The School Fund’s 1st White Paper! (It’s About Education in Kenya)

girl studying

Today, The School Fund is releasing the first in a series of white papers, this one focused on school access in Kenya—what limits access to education there, and how organizations like our partner Wema Children’s Centre have been able to expand that access, with your support.

Here are some realities in Kenya:

  • A quarter of all children drop out between primary and secondary school
  • Three factors greatly determine a child’s likelihood of enrolling in school: gender, rural background and family income
  • The annual cost of secondary education is twelve to twenty times more than the monthly income of parents in rural areas

page01We’ve learned a lot as we’ve built The School Fund. We’ve also learned how partners like Wema are changing these realities for students every day, thanks to your support.

Please read and share “Dynamics of Education in Kenya: From School Access to Equity and Quality” with your network. We’re proud to begin offering deeper insights into global education to those who have been with us, trying to improve access to education, for so many years.

Teresa’s Story

BY LAURA D’ASARO, Wema Children’s, co-founder and vice president

I am at a public school in Kenya. In a tiny room sit 200 first graders, cross-legged on the floor. Shouting above the noise from the classroom next door penetrating the thin walls of the classroom, the teacher, Teresa, tries to teach the children to read, explaining the rules of pluralization. She patiently repeats and explains, but keeping 200 seven-year-olds engaged and learning is nearly impossible, and the stark reality is that most of these students will drop out before high school and many will never learn to read, as is shown by the 50% illiteracy rate of the community surrounding the school.  Teresa finishes the lesson and walks out the door, a stream of screaming children flowing out around her and walks across the red dirt road. She walks through a gate labeled “Wema Childen’s Centre” in hand-painted letters, and finally sits down, exhausted.

Teresa in the public school classroom.

Teresa in the public school classroom.

My name is Laura D’Asaro. I met Teresa while studying abroad in college, helped connect Wema to the School Fund, and still serve on the Wema Children’s board. However, Wema is Teresa’s school and this is Teresa’s story. I feel like so often these stories are about us Americans and our role in helping Africa, so I wanted this to be about the woman who started her own school across the street from the public one where she teaches to give her village an education and a future that would otherwise be impossible, and who inspires me to help her make this dream possible.

Teresa grew up during a time when in Kenya there was still very little education, especially for girls. So by the time Teresa started school, her father had given up on girls and on her education and refused to support her. However, although her mom was illiterate, she knew other women who had gotten some education and seemed better for it. Teresa’s mom did extra odd jobs to make money for Teresa’s school fees and when the other kids were on holiday, Teresa worked on farms to support her education. Teresa fought for her education and was one of the lucky ones who learned enough in public school to continue her education past eighth grade. However, when you get her talking about public school, her passion and anger is contagious.

“Many children are in school doing what when they are not even succeeding!?” she says, as we walk down the road past a farm where a woman is hammering the ground rhythmically, breaking up the hard dirt for planting. “You find that they don’t improve their literacy level at those public schools. You find children in class three cannot even read and write, and those who go up to class seven can still not read and write. They have come out of grade eight and they are not enabled in anything! They just go back and live like their parents, so there is a difference in quality of education, that which enables and that which locks out everyone to stay the way they are!”

So Teresa and her husband Stephen started Wema. Wema started as a private school and became one of the best in Western Kenya. Paying students come from around the area to attend and get the high quality education unavailable at public school, but Teresa didn’t just want to start another private school. She wanted to help those who couldn’t afford this quality of education, so the funds from tuition are used to enable poor and orphaned students in the community to also study and live there. However, there are always too many students who want to attend and not enough money.

Stephen and Teresa

Teresa and Stephen

Stephen works at a sugar factory as a chemist to support the orphanage and Teresa walks everyday across that road to teach at the public school to bring in extra income.

It’s not easy. “Wema has taken a lot of the family resources,” she tells me. “We would have ventured into other businesses and would be more richer!” she says, cracking into a smile. “But we looked at our community and said, people who make a difference in their places are just like us!”

