Calgary Herald

Education empowers student from cradle to grad


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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