HOPKINTON — Traditional Kenyan artifacts blanket Tom Keane’s third-grade classroom at Elmwood Elementary School.
There are sandals hand-crafted from recycled tires, kerosene lamps made out of old margarine containers, and customary shirts and hats — all of which were gifts from Keane’s aunt, Sister Ellen Keane, who served as a missionary in the small town of Kakamega.
Since Keane began teaching 17 years ago, he has incorporated the Kenyan culture into his curriculum and used the artifacts to broaden his students’ global perspective.
But above all, Keane’s students and the Elmwood School play an integral role in welcoming the Boston Marathon’s elite Kenyan runners to the community days before they run of the race. For the past 21 years, Kenyan runners have visited the school, which is a short distance from the center of town, where the 26.2-mile course begins.
“The students learn about a completely different culture,” Keane said. “But most importantly, the goal is to welcome the Kenyans and to make them feel welcome in Hopkinton.”
When Keane came to the school he advanced the program, which was started by Fred Tressler and is sponsored by John Hancock.
For the past 16 years, the Kenyans have visited Keane’s third-grade class, and the students interact with them and show them artifacts and drawings they’ve crafted throughout the year.
“It is very fun and educative,” said Wesley Korir, who won last year’s Boston Marathon. “It’s amazing to see how they know so much about us and Kenya. It’s very encouraging. It makes me feel very loved, and for a school to do something like this makes us appreciate who we are as a country.”
Korir and many of the marathoners arrive days before the race, and the visit to the Elmwood School is something they look forward to.
“When you come here and stay in the hotel, there is tension and nervousness,” Korir said.
“But when you come here, it’s all about the kids and it takes away the boredom of the hotel and just thinking about running all the time.”
Defending women’s champion Sharon Cherop, Levy Matebo, Micah Kogo, Dickson Chumba, Diana Sigei, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, and Rita Jeptoo also visited Keane’s class, joining the school in the gymnasium for a pep rally.
They were introduced with a smoke and light show and received a raucous welcome. Then Keane’s class serenaded the runners with traditional Swahili songs.
“A man in Maryland, Tim Gregory, is an expert in Swahili songs and he Skyped with us to teach us the songs,” Keane said. “The kids really respond well. They get so excited about the day and really get into learning about Kenya.”
Said Elmwood Principal David Ljungberg, “The program has gotten bigger and bigger each year. This has become a big tradition in Hopkinton and the community loves it.”
Ljungberg, who is in his first year as principal, is heartened by Keane’s efforts.
“For me, it’s all about the connection the children are making with the runners,” he said. “It’s what you don’t get out of the textbooks, it brings it to life to them. You see the excitement and the joy when they welcome the runners.
“Mr. Keane’s involvement was a personal connection, and over time he’s developed a curriculum and it’s spread out and blossomed.”
Although it is sometimes difficult for the students to learn the Swahili proverbs and songs, 9-year-old Melanie Gildea said the hard work is worth it.
“These are some of the best runners in the world, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance and not everyone gets to do it,” Gildea said as she handed Cherop a drawing. “It’s really fun and awesome.”
Every year of the event, one of the visiting runners has gone on to win the race. Last year, both Korir and Cherop were present for the assembly.
This year, when Korir turns onto Boylston Street and makes a push for the finish-line tape, he said he’d be thinking of the championship banner the Elmwood students crafted and presented to him on Thursday.
“These kids will be cheering for us,” Korir said, flashing an enormous smile. “Some of these kids look up to you, so when you’re running you think about them because you want to come back and make them happy.
“You want to live a life these kids can learn about.”