But if you ask Teresa why she has given her life to this, she will light up and tell you.

“In Kenya, education is the only tool to finish the problem of the people,” she says, her dark eyes bright with passion. “Otherwise any other way does not work. Like you give them food, tomorrow they will still need the food. They will still retain the poverty. The needs will still be there. But if you invest in education, you are enabling them to be, to improve economically, so they will be empowered in the mind and go in for quality, and on their own they will improve.”

“…every time I leave the village and head back down those red dirt roads to my black paved ones, I think about how much better every community would be if they had a Teresa.”

And it takes just one look to see what she means. I meet a girl named Faith, who come from a family where nobody can read, sitting outside reading a book. I talk to a boy named Wellington who was orphaned due to AIDS and he tells me with the biggest smile that he wants to be a doctor. Teresa can already see the village changing. There’s a new well now at Wema that the community uses to obtain water. They have a computer lab, and children and adults who have never touched a computer tentatively poke at the keyboard, trying to find the letters to write their first words. There’s a waitlist to get in longer than Teresa will ever be able to accommodate, and everyday as she walks back from the public school, exhausted, she thinks of how if they could just let in one more child, what a difference that could make in his or her life. And every time I leave the village and head back down those red dirt roads to my black paved ones, I think about how much better every community would be if they had a Teresa.

So here’s to all the unsung heroes who spend their lives making their villages and their communities stronger and to The School Fund for connecting us to them and giving us a glimpse of the value of education and what one determined person and their big ideas can do with a little help.

You can support Wema students through The School Fund.

Wema: Building One of Kenya’s Top Schools, for Orphans of HIV/AIDS, Political Unrest

BY ALEX BREININ, Wema Children President

Meet Wema
Wema Children’s Centre is a school and orphanage located in Western Kenya that educates 532 children in primary and secondary school. Seventy-two of these students are currently featured on The School Fund, and with the generosity and support of donors, we have the opportunity to fund their educations and board at Wema. The majority of these students are orphans and without Wema would not be able to attend school. With Wema, these students will be the first people in their families to attend university, enabling them to obtain good paying jobs and thereby help their community.

Teresa Wati and Stephen Juma, who grew up in the village surrounding Wema, co-founded it under the name meaning “goodness.” Teresa started her career as a public school teacher and wanted to uplift her community through education.

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Founders, Teresa Wati and Stephen Juma.

Teresa and Stephen began Wema’s primary school in 1999 under the name Highway Academy at the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis when their village had an estimated adult HIV/AIDS rate of 30 percent. More than half of the community was also illiterate. Each class in the community’s public school contained 150 students or more in an open-air classroom with no learning materials. Despite the best efforts of teachers, learning was difficult if not impossible. Wema was desperately needed.

In 2008, Wema was started with the goal of providing an education to all deserving students, whether or not they could afford the tuition price. It was an alternative to the overcrowded, under-resourced public school. Students who showed potential in public school were offered admission.


Wema’s primary students.

While Wema continued to thrive in delivering the same high quality education that Highway Academy did before and the school maintained its ranking in the top 100 primary schools in Kenya, it had no way of continuing the massive financial investment in students’ educations. Funds from paying students and additional donations from the community were not enough to balance its budget.

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Wema students, hard at work.

By chance, I was fortunate to learn about Wema and volunteer there. My friend Laura D’Asaro was studying abroad in Kenya and found out about Wema through a security guard on her street. Though she was an 18-hour bus trip away, Stephen and Teresa traveled to her asking Laura to invite friends to visit and volunteer. The following January, Laura and I, along with three other friends, traveled to Wema to see how we could help. When we arrived in 2011, we saw the wonderful opportunity to help uplift and change a community for the better. Everything at Wema was working. Students were receiving an excellent education thanks to their 30 dedicated teachers. They also worked extremely hard and valued their educations greatly. When I asked the students what they wanted to be, almost all said, a doctor, teacher, lawyer, engineer, or pilot. They knew that education is a privilege and wanted to take full advantage of it.

