“It was definitely just pure joy that day,” said Puccinelli, founder and president of Simone’s Kids. “I just let myself take it all in and enjoy how far we’ve come. ... [The trees] represented that this is a new beginning to a new life and as time goes on we will be able to watch that tree grow as the ministry continues to grow and the children continue to grow. Even though I just opened the school officially, I have been helping a lot with the kids at the old site. I’ve been able to watch some of the children finish at our school and [receive] a scholarship to a new school. It’s just amazing to watch. Even how they’ve performed on state exams [has] improved.
“I think outside help and ... when you have someone on the outside that you know is kind of watching over you, you know believes in you and loves you, I think, it gives you a lot more motivation and confidence for your future. I think it helps the kids a lot in that they’re not having to worry. They’re just getting to be kids and they’re just getting to learn. I think that has been one of the biggest improvements.”
The 24-year-old’s relationship with God’s Hope Primary School began when she was a sophomore at Lee University in 2010. After discovering the school’s head administrator needed $500 to cover the annual rent of the educational compound, Puccinelli was inspired to raise the funds, which enabled the school to remain open. After forming her nonprofit, Puccinelli visited the dilapidated school in Nakaseke, Uganda, and saw firsthand the needs of its 200 students in December 2010.
“When I got there [I] realized that these kids needed more than $500 a year because most of them were starving, most of them you could tell were malnourished. ... The school, obviously, was rented buildings and the buildings were halfway torn down from the war,” Puccinelli said, adding the buildings lacked ceilings and contained holes in its walls and floors. “So it was just a very devastating site, overwhelming in the fact that the need was so great — like how in the world were we going to feed them, help all these kids? ... I had these little craft projects for the kids to do and then I had them all write their prayers on the back [so I could] see what they felt their needs were. ... Most of the children had food in there, in their prayers.
“So that kind of really sunk in. I was like, I’ve prayed over my food but in my life, [but] I’ve never really prayed — ‘Lord help me find food,’” she said, noting the school serves children living in poverty, some of whom are orphans. “So at that point Simone’s Kids had been established as an organization. I just took small steps. I knew that eventually we were going to need to build them a school, but I started with small things like desks, establishing a feeding program, making sure they all had shoes, establishing a fund for medical care so if a child got sick we could go take them to a doctor. We do medical care really on a needs basis. We get their eyes checked out, teeth checked out. A pulled tooth costs like $2,” she said, noting the nonprofit also offers scholarships for students to further their education.
Last year, Puccinelli’s organization raised about $125,000, the majority of which funded the construction of an improved facility for God’s Hope Primary School. Situated near the previous facility on land purchased by Simone’s Kids, the new school’s two buildings consist of 10 classrooms and totals nearly 8,000 square feet. Along with more than quadrupling the classroom space of the former structures, the revamped God’s Hope Primary School is enabling all of the pre-school age groups to have separate learning areas. The school currently provides instruction for about 500 youth ages 3 to 15, attending the equivalence of pre-kindergarten to eighth grade classes.
For Puccinelli’s father, Greg Plimpton, seeing her hard work come to fruition has been an inspirational experience.
“[When] she heard about this school that needed some rent money, she raised the $500 and then she just caught fire about four years ago,” said Plimpton, a resident of Taylorsville. “It was a small, little start-up school. In those parts of Africa, you can just sit down and start teaching and the kids will come around. ... There’s millions of East Africans that can’t read. It’s a problem and if we don’t plant schools and teach them to read, they’ll always be at that level of ignorance and need. So she’s just doing an amazing job. She’ll get on a jet and just fly down there and work. She started it when she was about 19. [She is] very focused.
“It’s amazing. We’re all real proud of her. I’ve been about five times and her mother went this last time. ... It just blows you away to see almost 500 kids in the school with books and one meal a day.”
With Puccinelli’s dream of building a new school building now a reality, she is looking toward the future, pinpointing various ways to enhance the students’ lives. Some of her goals include expanding the school’s feeding program with the construction of a cafeteria, building a medical clinic, fencing in the property and providing books to each student.
“I really cried a lot when I left because I just felt like they needed me,” Puccinelli said about her initial visit. “They needed somebody to take care of them. ... I think I knew I had to be that person. A lot of times I feel like people when it comes to needs and charity work, they just assume someone else will do it. But that’s just not the case.
“When I first started, I knew these were probably a lot of the kids that just fell through the cracks of even maybe bigger organizations. When you find someone that’s doesn’t have a mom or a dad or you find someone that’s an illegitimate child — so no one likes them so they don’t take care of them — you just know you have to help them. ... Now, even though, they’re still the poorest kids in the community, they have the best school now in the community. We’ve built a really quality facility.”
To help further the efforts of Simone’s Kids, the public can show their support by making a financial donation on the organization’s website, www.simoneskids.com, or dropping off books for the students in the next two weeks at 202 Dallas Highway S.W. in Cartersville Monday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Interested individuals also can sponsor a child for $12 a month.
“My son who was, I believe, 14 at the time heard Simone speak at his school and he was just moved by what he heard,” said Cartersville resident Jenny Blackwell, whose family is sponsoring at student at God’s Hope Primary School. “... We’re going on the third year of sponsorship of Akiram, who’s a pre-school age child. So for the first two years, Luke [sponsored him. He] had saved back money for shoes and just was compelled to give that to Simone’s Kids just based on his heart and how Simone communicated just what her vision for those children [was] in giving them an education and providing for them.
“... One hundred percent of what you give goes toward [the children]. There are no other outside costs. There’s no fees that are taken out of what you pledge to [sponsor] a child. One hundred percent goes toward that child’s well-being. ... So it’s an organization that can be trusted to use their resources wisely and that just means a lot.”