Silly dance bears serious results

by Rachel Parker Dickerson

The annual Chicken Dance Marathon in the Conway School District is more than a fundraising event for charity. It’s also a program of sustained service learning.

Just ask Dr. Mark Cooper.

He founded Chicks for Children and the Chicken Dance Marathon to help sustain charitable work in the Kipsongo slum in Kitale, Kenya. The slum is one of the most underprivileged places imaginable. People who live there have no way to earn a living and dwell in wretched conditions, building huts out of trash.

Dr. Mark Cooper. (Mike Kemp photos)

Cooper’s son, Jim, is a missionary in Kitale who has started an orphanage, school and feeding center. The orphanage houses 42 children while 350 other children who live in the slum receive food twice a day, six times a week at the feeding center. The efforts of Conway children have provided a chicken coop and 1,517 chickens, affording the people of Kitale eggs to sell to sustain the feeding center and school.

The third annual Chicken Dance Marathon was held May 20 at all Conway elementary schools and both intermediate schools.

“These students have an opportunity to leave a tremendous legacy regarding serving the children from the Kipsongo slum,” Cooper said. “Imagine those students now, graduates of Conway High School, having sustained this relationship, having set an example for those who came behind them. What an opportunity for them to learn to serve those in need.

“We’re raising funds, but I don’t see us strictly as fundraisers. Funds are necessary. What makes it more is this education that we’re providing for children to learn how to serve. They can learn to excel academically, but also how to serve one another. It can be called a school community service learning project.”

Cooper and a colleague in the department of early childhood and special education at the University of Central Arkansas developed activities to be taught in the weeks before the marathon.

“The marathon is the capstone following activities that are service-oriented in nature,” he said. “Our attempt is to educate schoolwide so that we don’t leave in the minds of anyone that this is simply a fundraising event. Not that anything is wrong with a fundraising event. It’s just not enough. We must have this education component.

“It’s exactly the way in which you sustain service learning across time. Today these students are helping children from the Kipsongo slum. Tomorrow, it could be helping someone in your own community. The needs are great all over the world. This is one activity we think promotes the kind of thinking that helps students become adults that think globally.”

Cooper hopes that a growing partnership, which now includes Chicks for Children, Conway Schools, UCA and Chick-fil-A, will spread seeds of service learning across the country.

“As the district children get older, I’m hoping this community-wide team begins to ask one another the question, ‘How do we grow this activity that allows the students to begin to carve out its future?’” Cooper said. “It may not be a Chicken Dance that they perform. It may be a Chicken Dance that they facilitate. It may be a leadership role they assume in the state of Arkansas. They are the seeds of hope for helping create marathons all over.

“As they get older, they should share increasingly in the ownership of what we’re doing. As they get older and wiser and more educated, we’re hoping they will get more proactive in defining with us what we might do.”

The chicken dance may seem silly to some, but when Cooper speaks to children at assemblies, he’s quick to point out the things that don’t seem silly.

“I ask them to look at some pictures,” he said. “Notice the chicken coop they see in Kitale, Kenya, is the chicken coop they helped build. The chickens in Kitale, Kenya, are the chickens they helped buy. How silly is that, or how serious is that? The kids will say, ‘Seems mighty important to me.’

“Yes, there is a silliness to this journey, but the journey is very important in the lives of the children from the Kipsongo slum. The kids get that. All we have to do is bring it to their attention.”