BRYANT POND — The freshmen class at Telstar Regional High School is prepared to take on the world, or at least some of the world’s greatest problems.

As part of the school’s regular “think tank” projects, this year’s class has investigated homelessness in Los Angeles and in Mali, Africa, and health care in Papua, New Guinea, and come up with what they see are solutions to help combat these problems.

It’s been a months-long process of organization and research, building and making presentations, and drafting solutions. But, most of all, it’s been an exercise in learning to appreciate there is great suffering and great hardship for some people living outside of Maine.

Telstar High School freshmen Olivia Malley, Emma Newell and Gabrielle Thompson studied homelessness in Mali, Africa, as part of the school’s annual think tank project. Telstar HS Power Point screenshot

After studying the housing crisis in Mali, Africa, a country in western Africa where 80% of the population of some 21 million people are homeless or lack adequate housing, Olivia Malley said that she now better appreciates “going home and having all these resources, and being able to go to school and just live in a place where I have all this stuff available to me, and being so lucky.”

And, she said, “turning on the news and seeing people living just like the people living in Mali who are struggling. This project really helped me and my team better think about what’s happening in the world and why it’s happening and solutions to these problems that we are always seeing on TV. We just better understand it now, and that’s helped us a lot.”

Malley worked on the Mali research with classmates Emma Newell and Gabrielle Thompson.


The three were shocked by the breadth of homelessness in this country, and researched why the problem is so deep and lasting, learning about the history of conflict and violence in that country where people are often driven from their homes, about the high level of poverty and generational homelessness, and regular flooding that destroys homes and drives people out.

The students were struck by how much homelessness affects children, including the country’s “street children,” 46% of whom they learned are between the ages of 13 and 16 years.

Mali, principally an agricultural economy, is a land-locked country which makes getting products to trading ports difficult.

Malley, Newell and Thompson were tasked with coming up with a solution to the housing problem, and they designed an eco-housing model featuring villages of 3D printed homes, framed using recycled plastic filled in with concrete. The houses would be solar-powered, and each could house up to six people.

The cost of the solar panels to equip one village would be $3,648, the students estimated, powering 25 houses.

According to Newell, when they started working on their housing proposal they learned that other people had created something similar, so they had to keep adjusting their plan to make it unique.


Malley said “We wanted to not just only solve the problem, we wanted to connect with the people and understand them. We tried really to look into their lives and their struggles and what they were going through, personally. What led them to being homeless. Maybe reasons they can’t escape poverty, so we could make our solution that would correctly solve the problem.”

In the process, she and Newell said, they developed a deep empathy for the people who live in Mali, and their daily struggle to find adequate housing.

Newell said, “it definitely made us realize how lucky we are for everything we have. It was really eye-opening.”

The trio shared project duties, Newell and Malley said, with Thompson doing most of the math and construction estimates, and Newell and Malley working on the housing design and researching materials.

According to 4-H professional educator Norman Greenberg, part of the think tank work for freshmen is empathy mapping, specifically so they could reflect on what they have learned about other people and absorb and contrast their shared – and not so shared – realities.

Telstar High School freshmen Wylie Williamson, Hunter Winslow, Jocelyn Nivus and Lily Souther studied homelessness in Los Angeles, California, as part of the school’s annual think tank project. Telstar HS Power Point screenshot

Freshmen Lily Southern, Jocelyn Nivus, Hunter Winslow and Wylie Williamson also studied homelessness, but they looked at the landscape in Los Angeles, where close to 70,000 people are homeless, most of whom are between 25 and 54 years old.


The group learned very quickly, through their research, that the homeless in California’s largest city have “next to no way to get clean/maintain hygiene, causing health issues, and making it more difficult for them to get back on their feet,” according to the students’ problem statement.

Souther said that when her group started looking at the problem of homelessness, hygiene wasn’t something they thought about right away, but it became clear very quickly that “hygiene is an overlooked part of being homeless,” she said.

They researched existing portable showers, including those available through The Lava Mae project, which is an international nonprofit that teaches people how to bring mobile showers and other essential care services to the street. It offers services on the streets of San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles, including mobile showers on buses that move through the city, pop-up care villages and do-it-yourself handwashing stations.

The students’ challenge was to come up with a solution that does not already exist, and they settled on designing their own portable shower made up solar fabric, recycled plastics and a showerhead. They estimated the cost of each shower at $179.95, which includes a water pump, and built a mini-model to test its effectiveness.

“It was pretty cool that we invented something for the homeless to have good hygiene,” Williamson said. “I think that’s pretty cool to think of something to help them, and we got a lot of good feedback on that.”

Asked if the students thought it was possible to take their prototype to the next level and actually have it manufactured, Nivus said it was. “It’s definitely a realistic idea for us to take it up to the next level and actually build a working model of it. And maybe do some tests. Like, put a couple out there and test, and see how it would really affect the homeless people.”


Winslow said he thought the group came up with a “shower that is pretty special compared to other portable showers, and each homeless person would get their own.”

Southern said the students were hopeful that there “might be somebody we could pitch the idea to, how we want it built, and maybe they could build it for us, or something like that.”

Telstar High School freshmen Ella Hopps, Ella Akers, Hayley Smith, Rylee Cooper and Grady Kellogg studied the need for vaccinations in Papua New Guinea as part of the school’s annual think tank project. Telstar HS Power Point screenshot

The third group in this year’s think tank studied health care in Papua, New Guinea, a country with a startlingly high child mortality rate.

Group members were Ella Akers, Ella Hopps, Haley Smith, Rylee Cooper and Grady Kellogg.

Hopps said that as soon as the group started their research, they learned very quickly that “babies were just dying and it was just terrible. We were trying to think of ways to solve it, like building a backpack for birthing,” because there aren’t many doctors or medical professionals to help many mothers have their babies.

She said the group had to learn a lot of medical terminology and health science as they worked on the project, and that each of the members were really struck by the high poverty levels and the lack of access to clean water for many who live in Papua New Guinea.


Cooper said the group was also struck by the low vaccine rates, partly because there is very little electricity and lack of refrigeration to store vaccines.

She said knowing that was one of the major reasons for child death, “I feel like it really put it into perspective. It’s a third world country and it would be crazy to see this in person, how little resources they have. I feel like that would be really crazy to see.”

Hopps said learning about how people there live “was hard. Mentally. Learning daily about how babies were just dying. There’s not much chance of them getting past a year. Learning about it, it was just very depressing. But, then again, it’s health care that goes with it.”

Kellogg said it was clear, through their research, “that a lot of people are in need and they really need vaccines, but we don’t have the supply to give them vaccines. And, if you’re in a rural area, it’s just really tough.”

“There’s a lot of neglected areas medically,” Smith said, “and I think that’s a bigger problem than a lot of people think it is.”

The solution? The team came up with something they call VaxPax, a package that contains a gummy vaccine that requires no refrigeration and is easy to transport and administer. The team projected that if their VaxPax were to be made available in Papua, New Guinea, it would be 10 years before seeing a significant increase in vaccination rates.

Akers said the project really showed her “it’s really incredible how different people’s lives are from my own. And, then I also learned a lot about myself, working with a team throughout the project.”

She said the depth of the need for health care in another country really hit her hard, and that working in the health care field is now something of great interest to her.

Comments are not available on this story.