TEANECK, N.J. — Five Nigerian students crammed themselves into a desk made for two in a classroom overflowing with far more children than it was intended to hold.
It was nothing out of the ordinary for the natives, though, and it was something that Teaneck schoolteacher Dena Grushkin has not been able to shake since her initial visit in 2004.
The Englewood-born photographer launched the Nigerian School Project , a non-profit educational organization that supports Nigerian teachers and students, as soon as she returned home.
Grushkin has been back another 13 times. It wasn't until her latest voyage two weeks ago, however, that she was able to celebrate the fruits of her labors: a junior high school, a high school, a teachers' residence and a surrounding wall.
“Everyone should have the opportunity to be what they want to be,” said Grushkin, a teacher at the Thomas Jefferson school. “No one has the right to infringe on that and we have to support our children.”
The project began for Grushkin in 2007 when a Nigerian king walked her across a desolate plot of sand-covered land in Lagos and opened his arms, inviting her to help him construct a school.
Aside from “a sprinkling” of primary schools, the river community — "Tomaro Island" — lacked educational institutions entirely, Grushkin said.
If students wanted to continue their education beyond the elementary level, they'd have to travel to private schools across a lagoon about the size of the Hudson River.
Few students had the resources but the majority remained determined.
“In light of all of these challenges, [the students] are still desirous of a wonderful life,” Grushkin said. “They’re filled with hopes and dreams and, like any kid, they want to achieve those things.”
Grushkin's efforts brought attention to the community, creating a domino effect of positivity for the natives.
The U.S. embassy recently built a health clinic on Tomaro Island. The Nigerian government installed solar panels for the schools before assuming responsibility for them.
Last week — several days after the U.S. ambassador of Nigeria visited the schools— the country's department of natural resources and energy called Grushkin's on-ground coordinator and asked to provide electricity.
"A lot of people are doing good humanitarian work in the world," Grushkin said. "My lesson in life is that you never know who you're going to touch."
"I wake up in the morning and I’m no longer afraid to dream," — Ojo Suru David, NSP scholarship recipient.