PUBLISHED in Whatcom Independent
by Katie Regan
May 29-June 4, 2008
BELLINGHAM – Three years ago, three women from Bellingham opened the Clay International Secondary School in Kenya to give students a chance to continue their education beyond primary school.
When the school opened on March 7, 2005, it had 30 students, two teachers and two buildings. Now, the school is host to 118 students, seven teachers and 22 buildings.
The school, located in the village of Ngomano, is the only free secondary school in Kenya.
It is the brainchild of Debra Akre and Jeana King. King said through their experiences in Africa, the two women fell in love with the people of Kenya and in September 2003, along with Andy Clay, they founded Project Education Inc. (PEI).
Clay and her husband provide the majority of the funding through the Clay Foundation. Akre said founding a school appealed to them because the breadth of education in Kenya is not what they expected.
“These children had no idea who Shakespeare was. They had no idea who Hitler was,” she said.
King said they were hesitant to just donate money to charities because they would have no control over how it would be spent.
Akre said a secondary school was important to them because while primary school in Kenya is free, secondary schools are not, and the majority of students are unable to attend.
In 2006, six million children were enrolled in primary school, but only 300,000 were enrolled in secondary school, Akre said.
“There’s a hug disparity in the number of children who are able to go,” she said.
The school had to be approved by the Kenyan government before it could become a reality.
“The local community was really excited about (the school),” Akre said. “But the government was concerned as to what exactly it was that we were doing. We wanted to provide education for free, which the government doesn’t do, so there was a lot of skepticism as to whether or not it would work.”
Ngomano, in central Kenya, was chosen as the site for the free school because of the extreme poverty of the village’s people, Akre said.
PEI covers all costs, King said. The group provides food, uniforms, school supplies, sports equipment and personal toiletries. Students, in turn, work in the school’s gardens, haul water, clean the campus, and take care of the school’s chickens. A medical clinic was funded by an anonymous donation. It is open to the community and staffed every Friday by a nun from a neighboring village. Once a month, the Kenyan ministry of health sends a doctor to the clinic.
“We can’t perform surgeries there or anything, but it’s still much more than they had,” Akre said. “Before, the closest medical clinic was 36 kilometers away and they had to walk. So it’s pretty amazing that we have this here for them.”
The school’s presence has benefited community health as well. In the three years since it opened, no teen pregnancies or new cases of HIV/AIDS have been reported at the school.
“No other agency can say that they have those kinds of statistics,” Akre said.
The women attribute their success to the discussion of AIDS in school. Akre said teachers also provide AIDS information to parents. Development of the school is still underway, but should be finished soon, King said. Presently, the school facilities include computer labs, guest housing, a conference center and a chapel, among other buildings. The school is currently working on constructing a library, science labs, and additional classrooms.
Once all the building is finished, Akre estimates the cost at just below $120,000 for the entire facility.
King said they were able to keep costs low by buying everything in-country.
The majority of funding comes from the Clay Foundation, but a portion comes from fundraising. PEI plans to hold a fundraiser in June, although the type hasn’t been determined yet.
Akre said as the last buildings go up, PEI will focus on helping the Kenyan staff make the school self-sustaining. After that occurs, they want to build more schools in other locations.
“This is helping economic development thrive in the community, and we weant them to be able to take over the school,” King said. “We don’t want to be there from here to eternity. We want to create value and worth in their community, and then move on to another one.”