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Alex Breinin, Wema Children’s president, and Wema students.

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Wema students working at the computer lab.

Prepared for University
Over the last five years with the help of The School Fund, we have been able to make Wema’s budget fiscally sustainable while increasing the number of Wema students by approximately 150 and building a secondary school so that all students who cannot afford school fees can receive a free education until they attend university.

The majority of Wema students attend university on a scholarship due to their high exam scores on the national standardized test and almost all pursue additional post-secondary school education opportunities. Without the support of donors through The School Fund, this would not have been possible. All donors are welcomed to connect with the students they sponsor, and I’m proud that several have traveled to Wema to meet the students and volunteer.

You Can Make the Difference
During the next two weeks, I hope you consider joining The School Fund’s campaign for Wema Children’s Centre to support the hardworking, talented, and caring students in Bukembe, Kenya. One-hundred percent of the donations raised will be spent on the students’ educations.

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Click the above image to meet Wema’s students and help fund their educations.

Since my initial trip, I have visited several more times and continue to volunteer from the U.S. because I believe Wema is an incredible organization that is not only changing the lives of hundreds of students, but also is empowering a community to uplift itself.

For only $500 a year, you can change a student’s life and help the Wema community continue to flourish. And by crowdfunding through The School Fund, we can all be part of reaching that goal for every student.

Nice seeing you again

Together we support young people. We root for them. And each year, graduates head off to work or start university, more equipped for life thanks to the education you helped provide.

It’s about growth. And we’re growing too.


If you haven’t stopped by The School Fund recently, please take a moment. We upgraded our website to better highlight our students and make our message even clearer: all of us, together, can help ensure that smart, capable students have access to education, no matter what their families’ income.

It’s nice seeing The School Fund in this crisp, beautiful new way.

It’ll be nice seeing you again too!

–The School Fund Team

P.S. Match Day is tomorrow, (100% match for 24 hours). Click the Google calendar button to open your calendar and add an invite for ALL DAY, August 4th!

Travel with Kenya Connect

Let’s talk numbers: 300 books. 1,500 toothbrushes. 17 clicking computer mouses.

It’s not just a random list of objects. It’s a tally of our partner Kenya Connect’s impact thus far as its team has headed to Kenya to officiate this year’s graduation ceremony and spend time learning with students there.


We’re so grateful for their travelogue—scenes from Kenya. Moments that demonstrate how much an investment in a student’s education matters.

We’ve loved reading how our friends at Kenya Connect brought along 300 books to supplement the Learning Resource Library. (Imagine having your library doubled in a day to measure how special that gift was.) With them, they carried 1,500 toothbrushes for students, donated by supporters in the U.S. This week, Kenya Connect visited 12 of The School Fund’s students, and announced to them that Kenya Connect wants to enter the Governor’s Film Festival Contests featuring TSF students!


Kenya Connect has made it easy to picture—easy to almost hear—the sound of 34 students, clattering at 17 computers, and learning computer coding for the first time. These are scenes of learning. Scenes of promise. Scenes of education pursued.

Follow their 2015 yourself at their travel blog and meet some of Kenya Connect’s remarkable students at The School Fund.

Meet a Future Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Have you ever met someone—a doctor, a quantum physicist, a political activist—so brilliant that you catch yourself wondering what they were like in their youth? Did they exude genius? Did those who knew them suspect they were destined for greatness?


Felix M.

Here’s your chance to see what people in the future will only guess at. Young Felix Mushi, of Highlands Secondary School, Tanzania, one day plans to be a cardiothoracic surgeon, and we bet people will marvel at him, and wonder what it would have been like to know him when he was just starting out.

We recently received a video of him, describing heart anatomy to his classmates, narrating what he learned in his most recent dissection, and explaining the physiology of the heart and normal blood flow. Go ahead, and watch this bright young mind at work!

(Warning: if dissections make you queasy, this video might not be for you.)

To learn more about Felix, read this interview conducted last year, by The School Fund’s first student, John Medo.

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.


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.


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!

