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A mountain of pennies given by students at Edgemont Elementary School has saved the lives of thousands of children in the villages of Mali in western Africa and given them a "mountain of hope."

For the past few years, the school has focused on helping other children who live across the world in Ouelessebougou - an area of 72 villages in drought-stricken Mali.Money contributed last year was used to supply more than 30,000 kids in the area with vaccinations for diseases that can kill African children in their early years - such as measles.

Accepting huge jars stuffed with pennies, Modibo Diarra, who traveled to Utah from Mali, told Edgemont students, "Before you kindly gave us your money, more than 40 percent of our children died from measles. But this year they had their shots and we didn't lose one child to measles. You give us a mountain of hope about improving our lives."

The children gaze up at Diarra, dressed in his elegant African gown, as though looking at a king. The gymnasium of hundreds of kids is quiet as they listen to Diarra talk about Africa.

"My people tell me to tell you thank you very well for your help. They say to tell you children that you have changed the lives of our families. They say you are heroes to them who live so far away," said Diarra.

This year, the Edgemont children contributed 75,000 pennies to help with health care, gardens and literacy programs.

Ouelessebougou is Salt Lake City's sister community. The Ouelessebougou Alliance sponsors activities, including many school fund-raisers, throughout the year to earn money to help West Africans help themselves. Through the generosity of Utahns, life in Ouelessebougou villages has been improved in significant ways:

- Sixty-six wells have been built.

- Sixteen gardens have been fenced with and planted.

- Fifty-six Malian health workers provide basic medical care to 31 villages.

- A new literacy program has taught nearly 1,500 villagers to read their native language of Bambara.

"Now children, mothers and fathers are learning to read," says Diarra. "They are learning to really become something."

He then leads the Edgemont Elementary students in an African song of thanks. The children sing loudly and clap wildly.

Ouelessebougou volunteer Addie Fuhriman, who is dean of Brigham Young University Graduate Studies, tells the children that there are many smiles on the faces of children living in Africa because of their willingness to share.

Fuhriman has worked with the Edgemont students for several years and is impressed with the children's ability to understand the needs of children who live so far away.

"These kids feel a genuine connection with the children of Africa. When they give their pennies - instead of spending the money on something for themselves - they seem really happy to think of other children receiving pencils, paper and health supplies.

"I think it helps Utah children as much as it helps children in Mali to give to others, realizing that they are making a significant difference in so many lives."