Roots & Shoots Exposes Students to the World Around Them

 In News & Events

Kirk Lang – 03/28/2009

When it comes to making the world a better place, everyone can make a difference. It doesn’t matter if you’re 9 or 59.

That’s exactly what Mei-Ling Uliasz, a fourth-grade teacher at Burr Elementary School, has been teaching her after-school students, all of whom are now involved in Roots & Shoots, a program founded by Jane Goodall that focuses on making positive change happen — “for our communities, for animals and for the environment.”

Uliasz lived with Goodall — famous for her work with primates and chimpanzees — in Tanzania about eight years ago. She noted Goodall started Roots & Shoots “because she believed every individual is like a root and shoot, like we’re grounded to Earth and we can break through the world’s problems just like a little sprout can break through the sidewalk.”

Children spanning pre-kindergarten to college can sign up to join Roots & Shoots.

Uliasz’ students — as part of the animal-focused portion of their Roots & Shoots program — were visited about four weeks ago by a guide dog and were told how important these dogs are for the blind and what the dogs have to do to take on this important role. Since that time, the students created posters transformed regular coffee cans into cans that looked like puppies, to be used for coin donations for Guiding Eyes; set up a donation box for Guiding Eyes’ wish list (toys, gently used blankets, etc.) and on Monday afternoon, organized newspapers – that they collected for four weeks — for the puppies at the Guiding Eyes for the Blind breeding center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

Cora Martin, who visited the students Monday with Gavin, a 7-month-old Labrador retriever she is raising until he is 18 months old, said the newspaper assignment covered not one but two aspects of what Roots & Shoots focuses on — the environment (by recycling the papers for dog use) and animals.

Martin said the children, through Roots & Shoots, are learning about “doing something for someone else.” Martin herself knows a thing or two about doing something for someone else, as the work she does for Guiding Eyes for the Blind is all volunteer.

When Gavin, like many other dogs currently with puppy raisers, reaches 18 months, he will go off to be trained by professionals in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

Martin noted, “They can’t be ready for Harvard or Princeton until they have had a chance to grow up.”

Nine-year-old Andrea Engemann said she learned through this project that “dogs can actually help people in a lot of ways, not just being a pet.” Ten-year-old Kendall Brown said she told a family friend about Guiding Eyes for the Blind and noted the family friend, whom she calls a “cousin,” is now looking into getting a guide dog.

“I also learned that if I ever get a dog, I’m going to pick up its poo because I don’t want it to ruin the environment,” said Brown.

Kelton Engemann, 11, said he got involved in Roots and Shoots a couple of years ago to help because he thought it would be fun. “[A couple of years ago] we did butterflies,” he said. “They eat this plant called milkweed and we were raising money to buy milkweed for the Audobon museum down the street, to plant it for the butterflies so they’ll survive their migration.” Through Roots & Shoots, the students at Burr have also raised funds, by way of a walk-a-thon, to help people in a garbage dump in Oaxaca, Mexico, so they can have homes made of brick and concrete rather than cardboard, metal and plastic. As for the environmental portion of the Roots & Shoots program, the students will be creating a “Trashy Fashion Show” with students from Fairfield Warde High School. The show will take place during Fairfield’s Earth Day Celebration and at Burr’s “Green” Lemonade Stand in May.

“We will be helping to save the Earth in a creative way,” said Uliasz.

Emma Kallendath, 9, got involved with Roots & Shoots this year and said volunteering is actually very fun.

“I [had] thought it was mostly work,” said Emma. Gardner Raha, 10, thought the same thing as well until she started getting involved in the various projects and realized “it was helping somebody that couldn’t see as well as we could, or couldn’t see at all.”

All of the children said they probably will continue doing volunteer work through high school, college and beyond.

“I think Roots &Shoots will make a big improvement in the future,” said 8-year-old John Blumenthal, “Because kids will want to help out. It will help make the world a better place.”

Uliasz told the Fairfield Citizen that “the best part about this is that they feel like they’re making a difference.”

“And because this project is so hands-on,” she said, “I really feel like that they get to see the project from beginning to end, and they have the connection with the dog, and they really have a sense of completion and satisfaction and knowing that they can do this.

“A lot of programs, you just raise money and that’s it, and you just send it away, but with this, I like the fact that it comes full circle.” For information about Roots & Shoots, log onto

Anyone interested in becoming a puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind can get more information at