Portrait of a Maturing Young Actor: Meet Anthony Musyoka Ngao

Our partner Kenya Connect recently posted an essay written by Anthony Musyoka Ngao, a bright young man who is staying in school and pursuing his dream of becoming an actor with help from The School Fund community. This post originally appeared at Kenya Connect’s blog

672340_origThe first year I joined Wamunyu Primary School in 2006 was the same year I came to know about Kenya Connect. Just like any other new kid in school, I was very keen to explore my school and I recall quite well that was when our old and cracked classroom was renovated and given a new facelift. The dusty floor that had given me a cold for months and the open windows that were killing us in the cold were at last fixed! The school staff room and the head teacher’s offices were renovated too. I later came to know that the people behind this good work were Kenya Connect. I learned that Kenya Connect had partnered our school with a school in America called Mt. View Middle school and that the students in our sister school were raising money to rebuild our school. I was very happy to have joined this school. At the same time, I learned that the students in our upper school were actually paired with pen pals from our sister school, Mt. View MS and were exchanging letters. I was sad that I did not have a pen pal, since I did not know how to read and write well. I promised myself that I would work very hard to know how to write so that one day I could have my own pen pal to write to.  Day after day, I worked hard in class to be the best student. My hard work paid off because I remember I was always the top student in class. This gave me a lot of confidence. I was even appointed class prefect and I begun acting and leading songs in my class performances. I loved singing and acting but then the confidence I earned in class work even boosted this more and more.

Years moved on quickly and in 2009, I was promoted to standard four, the grade that was exchanging pen pal letters.  Wow! My dream finally came true when I wrote my first letter and my pen pal wrote back! This was an amazing experience to talk to someone continents apart. We continued to exchange letters for the next two years. I learned a lot from my pen pal. Though our cultures were different, we still shared a lot in common. I will forever remain grateful for this letter exchange experience. By the time I finished my primary school, our school had benefited a lot from Kenya Connect programs. All the classrooms were now renovated and a water tank was built to provide clean drinking water for the entire school. A hand washing station was also built for us to wash our hands and a de-worming program had been started with all children in my school getting de-worming medicine four times a year! I was sad to leave Wamunyu ABC when I completed standard eight but at the same time I was excited to join a new secondary school. Although, I knew I had to leave and move on to secondary school, one thing was for sure. I would miss the services of Kenya Connect!

As fate would have it, on my final year in primary school, my father who is the sole income earner in my family, had an accident that injured his leg making him unable to work. My dream of joining secondary school was shattered. However, every cloud has its silver lining; lo and behold this fateful event led me to another front of Kenya Connect: their connection with The School Fund!

Through The School Fund, Kenya Connect is providing scholarship for needy and top-performing students in secondary school. After presenting my need, I was lucky to be selected as a beneficiary of this program and that is how I ended up joining my new school- Kitondo secondary school. I feel very happy and most blessed to continue with my education through the support of Kenya Connect. I am even excited to have my profile online to be able to journal with friends and supporters. I am very happy that some of the teachers and guests who visited my former primary school through Kenya Connect visits and loved my performance are now supporting me in my education.  Thank you friends for your support. Asante sana. My dream is to be a professional actor and am grateful to everyone who is supporting me make my dream true.

How a First Job Can Change a Life

BY RACHAEL MILLER, External Affairs Assistant, Educate! 

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Do you remember your first job? Do you remember the pride you felt in your new responsibilities and self-sufficiency? Perhaps you were saving up for a car, a college education, or a home to call your own. Perhaps you saw that hard work was the key to a better future. Whether it was waiting tables, delivering papers, scooping ice cream, or walking dogs, a first job is an invaluable experience.

Educate! Scholars share these goals. Many young Ugandans want nothing more than a first job that will allow them to spread their wings and grow personally and professionally while laying the foundation for a better life. However, for most of these young people, there are serious barriers preventing them from achieving this dream.

