Fifth Graders Help Keep a Kenyan Ninth Grader in School

janet at computer

There are a number of ways to tell this story. There’s the short and sweet: fifth graders in St. Louis funded a Kenyan girl’s education. Despite the ocean and miles in between, they’ve become friends.

That version leaves out the heart of the story, however; the coincidence, the effort, and the good fortune that connected a group of American middle-schoolers to a Kenyan girl named Mwongeli, who goes by “Janet,” and who wants to grow up to be a pilot.

Mark Cicero is the father of one of those St. Louis students at Our Lady of the Pillar. Twenty years ago and right after college, he spent four months in Kakamega, Kenya. He taught English and social ethics, and he even started a zero grazing unit for the village, a way of farming that takes up little space and resources. He also learned about school fees firsthand, having funded the education of a student from the compound where he lived for four years. So last year, when Mark was asked to speak at the school’s mission festival, he gave them a window into a different life—one that, among other realities, does not guarantee an education.

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Fifth grade students from Our Lady of the Pillar.

Mark has been loaning money to individuals in Kenya through Kiva for a few years now, and after Mark told his daughter’s class about his experiences, they made a decision to help out and raise money by doing chores and similar tasks. This year the fundraiser grew to include a movie day organized with the help of two dedicated teachers and Mark. It went even better than anticipated. As Mark wrote us, “In fact, this year, they raised so much that I brought forward the idea of funding an education of a secondary student in Kenya.”

Mark learned about The School Fund from Kiva and began searching for a student to support. “I was biased toward Kenya,” he said, due to his time there. He read through Janet’s profile, her interests, scholastic achievements, background, family and siblings. “It felt natural,” says Mark, “she reminded me of the family I stayed with in Kenya.”

And who wouldn’t want to support Janet? The fifth of six children, she’s watched her brothers grow up to attend school. But with outstanding fees, they never received their graduation certificates and could not pursue further education. Janet was top in her primary school, and is a beautifully well-rounded young woman. She loves football, running, and knitting. She wants to be a pilot—she is working hard at school so that one day, she will quite literally fly.

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Janet, Mark, and Our Lady of the Pillar’s fifth grade class have been keeping in touch via The School Fund’s online journal. Janet recently wrote the class, “I am overwhelmed with joy for your generous support towards my school fees for 2015. My gratitude goes to all the 5th grade class at Our Lady of the Pillar. Your support for my education is an answer to prayer.”

When we think about some of our own lives, it’s often chance and good timing that initially opened the door to some of our most meaningful experiences. It was Mark’s time in Kenya that eventually led him to introduce Janet to his daughter’s class. It was a healthy dose of initiative and hard work that resulted in plentiful funding, enough to support individuals on Kiva and Janet. As Mark told us, “I don’t think that the kids understood the magnitude—and the gratification—of what they did, until now.” Janet is letting them know how much it means that these fifth graders are invested in her—and not just financially. They care about her future. And we get the sense that this is a friendship that will last.

Teachers, let us know how you are connecting with The School Fund’s students in your classroom—and parents, as you create meaningful summer projects to do with your kids!

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