The phrase "life-changing experience" has a new meaning for two Burbank High School teachers.
Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, has been a sister city of Burbank since 1975 after the request of a former city mayor, but there has never been an official visit.
Dena Zelig has been chairwoman of the Gaborone sister-city committee for three years. When she took the position, she said she was determined to make a difference.
Zelig began e-mailing Tommie Hamaluba, a schoolteacher who was her Gaborone counterpart.
Unlike Burbank's other sister cities — Solna, Sweden; Ota, Japan; or Incheon, South Korea — Gaborone had a different set of needs.
As part of a campaign in collaboration with Malaria Foundation International, Hamaluba organizes groups of students to distribute and fundraise for long-lasting bed nets to distribute before the rainy season.
Zelig, Burbank High School teacher Doug Grimshaw and the rest of the sister-city committee saw an opportunity to help and began fundraising at Burbank and John Burroughs high schools.
In three years, they raised more than $6,400 to pay for the nets that would help combat the spread of disease through mosquitoes.
Zelig and Grimshaw decided to make the trip out and deliver the nets themselves.
"It was not just to participate, but to plan for the future so that students can make the trip," Zelig said.
The Burbank Sister City Committee sponsors student exchange programs with Ota and Incheon every other year.
Grimshaw, who was a chaperone to Ota, said it was a completely different experience.
"You're not changing lives when you go to Ota or Incheon," he said. "In Gaborone, you can help the poor with diseases that are curable. These children don't even know what a toy is."
With the $2,570 raised in 2010, Burbank was able to provide all 500 malaria nets that were distributed during this year's campaign.
"We had no idea until we got there that if we hadn't sent the money, the campaign might not have happened," Zelig said.
The nets were enough for the 900 residents of the village of Parakarungu in the northwest district of Botswana.
Zelig and Grimshaw spent an additional two weeks traveling in the region to plan for a future student visit, including stops in Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa.
Although the sister-city committee did cover some expenses, most of it was paid for out of pocket and via donations from friends and families.
Zelig said she would have felt uncomfortable committing to a trip to Gaborone without having visited there herself.
"Now we're ready and can train other chaperones," Grimshaw said.
A trip to Botswana will not happen for at least another year and the committee is busy getting ready to accept applications for a trip to Korea next summer and finding host families for the Ota, Japan, students who will be visiting.
2011 will be the 50th anniversary of Burbank's relationship with, Icheon, its first sister city.
Students are only expected to provide for their plane ticket, a tradition that will need to be revaluated when an exchange happens between Burbank and Gaborone, organizers said.
"We're very excited that a relationship with Gaborone is beginning to take shape," said Sharon Cohen, director of library services, under which the program is operated. "I've truly seen [the sister city program] change lives."