The School Friends: An Unlikely Pair Build Educational Opportunity

Categorized as: on September 28, 2011.


An American kid growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley innovation and privilege gets a big graduation gift: a trip to Africa. What he finds there is a lifelong best friend, and a life mission to ensure that students everywhere get a chance to earn their diplomas, too.

Suzanne Skeesby Suzanne Skees

(For an abridged version of this story, click over to Huffington PostScroll down this page for a just-released video about The School Fund.)

As millions of American children, including my 3 sons, head back to school this fall, 70 million children in developing countries cannot, according to UNICEF.  Modest school fees keep them blocked from education, job opportunity, and earning potential, not just now, but for the rest of their lives.

 This summer I traveled with The School Fund, an all-volunteer website whose mission is to build a world where any student, no matter where they were born, has the chance to attend school. The story behind this mission follows.

“If you have education you get a good life.”—John Medo 

Karatu, Tanzania: The equatorial summer sun broils the fields of grass atop the highest hill in Karatu, Tanzania, where 14-year-old John Medo swings his scythe in quiet swoops: chop, chop, chop, scoop. He’ll earn a few shillings for clearing the field and be able to take the cuttings home to his family cow, which otherwise would starve on the small patch of arid soil next to their mud hut. The job doesn’t pay well but John’s lucky to have it; and his luck is about to explode: Today he will meet his best friend, and together they will set in motion a project that radically will change outcomes for themselves and students around the world.

Pausing to wipe his forehead with a cloth, John looks up at the building behind him—the Highview Hotel, safari stopoff for European, Asian, and American tourists en route to Lake Manyara, Serengeti, and Ngorongoro Crater. A skinny mzungu, white person, is waving to him from the balcony. It’s 18-year-old Matt Severson, vacationing in Africa with his parents to celebrate his graduation from Palo Alto High School in California. John smiles and waves back, as wide as his arm will go.

“I was just cutting grass at the hotel. I was not so good in English. I could only say maybe 3 words: hello, let’s go, and to give my address,” John recalls. The next day, he asks the manager’s permission to cut grass on the hotel front lawn, and soon his lanky American friend runs down to help wield the scythe. Matt’s mom stands laughing on the balcony above, not knowing that in the years to follow, John will say, “His mother is like my mother, and my mother is like his mother.”

In halting English, John invites Matt to come to his home and meet his family, so off they go.

“I could tell from the beginning that John was a leader,” Matt says.

“I had no idea where we were walking,” he laughs, “but John had an authority about him. He’s charismatic—he has a good smile, and a good laugh. John was with a group of kids his age, yet he was the one who came up to me and began to talk. Then, when he took me to his house, we had about 20 people following us.”

John’s family welcomes Matt, and his mom Christina prepares fresh milk from the family cow for them. The next day, the two boys tour John’s school, where he has just completed the primary level and—first in his family—passed his national exams to continue on to secondary . . . but to no avail. John cannot afford to go.

Top Student Could Mow Lawns for a Lifetime

John’s parents both work hard: Dad Medo is a hired carpenter who works on the side to build sturdy furniture and, brick-by-brick, a new house for the family next to their mud hut. Mom Christina embroiders clothes and runs a vegetable-drying business that preserves a variety of greens without electricity. Still, John’s school fees will total $150 U.S., and they never can raise that much capital.

“My dream,” John tells Matt as they walk back to the hotel, “is to become president of my country.”

Even across English-Swahili language barriers, Matt has heard enough in a few days to realize: “Here is this kid who’s obviously very bright, who came from humble beginnings—a dirt house, a cow—and his dream of becoming president would have been crushed.” Matt simply cannot reconcile the lack of $150 with the trap into poverty and menial work that awaits John without it.

“We have only one shot at this life,” Matt insists. “When I met John, we were at a similar juncture in our lives. We could go left, and not get an education. Or we could go right, and a wealth of opportunities would open up. Just because of where I was born, doors were open to me. Because of where John was born, in a poor place like Tanzania, doors were closed.”

Forging a Friendship from Equal Opportunity

According to a 2011 UNICEF report on the state of adolescents worldwide, 1 of 5 is not in school. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where The School Fund began its work, that’s 1 in 3.

At John’s school, Matt stops to show John his California home on a map. He and his family must leave Africa that night to return to the U.S.; but first, they gather up the $150 John needs to start high school that fall. Placing John’s first-year fees into Mr. Medo’s hand, Matt promises to ensure that John will be able to continue all four years.

The Medo family, in turn, share what they have, insisting Matt take embroidered tablecloths for his mom’s kitchen and a Maasai-plaid blanket to keep him warm when he starts college in a few weeks. “I’m always shocked by how generous the [Tanzanian] people are when they don’t have much,” notes Matt.

Students for Students, Building an Online Community from Scratch

Fast forward to four years later: summer 2011, John has his high school diploma in hand and a grin from ear to ear: He just passed the next set of national exams, that qualify him to attend college. Matt has kept his promise to sponsor John; but more than that, he and a team of all-volunteer students back home have decided to take matters into their own hands and get hundreds, thousands, of kids like John through school. He’s returned each of the four summers since then, and worked year-round to interview students and teachers, setting up scholarships throughout Tanzania and 11 other developing countries.

