Thursday, December 10, 2009

Two Great Gifts for A Better World

Much ink has been spilled providing suggestions for greener gifting and spiritually enriched, materially-contracted celebrations. I am skipping that pep-talk this year and going straight to two emphatic recommendations.

First, buy Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s amazing book Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide - for all the women on your shopping list. Don’t forget to buy one for yourself, as well. Men should read it, too, of course, but its stories will particularly resonate with women from middle school on up. WuDunn and Kristof, well known for his wonderful New York Times columns, have written a book with potential to really be a game changer, allowing us in the affluent world to connect with and support millions of women in the developing world.

As the book describes, in ways that make it hard to put down, these women are up against terrible odds. Grim fates await baby girls unlucky enough to be born into the grinding poverty reinforced by inadequate access to food, sanitation, electricity, clean water, education, health care, and legal representation. When these constraints are combined with sexism and misogyny, the result is devastating. Daughters receive less health care, food, and education than their brothers. Young girls are bought and sold; girls are married off at young ages, curtailing any schooling they might obtain. Women die of childbirth complications unseen in the developed world for over a century.

Yet the stories shared by Kristof and WuDunn are hopeful. Amazing resilience and talent can rise up in the most surprising places, and very inexpensive interventions – trivial amounts by Western standards – can change not just girls’ lives, but the lives of their families and communities, helping all to achieve a higher quality of life and a change to meet their potential. So while the book describes unimaginable trauma, it is ultimately inspiring and empowering – we can help change all this!

That’s where my second recommendation comes in – a shameless pitch for a nearly miraculous initiative, The Kibera School for Girls. Kibera is a slum; over a million residents crowd this large, unincorporated shantytown adjoining Nairobi. No municipal services are provided, including schools, so only 8% percent of the girls born here get any schooling at all. Kennedy Odede, a young man raised in Kibera, watched in frustration as girls as young as six were forced into prostitution to survive. A natural community organizer, he founded Shining Hope for Community, starting with a soccer team.

In time, his local efforts led to more successful activities, and the arrival of a young intern from Wesleyan Univeristy, Jessica Posner. Jessica was captivated by Kennedy’s two dreams: to start a free school for girls in Kibera and to study in the United States. Jessica helped him with the university application process, and he is presently a fulltime student at Wesleyan in Middletown, CT. Jessica and Kennedy quickly attracted a group of students to help raise money for their dream, the Kibera School for Girls. With a grant from Wesleyan, successful student fund raising, and modest donations, their dream has been launched. This summer Jess and Kennedy went back to Kibera, leading the community in the building of their school, hiring the staff, and opening their doors. To pull this off in a year is utterly astounding, really.

Three classes, each of 15 girls drawn from the poorest of the poor, were accepted. They are provided uniforms, often the only clothing the girls own, as well as nutritious meals each day. Their Montessori curriculum has been so successful that these little girls are already a year ahead of their Kenyan counterparts, after only two months of school. Their mothers and fathers volunteer at the school which eventually will house a library, computer center, bio-sanitation center, health center, and a microfinance office. Look what vision and persistence can accomplish!

This is where we all come in. The Kibera School for Girls operates on a shoe string. Go see the school and its engaging students at Contributions of any size go directly to paying for the relatively modest costs of running a school in Kenya. You can contribute directly, or specifically sponsor a girl for $30 a month. I have been so taken by this project, that I now find myself Secretary of its newly organized Board. What I love about the Kibera School project is that that numbing statistic of 2 billion people living on a dollar a day is transformed into helping 45 specific little girls through education, food every day, and a community who cares for them. You can help too! What an easy way for us – so blessed with enough - to make a difference. If you ever wondered how to make a positive impact in the world, this is a great answer. Educate a girl! Here is a video that captures the excitement of bringing school to these adorable girls:

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