PORTLAND – Casco Bay High School students are competing for a $1,000 grant, but they know the stakes are much higher.

Sixty-two sophomores presented proposals Thursday to use the money to address problems in the developing world such as hunger, disease, poverty and lack of education. They raised the money themselves, by holding a Halloween dance.

Their proposals, developed as an Expeditionary Learning project, were judged by teams of grant-writing and philanthropy experts, who selected five finalists to continue in the competition. The students will vote for a winner next week.

One of the finalists is Hellen Otto, who was born in Sudan and raised in Uganda, where 61 percent of women are jobless and about 7 percent have HIV/AIDS.

Otto wants to give the money to Heifer International, a global aid organization that provides livestock and training so families can improve their nutrition and generate income in sustainable ways.

Otto explained how Heifer International gave chicks to her mother when her family lived in Uganda. The chickens supplied her family and neighbors with eggs until the Ottos came to the United States in 2005.

“We young kids need to take action,” Otto urged her classmates. “They need to hear our voices.”

The other finalists are:

• Mohamed Awale, to support Concern, an agency that drills wells for water in Sierra Leone.

• Emma Maash, to support Equality Now’s effort to prevent female genital mutilation in Djibouti.

• Nate Williamson, to support Heart to Heart International’s water-purification program in Haiti.

• Ben Smith, to support Tearfund’s poverty-relief effort in Zimbabwe.

The grant competition culminates the sophomores’ fall expedition, said Joe Grady, one of their teachers.

The project included an interdisciplinary study of colonialism that began with reading “Things Fall Apart,” Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel about Nigeria before and after the British took over the country.

Students researched the various effects of colonialism on modern African nations, identified countries with problems targeted by the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals and selected aid organizations that address those problems.

“They get excited because they’re engaged and they can see how they can help,” Grady said. “They get hooked because it’s meaningful work. You never hear them ask, ‘Why’d I have to read that?’ “

In presenting their grant proposals Thursday, students used laptops and overhead projectors to promote their organizations.

Jolwes Phanard talked about the need to investigate labor abuses in China, Sammy Astrachan wanted to help people start businesses in the slums of Nigeria, and Summer Leppanen sought the grant to support primary education in Cote d’Ivoire.

Two of the expert judges were Kate Schrock, a Portland musician who has volunteered for several global organizations, and Alexandra Cowen, a staff member with Safe Passage, a Yarmouth-based organization that works with the poor in Guatemala City.

“This pushes students to think about the world beyond Portland and ways that they can help,” Cowen said.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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