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Cluckin' for a cause

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Up in Faulkner County this Friday from 1 to 2:30 p.m., children from Conway School District's nine elementary schools and two 5-6 grade schools will be collectively strutting their stuff to help poor children in Africa, during the third-annual Chicken Dance Marathon. In 2009 and 2010, the marathon raised more than $20,000, which was used to buy chickens and build chicken coops to help support an orphanage, school and feeding center in the squalid Kipsongo Slum in Kitale, Kenya.

For those who aren't familiar with the chicken dance, it involves mimicking the namesake bird, complete with fingers splayed like feathers, booty-shaking, and wing flapping. Children in the schools involved solicit donations from friends and family. This year's event will be co-sponsored by the fast-food chain Chik-fil-A.

UCA early childhood and special education professor Mark Cooper helped start the chicken dance marathon in 2009, and founded a charity called Chicks for Children Inc. His son, Jim, has lived and worked with orphans in the Kipsongo Slum for years. Cooper said the idea of buying chickens for impoverished children in Africa owes a lot to the model pioneered by Heifer Project International. The difference, he said, is that while Heifer offers larger livestock like cows and goats to help intact families, buying chickens allows the orphaned children in the slum to raise the birds and collect eggs to support themselves. The adults there, he said, often can't or won't provide for them.

This year, the marathon will be slightly different, with students and their families being asked to fill a plastic egg and provided bag with any money they can spare instead of the pledge-card system used in previous years. In addition, Cooper said that a percentage of this year's donation pool will be used to help feed hungry children here in Arkansas. About 7,000 students are scheduled to participate this year, and Cooper said next year's marathon promises to be even bigger, with schools all over Arkansas having expressed interest in helping. Cooper said the eventual goal is to take the event statewide.

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