From Northwest to Ngomano

PUBLISHED in Bellingham Alive

by Christie Thompson

October/November 2010


Debra Akre has a lot to do. Grocery shopping. Redo the flooring in the bedroom. Take mom to run errands. Figure out how to ship 1000 native kiondos from Nairobi to Los Angeles.

The to-do list written in her Day-Timer notebook ranges from the mundane to the unusual, an unsurprising reality given the double life she leads. One life is as a businesswoman, wife, and mother in Bellingham-running errands and having meetings at the local Grace Café, drinking diet soda and tapping emails on her laptop alongside business partner Jeana King. The other life is as a mentor and co-founder (with King) of Clay International Secondary School in Ngomano, Kenya–meeting with the Kenyan minister of education, securing medical supply donations, and investigating successful microfinance projects in nearby Nairobi.

“You’re caught between two worlds,” King says.

“When I’m here, I’m desperately missing everyone [in Kenya]. When I’m there, I’m desperately missing everyone here,” Akre adds.

But with trips to Kenya two or three times a year, their proficiency in handling their disparate lives is as impressive as their frequent flier miles. King remembers to leave her husband a schedule for watering the plants and paying the bills. Akre stocks up on enough Crystal Light and sunscreen to last them through three weeks in the Kenyan sun. After five years, they’re used to it.

Five years ago, Akre was living in Kenya after answering a call for volunteers to help establish a college of business administration. It was then she noticed a severe need for quality secondary education. Her students lacked basic problem solving skills and the ability to think for themselves.

When King and her husband came to visit Akre, they asked themselves what could be done to address the issue. “Kenya has an immense regard for education,” Akre says, contrary to what she sees as a tendency to equate poverty with stupidity. “But when you are a [developing] country, your ability to provide that is very limited.”

In line with their previous charity work in countries like Vietnam, Akre, and King created Project Education, Inc. The initial response of their community was disappointing due to lack of publicity. But Akre and King found a strong partnership in Jim and Andy Clay, who understood their vision and dream.

The Clay Family Foundation joined the cause, and within three months, Clay International Secondary School opened its doors. Only four years later, Clay International provides much needed secondary education to 131 students, and it will see its finest senior class graduate next March.

“This is a testament to two people who believed in what we were doing,” Akre says.

But Akre and King are not educators. Rather, they are businesswomen. “How can we use our business skills to see something transformation?” King asked after her first trip to Kenya. It works to use sound business models and economic development programs to assist with school funding and empower the local community.

Akre and King are investigating other economic development and microfinance programs in hopes of someday funding a school with community commerce instead of donations. As it reads in big bold letters on their website, Akre and King “truly want to work [themselves] out of a job!”

Akre and King wanted to do more than open a school that teaches reading, writing, music and math. Project Education was, on a larger scale, their way of creating sustainable change.

“Everything we do in Africa needs to be changed,” Akre says, taking a small sip of her diet soda and resettling in her chair. Akre and King seem to approach the issue of Western aid in Africa cautionsly, like it is a discussion they’ve had hundreds of times before over hundreds of diet sodas.

“After 46 years and trillions of dollars, nothing has improved,” she says, suggesting restraint from going much further into the topic. “It [should be] a partnership, not a handout.”

“Akre and King see their approach to education as the best way to establish this self-sufficiency. Typical Kenyan education was, in their minds, an extensive listen and repeat process.

“You do not ask questions,” Akre says, after noticing such submissiveness in her business tudents. “That form of education is wonderful if you have a demographic that you want to subjugate. We wanted to change that.”

By employing Kenyan teachers and using a curriculum and structure that respects their local culture, Clay International hopes to give its students pride in their Kumba, Kenyan, and African heritage. Project Education believes that by establishing this sense of national and tribal pride, their students will feel invested in “fixing their own problems,” and in finding Kenyan solutions to Kenyan issues without relying on assistance from the West.

Akre and King hopes Clay International serves as a model for future schools in other disadvantaged communities. They already found a location for their second school and received a hugely positive response from community members and the Kenyan department of education.

“We’ve been asked by the ministry of education of Kenya to take over other schools,” Akre says.

Their success is marked by test scores, accolades, and less quantifiable changes in their students’ daily behavior. Akre and King watched proudly when their students walked away from the finals of a prestigious sporting tournament believing it was judged unfairly. After recent breakouts of ethnic violence in Kenya, Clay International students participated in a debate concerning the tensions.

Both events signaled to Akre and King that their students were growing as people as wella s students. As one senior student told them on their most recent visit to Ngomano, “At Clay, you need to be a whole person. You don’t that at other schools, but you get that here.”

It is anecdotes like these that Akre and King bring back with them. Akre and King tend to focus on what they call their “good-news story,” listing successes and statistics with pride and cheer (there have been no new cases of AIDS in any Clay International students, and only three dropouts). Both women are beamingly proud of their work, their donors, their staff, and most importantly, their students. Missing are the mages and stories of poverty and hunger that typify so many charity organizations and a Western image of a nation in need. Their website and promotional materials instead feature dancing, singing, and smiling students.

But despite their glossy successes, their story is not one without conflict and tensions. Both women eventually admit that running Project Education can be both physically and emotionally exhausting.

“We’ve learned to compartmentalize the emotional side,” Akre explains, as to how she maintains her buoyancy despite witnessing firsthand the effects of staggering poverty. “After about two weeks [in Kenya\, I’m about to have a breakdown.”

Stories of students like John Stone, a gifted student with a troubled home life, weigh heavily on Akre and King. Stone was the oldest of five, dealing with an abusive uncle, mentally disabled mother, and four dependent young siblings. The principal of Clay International came to Akre and King with news that Stone, a student int he top of his class, may be dropping out. He was struggling to meet both his academic and familial obligations.

King and Akre still shed a few releuctant tears in the coffee shop, nine months and thousands of miles away from the situation. “We knew what would happen to him if we couldn’t keep him in school,” Akre says.

Unsurprisingly, Akre and King still pull a happy ending from an otherwise unhappy story. The community rallied to sponsor Stone to live at the school, freeing him to attend fulltime.

But their dried tears and steadfast smiles come with a cost. When asked what became of Stone’s four younger siblings, Akre reluctantly admits she doesn’t know.

“We have to focus on the kids in our school, otherwise the project would fall apart,” King explains, the guiding principle for their sunny optimism. “You’d be paralyzed,” Akre adds.

Nothing can paralyze the women of Project Education, be it emotional strain, jet leg or time away from their Bellingham lives. They are pushing forward to the next stages: opening new schools, furthering their economic development programs, and securing their graduating seniors spots in Kenyan universities.

“When you’re working with the lives of human beings, it becomes a tremendous joy and a tremendous burden,” Akre says, King nodding her head in agreement. “We don’t have the option of failing them.”

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