Mmunga Lulaca was fourteen when his family moved from Tanzania to Bismarck, North Dakota.
“I was nervous that I was not going make any friends,” he recalls. He was a stranger in a strange land –— trying to learn things like biology and algebra while still trying to get a grasp on English.
English language aide Rissa Williams remembers those early days, working with Mmunga.
“Every time you handed him a test last year he would panic and start to break down,” Williams says.
But that was then — and this is now. And it’s thanks in large part to the ukulele.
“I brought it in and I let them try it, and they loved it,” Williams says. “So I said, okay, how can I use this to facilitate learning?”
One successful grant application and ten ukuleles later, Mrs. Williams was off and running. “I go to the teachers and say, how can I use this to reinforce the lessons in your classroom?” she says. “I’m an instructional aide. I’m not a teacher. But I’m developing lesson plans.”
“I started playing the ukulele last year,” Lulaca says. “It’s just simple to play — with the right chords and threads, you can just play it.”
These weekly music sessions go beyond notes on the page. “We use it for math, we use it for reading, we use it for English — parts of speech, pronouns, nouns,” Williams says.
But it goes even deeper than that for the twenty-six foreign transfer students at Wachter.
“We absolutely believe the best thing that’s come from it is the confidence and the willingness to take a chance,” Williams says.
For proof of this, look no further than Mmunga. “It’s different,” he says. “Whenever I go to school I feel happy and, I can count on my friends.”
No longer a stranger in a strange land — but a typical, confident middle schooler in America, thanks to hard-working aides like Rissa Williams.
“There are a lot of tears, but there are as many laughs as there are tears,” she says. “Sunday nights, I can’t wait to go to bed so I can get here on Monday. I love it.”
That’s why she’s Someone You Should Know.
By the way — Mmunga has his own ukulele at home now.
That’s thanks to the Wachter Ukulele Fund, another one of Rissa’s ideas.
Once an English-learning student scores high enough on a test at school, he or she is given a ukulele to keep.
Those instruments cost about $50 each — and this program is not grant funded. So far the money has come from Wachter staff members and some of Rissa’s friends.
But you can help purchase ukuleles for these students too.
Donations can be mailed to or dropped off at Wachter Middle School in Bismarck. The address is 1107 S 7th St, Bismarck, ND 58504. Just mention the Wachter Ukulele Fund.
You can also purchase ukulele cases from Jacobsen Music in Bismarck. The cases are hand-made by Rissa, and 100 percent of the proceeds go to purchasing more ukuleles for English language students who earn good grades.