Ed­u­ca­tion em­pow­ers stu­dent from cra­dle to grad

Calgary Herald - - WE DAY ALBERTA 2015 - BY KIERAN GREEN

At 13, Hellen Lemian faced a ter­ri­ble choice: obey her fa­ther and quit school to be mar­ried to an old man, or run away and fight for her right to an ed­u­ca­tion.

Faced with that kind of pres­sure from a par­ent, other girls might have given in. Hellen, now 18, chose to fight. But with the sup­port of teach­ers and the ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties made pos­si­ble through Free The Chil­dren, she hasn’t faced that strug­gle alone.

Hellen is from Naikarra, a ru­ral Kenyan town of around 5,000 peo­ple. Her fam­ily of 13 are live­stock herders, like most in the com­mu­nity in South Narok. Free The Chil­dren helped the com­mu­nity up­grade their school from sim­ple mud huts, built in the 1980s, to larger, more mod­ern school rooms. With the im­proved school came greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the value of ed­u­ca­tion, es­pe­cially for girls. When Naikarra’s school first opened, just one girl was en­rolled — to­day there are over 100.

Hellen en­rolled in 2002, one of the few girls at the school then. But one month into Grade 1, her

mother died sud­denly. As the old­est child, Hellen had to drop out to look af­ter her younger sib­lings.

When she re­turned to school two years later, her teacher tu­tored her evenings to make up for the lost time.

Hellen was an out­stand­ing stu­dent, but as she ap­proached 14, her fa­ther promised her to an el­derly man, who al­ready had two wives.

“I told my fa­ther, if I get an ed­u­ca­tion I can change my life, I can change our fam­ily’s life.” He wouldn’t lis­ten. In search of an ally, Hellen bolted to her grand­mother’s house. A for­mi­da­ble woman, she was de­ter­mined her grand­daugh­ter would have the op­por­tu­ni­ties she never had. Block­ing the door­way, arms folded, she forced her son to can­cel the mar­riage and let Hellen re­turn to school.

The ar­gu­ment erupted again af­ter Grade 8. Her fa­ther ar­gued he couldn’t af­ford the yearly cost of high school fees, a small for­tune for fam­i­lies like his that live on less than a dol­lar a day.

“My fa­ther had a lot of pres­sure from com­mu­nity mem­bers. They said it was time for me to be a mother,” Hellen re­calls.

This time, she held the trump card: her good grades earned her ac­cep­tance into brand- new Kis­aruni All Girls Sec­ondary School.

Free The Chil­dren and its sup­port­ers built Kis­aruni in 2011 so promis­ing lo­cal girls could con­tinue their ed­u­ca­tion be­yond the pri­mary level. Con­tin­ued fund­ing from the non- profit en­sures the school is stocked with books and school sup­plies. Free The Chil­dren has also helped Kis­aruni de­velop a cur­ricu­lum that not only ed­u­cates girls like Hellen, but em­pow­ers them to be­come com­mu­nity lead­ers.

Kis­aruni of­fers a spon­sor­ship pro­gram to help stu­dents in need pay their school fees. There would be no cost bur­den on the fam­ily for Hellen’s school­ing, so her fa­ther again re­lented.

All through high school, Hellen washed dishes at a lo­cal ho­tel to pur­chase school uni­forms for her broth­ers and sis­ters. She was de­ter­mined that they not have to face the same chal­lenges she had.

When she wasn’t work­ing, Hellen stud­ied. This year, she and her class­mates scored among the top grades in Kenya’s na­tional stan­dard­ized ex­ams.

“Stu­dents like Hellen make us so proud. They show the im­pact of pro­vid­ing ed­u­ca­tion from cra­dle to grad­u­a­tion,” said Carol Mo­raa, head teacher at Kis­aruni.

Hard- won diploma in hand, Hellen en­rolled at Kis­aruni Tech­ni­cal Col­lege, newly launched this year by Free The Chil­dren to help girls from the high school find vo­ca­tions.

This sum­mer, Hellen grad­u­ated from the col­lege in­tern­ship pro­gram. Not even a sud­den down­pour dur­ing the cer­e­mony could dampen the spir­its of Hellen and her fel­low grad­u­ates, nor hide the tears of pride on her fa­ther’s face. Hellen’s suc­cess has made him a firm be­liever in the value of ed­u­ca­tion.

Us­ing the lead­er­ship skills im­parted at Kis­aruni, Hellen plans to be­come a teacher.

“I saw that it is im­por­tant for me to be a teacher be­cause our com­mu­nity still has few teach­ers. I want to help other chil­dren,” she says.

It’s the def­i­ni­tion of im­pact: ed­u­cat­ing one girl cre­ates a rip­ple that will trans­form the lives of hun­dreds for years to come.

Help a young woman reach her full po­ten­tial with a schol­ar­ship to Kis­aruni All Girls Sec­ondary School. To learn more, visit freethechi­l­dren. com/ do­nate.

PHOTO COUR­TESY: SAR CORNTHWAIT­E

Hellen Lemian, 18.

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