Globally, 311 million young people are unemployed, largely due to the mismatch between education and life after school. This problem is most acute in Africa, the world’s youngest continent. (The average age in Africa is 18; in several European countries, it’s 40 or more.) With a lack of formal jobs, 90% of African youth are going to work in the informal sector. Yet education systems across Africa are out-dated and cannot hope to deliver on their most vital promise—spending years in schools focused on rote-memorization and designed for a 1900’s economy does not lead to employment and the opportunity to make a living. For the families who have invested so much to put their children through school, this broken promise is tragic.

We know that the youth of Uganda are an untapped resource for change. Educate! transforms secondary education in Africa to teach young people to solve poverty for themselves and their communities. We aim to create the future of secondary education to develop youth to take leadership initiative, create small businesses, and improve their livelihoods. Educate! delivers a relevant model of education. Through advocacy, practical training for teachers, and direct service in schools, we are working to fully integrate our model into Uganda’s education system.

Our partnership with The School Fund is so exciting because it will fully fund four Educate! schools, allowing our innovative and proven model to reach 350 students per school for a total of 1,400 students! Funding Educate!’s programs in these schools is a sustainable way to ensure that students can stay in school and get an education that will allow them to build a better future. Students are able to use the money that they earn from their enterprises to pay their tuition fees and other school expenses. Together, we equip these young people with the tools they need to be leaders, entrepreneurs and changemakers in their communities. These students are solving the problem of poverty in their communities—starting with their very first job.

Bootstrapping into a Different Life in Uganda

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Starting a business is not an easy task. Yet more than a few friends and colleagues have chosen the entrepreneurial route. Whether this trend is a result of job scarcity upon graduation, perennial optimism about being able to make change in the world, or a different sort of rebellion, millennial-style, it seems that the world of startups, new businesses, and home-grown changemakers is here to stay. The Kauffman Foundation recently released a statistic that showed business creation in to be at 0.28% in the US. Meaning that there are around 475,000 new business owners each month throughout the year. This number has in fact declined from recent years, suggesting an economic upswing in more traditional jobs, but the power of entrepreneurship, business ownership, and the skills accumulated during the launch of a company cannot be understated.

The case for entrepreneurship is particularly poignant in the developing world. In countries like Uganda, where the youth employment rate hovers around 83%, the need to be innovative in a troubled economy is essential.  This is one of the primary reasons that The School Fund has partnered with Educate!, an organization that provides leadership and entrepreneurial training to high school students.

At Uplands High School in Kampala, there was a common problem: kids arrived at school with dirty shoes, a dress code violation that often would get them sent home. Students from the Educate! Student Business club saw an opportunity where others only saw frustration. They now manufacture and sell their own shoe polish, which has become very popular with their classmates. Others noted how many students wanted something other than dry toast for breakfast, and started marketing breakfast jam. Others have found a way to use recycled paper bags to package the popcorn they sell. Their products might seem modest: popcorn, shoe polish, jam. But their businesses are booming. When you think about some of the businesses that take off in the US—Eggstracor, anyone?—it appears that these Ugandan entrepreneurs are providing goods that are more vital to the lives of their customers.

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Young entrepreneurs from Uplands High School, Kampala, Uganda.

These students don’t have access to angel investors or the sort of business accelerators that thrive on many American University campuses. Their potential customers don’t have much in the way of disposable income, and money earned is often earmarked for mostly essential needs. Engaging customers in Uganda takes a certain savvy—starting a business in a resource-poor setting, you have to learn to be creative with what you have. Students in Educate!’s entrepreneurial program have no choice but to bootstrap. More amazing, while these students are gaining the skills and confidence that come from starting a venture from scratch, they are not only succeeding, but they are turning a profit. This means more money for books, more money for uniforms, and near and dear to all of us at The School Fund, they are earning more money to stay in school by being able to pay their mandatory school fees.

The facts and figures that we learn in school are undoubtedly important, but the education that comes with learning to assess and measure your own potential, learning to utilize the right tools, and learning to create opportunities for yourself—that is the education that sticks.  We are so proud to support these young entrepreneurs, and honored to be a part of their ongoing educations.