08/06/2014 02:47 EDT | Updated 08/06/2014 02:59 EDT

Education For Girls Means Life-Changing Options In Kenya

Julie Sharpe

Narok County, KENYA — Julie Sharpe looks up towards the stage. She is overwhelmed.

Standing in front of her is Faith, a beautiful young black teenage girl. Her head is shaved. She’s wearing a white shirt, a black sweater, a long forest green skirt with a gold border at the bottom, long white socks and black shoes.

“Oleleshwa is a place where learners really matter, where they become holistic members of society through education and [their] talents,” she tells the group assembled before her.

The audience is made up of approximately 24 other students from Oleleshwa Girls Secondary School, two teachers, two guides and thirteen visitors from AOL U.K. and AOL Canada, who have come to Kenya to help build a school and see how their company’s corporate sponsorship with Free The Children is carried out.

Before Free the Children arrived, Faith says, there was nowhere for girls to go after Grade 8.

“It was only boys in our community who were provided an education. Us girls, we just stayed at home to help our parents.”

In 2011, Free The Children built its first all-girls high school for the Maasai and Kipsigis communities of Narok County. Kisaruni All Girls Secondary School aimed to build the girls’ self-confidence and leadership skills while following Kenya’s national curriculum. The success of Kisaruni led to the opening of Oleleshwa, less than an hour’s drive away in January of 2013. Now, approximately 100 Grade 9 and 10 students attend, and next year, another 40 to 50 will be admitted.

Stephanie, 15, says she wanted to attend Oleleshwa because it offered the best education, the best facilities and best teachers.When she was in Grade 8, she interviewed for a spot.

“They chose the best learners, then they sponsored us,” she says.

Life at Oleleshwa isn’t easy, Sharpe, a credit control manager from AOL’s U.K. office, discovered while speaking with the students.

The girls get up at 4:30 a.m. every weekday. Their first class, at 5 a.m. is a personal study period. Then after cleaning their dorm and campus, it’s a full day of school from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., followed by after-school activities and clubs. They turn the lights out around 10:30 p.m.

Stephanie misses her parents, who are farmers, her three sisters and older brother. Sometimes they visit on the weekend, she says.

Without sponsorship, she says she wouldn’t have been able to attend secondary school and fulfill her dream of being a doctor.

“I want to be a surgeon,” she states.

She hopes to study in the U.S. and return to Kenya.

“I would like to be a doctor so that I can help, like treating diseases that are disturbing people in the community so that I can advise [them] and they can avoid the contacts with the diseases,” she says.

Stephanie also wants to become a doctor so that other young girls will see her as an inspiration to continue their studies.

“Not many girl leaders in our community have become doctors, since many don’t have access to secondary education … I’d like to be a doctor so that I can inspire girls to get access to secondary education and get better educations.”

Stephanie’s story is echoed by other girls in the classroom, like Joanne.

Joanne told Sharpe she wanted to finish her studies and move to the U.K. where she could become not just a lawyer, but a judge.

Her father is out of the picture and her mother suffers from mental illness. Sometimes her mother gets aggressive, so it’s Joanne’s grandfather who visits every fortnight.

Joanne said she misses her family and never sees her brothers and sisters.

“She didn’t like to think about it, because if she thought about missing her family then it would take her away from the focus of her education,” Sharpe says.

“You could see it was hurting her to know her mom was sick and she couldn’t look after her,” Sharpe adds. It meant perhaps more to Joanne that she was in school, “getting herself somewhere in life,” so she could eventually provide for her mother and five siblings, she says.

Joanne told Sharpe she was very happy she visited “because it gave her more inspiration to achieve the goals that she wants.”

On the truck ride back to the camp where she was staying, Sharpe asked her local facilitator, Tobiko Sankei, about his own experience with education.

Sankei explained he’d received a scholarship to attend college at the Koiyaki Guiding School. He’d applied to university and was accepted but his family — he is the tenth of 48 children — didn’t have the funds to send them all to post-secondary studies.

“For me not going to school, sacrificing my own education, I had helped some of my siblings go to school. Because I knew that if I had said yes, my dad could have afforded to send me … but that would have meant that it would have cost some of my siblings not to get an education.”

Sankei said he searched for his sponsor in the hopes of saying thank you, but was only told he’d been sponsored through Lakehead Foundation.

Although he never did get the chance to show his appreciation, he said he takes comfort in working for an organization that helps other children keep their dreams alive. “Every day I feel like I’m saying thank you to that person even though I didn’t say it.

”The biggest asante, or thank you, that [someone] can give to you, is having a good life but also giving back to the community,” Sankei says.

Sharpe says she’s not sure if she’s going to sponsor a girl but she hopes she’ll be able to.

“To think that I didn’t have to go through that in life. It’s handed on a plate to us, and I think because of that, we take it more for granted,” Sharpe explains. “Whereas these girls, it’s a treasure. And something they will keep with them for the rest of their lives, because without that opportunity they just can’t do what they want to do.”

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