Beginning with a few hundred dollars donated from their parents, neighbors, and their own wallets, Matt and his team launched The School Fund in Tanzania in two cities, Karatu (John’s hometown in the north) and Iringa (on another hilltop in the center of the country). By 2009, they funded 32 students in Tanzania. In 2010, Matt’s Google-programmer dad helped him build a website platform that allows:

  • direct 1:1 sponsoring of students by choice—e.g., you can fund a student who likes music, or plans to become a doctor;
  • 100% transparency of funding—with all school-fee receipts posted online and separate fundraising for the organization’s minuscule operational expenses; and
  • 100% participation of unedited, direct student communications through online journals about their classes, exams, hobbies, families, social and educational issues.

In December 2010, The School Fund obtained 501(c)3 status as a legal nonprofit and has grown rapidly ever since.

Currently, The School Fund sponsors about 500 qualified secondary students in China, Ghana, Haiti, India, Kenya, Malawi, Panama, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Students must meet 3 requirements: attendance, performance, and journaling. Most have never seen a computer screen before their teachers take them to the local Internet café to log their progress on The School Fund website. In remote areas such as rural Kenya, students dictate their news to a teacher who sends it to the U.S. via text-message over a cheap cell phone. Beginning this month, students and sponsors also have access to a discussion page, a sort of “educational Facebook” for such topics as, What do I do to prepare for my dream of being a lawyer? How do you access water over there in India? What kind of clothes do girls wear in Sierra Leone?

They’ve received kudos from President Clinton at Clinton Global Initiative University 2011, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, Brown University alumni magazine, and San Francisco’s Gentry magazine (page 86). “The School Fund has a unique platform,” notes Erna Grasz, director of Asanté Africa Foundation, which also supports students and schools in Kenya and Tanzania. “They’ve combined the best of Facebook’s communications, Kiva’s person-to-person fundraising, and Salesforce’s donor-data management.”

The Influence of a Best Friend Over Time

The School Fund has also had tremendous impact on its founder. “The School Fund has become a huge part of my life,” Matt reflects as he sits outside the Medo family home with John again this summer.  John’s taking remedial summer courses to prepare for college this fall, and Matt—freshly graduated from Brown University—will now begin professional work back in Silicon Valley. The two men feel they have become best friends. Keeping in contact through The School Fund’s online journal, emails, and annual summer visits, John and Matt have grown up together.

“I’ve learned many things from Matt,” John says. For example, “balanced confidence—the ability to speak in front of many people without fear. After all, you have to speak in front of many people in order to be president.” Still holding his dream to lead Tanzania into a brighter future, John has become so fluent in English that he now translates for The School Fund team when they visit Tanzania each year. He has begun to give presentations for fundraising and partnering.

“Matt is a kind person,” John nods toward his mzungu friend in jeans and tee-shirt with the Maasai blanket the Medos gave him draped across his shoulders. “He understands a person, even when they cannot talk to him. And he loves all the people which he meets—it’s as if he has always known them. He doesn’t put them into groups. Through Matt, I have learned how to love all people.”

“Well, I’ve learned a few things from you, too,” Matt leans toward John with a goofy smile. “You taught me how to be bold, how to ask for what I want. That’s really helped me in building support for The School Fund. We’ve made a few mistakes along the way—for example, we’ve learned that administering a project from far away is difficult and that we need our local teachers and staff to ensure that students keep up with their grades and journaling.

“But we intend to keep growing. We want to become the primary place [on the planet] where people go to complete their secondary education: to scale to 10,000 students in the next 5 years. My dream for education in the world is to give people like John, who are bright and care about themselves and their future, the chance to finish school and never have to worry about it—that box is just checked from day 1.”

Finding Home in Unexpected Places

As Matt and John ponder where they’ve been and where they want to take their nonprofit next, John’s mom Christina and sister Eliamani quietly serve uji wamaboga, pumpkin porridge cooked over their kitchen fire, in steaming mugs. The air has begun to turn with an autumn chill, and the boys warm their hands on the mugs. Neighborhood dogs bark, and roosters crow incessantly. Little brother Eliatosha runs through the yard with his friends, dribbling a soccer ball.

Matt sits back with a sigh, taking it all in, at the mud hut that’s become his home away from home. “I used to think cars and clothes and houses were it. America was it. The School Fund opened my eyes to how billions of people live in the rest of the world . . . and the power that a lot of us have to change that world.”

John pipes in. “For me, I want to go to university and then get a good job, make a lot of money,” he smiles impishly, “. . . and then sponsor a lot of students for The School Fund.” The two guys dream of buying neighboring plots of land someday, up the hill near the Highview Hotel where they met, and building homes where they will raise their families side-by-side. They have learned how much they have in common, despite how different their lives looked when the grass-cutter boy met the tourist teen 4 years ago.

“No one is so rich they have nothing to receive,” notes John, sounding a smidge presidential now, at the ripe old age of 18, “and no one is so poor that they have nothing to give.”

The School Fund is building a world where any student, no matter where they are born, has the opportunity to attend school. Bring your time, talents, or treasure and join their community, changing the world, one mind at a time. 

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