have looked as a cohesive piece at the time, but I think they all built upon each other. And I don’t think I would’ve been able to do this charity I started had I not done all of those other things.”