The Power of Choice
I know that the freedom to choose is right. It is the core of democracy, of what it is to be American, of what it should be to be human. But I am impressed when I see it work in small but powerful doses. At Educate Tomorrow the students we work with choose to be a part of us. They choose to take advantage of the resources we can provide them with and they choose to keep walking through our doors. And when they make those choices, each time they make those choices, they are one giant leap closer to reaching their goals, to becoming empowered and to reaching their goals. Many teenagers don't get to choose what they want to do. They have to go to school. They have to clean their room. They have to come hoe at a reasonable hour. When you are in the foster care system your choices are even further restricted. With that so are your opportunities. And here is Educate Tomorrow a small, non-profit organisation that is focused on education, learning, skills building. To a teen I can imagine, how boring does that sound? I know that is what I would have thought when I was 16. And to top it off, no one is making anyone be a part of Educate Tomorrow. There are no bribes, save for a free lunch. So here we are, Educate Tomorrow has all these great things to offer a young person: a mentor, a life coach, tutoring, a safe place to come and chill, ACT/SAT prep, a computer lab, life skills camps, college tours, and much much more. If you embrace Educate Tomorrow and all that we have to offer, it will change your life, no doubt. And it has changed lives. 3 strong young women now have their masters degrees, 9 have bachelors and many associates and vocational certificates. And the reason for that is because it was a choice, and that choice to go get a mentor, to go to a life-skills camp, to go. Yesterday I was sitting at my desk staring at our empty workstations in our new mentee resource center, because school was in session, and I was wondering, wrongly, how can we get students to use this. Then what impressed me was right after school our door started opening and by 3:30 pm there were 4 of our students workng on the computers. One was doing PREPWORKS, one was searching for an apartment, one was doing their homework and the other looking for a job and compiling a list of resources for other transitioning foster youth. I can't think of anything more inspiring than when people make the choice to put in the hard work to create opportunities for themselves.
Educate Tomorrow Niger
I am not the one to be writing this blog about my recent trip to Niger so I will keep it short and hand this over to the real writer when he is ready. Over the past 12 years I have spent nearly 6 years living and working in Africa, Asia and Central America on education, health and community development activities. With that experience also comes the fact that I don't get to see things as new and fresh as they once looked. I was blessed to be able to bring the first mentee Educate Tomorrow ever worked with in Miami along with me this time to Niger and it was a real privledge to experience Antonio's first trip to Africa. Antonio Shleton has been with advertising agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky for over five years as a Broadcast Engineer. He is responsible for studio recording, sound design and effects, music production, and post-production work. He received his A.S. degree in Recording Arts from Fullsail University in Orlando, Florida in 2004. Antonio also has an active artistic career as a hip hop and R&B musician, releasing his first single "Remember" in 2008. He was a foster youth in Miami-Dade County and the efforts of co-founder and Board Chair Melanie Damian and Board Member Chris Damian assisted Mr. Shelton to further his education and he provided much of the inspiration for the formation of Educate Tomorrow. For years Antonio has dreamed of travelling to Niger, West Africa with Educate Tomorrow to see what we are doing there and to experience what it is like abroad. Over the years as a Board Member for Educate Tomorrow Antonio has raised several thousand dollars for Educate Tomorrow and over $6,000 for the Niger program.
I was a bit nervous having a rookie travelling with me to Africa. I thought Antonio might slow me down, might complain about the 100+ degree heat or not agree with what our options were for dinner or the lack of showers, toilets and matresses. But I could not have been more blessed. Antonio had a great outlook and the keen observations and quest for knowledge of a great artist, which he is. He was ready for the challenge and he had a way with engagin children and adults despite the language barrier. We didn't stay in fancy hotels or eat at resturants. There were no hot or cold showers at the end of a long day, just a bucket full of water and the nights were hot and rainy but he spent most of his time focusing on learning about Niger, about the people and about himself. Thank you Antonio.
In Niger Educate Tomorrow is a registered non-profit NGO with the government of Niger and we work to support 2 communities in the Kirtachi area, south of Niamey on the east banks of the Niger river. In the small rural village of Kabey Fo where Virginia was a Peace Corps volunteer from 2000-2002 there is a school with 4 permanent classrooms supporting grades 1-6 with government teachers and a solar panel for electricity at night. This past school year 40 students were enrolled and 100% passed to the next grade level with 5 out of 5 passing the national exam to move from primary school (6th grade) to middle school. Because the village is too small for a middle school students must travel 15 miles to the nearest school to attend grades 7-11. This is not possible on their own without any modes of transporation so 5 years ago Educate Tomorrow started a boarding house in the town of Kirtachi to provide room and board for 7th-10th graders attending from Kabey Fo and surrounding hamlets and small villages. This past school year that ended in June 20 out of 22 students made grade level progress and 2 of the students were the top in their respective classes. This coming school year, starting October 1st, Educate Tomorrow will support 28 students at the boarding house. At the boarding house we provide 3 meals a day, medicine and health care expenses, tutoring for up to 3 hours each night, uniforms, books, bedding and mosquito nets, school supplies and transportation to and from their village 4 times per year. The total cost per student per year is under $800.
It was a great pleasure to join Antonio on his first trip to Niger and I am happy to see that Educate Tomorrow Niger is making great progress on the attainment of higher education for rural youth that prior to 2000 had no classrooms, teachers or access to quality education.