Rene washing a young girl’s feet and getting ready to bless her with the gift of new shoes.
In two days I leave for Nairobi, Kenya, for an experience that will greatly impact the way I view the world and open my eyes to the conditions that young girls, not so very different from my own two daughters, must live with…must survive…daily. Today I’m featuring a great interview with Every Girl Counts founder and my friend, Rene Cook.
Be sure to follow us on Twitter @everygirlcounts and read along with us during our experiences as we travel from Nashville to Africa February 21-March 1. We just found out there will be 700 girls attending Saturday’s Jitambue Conference!
Want to start from the beginning? Here’s my initial post announcing our mission trip to Nairobi.
1. What inspired you to found Every Girl Counts?
I’ve always had a desire to help impoverished children in some way. About 4 years ago, John and I realized that we weren’t on the same page when it came to living out “helping” impoverished kids. After many discussions and lots of prayer, we determined that we could address many issues central to impoverished kids by meeting their most basic right to education. Not only would we help a child, but we would be able to help more than one child and we could essentially impact families and communities by empowering them to become self sufficient through education. After more research and a trip to Kenya, we found that there is a huge gender disparity when it comes to girls receiving an education in general and even greater disparity in the number of girls going to school beyond the 8th grade. As a mom to three girls, its an even more personal life mission to educate girls so that they can live out life to their fullest potential. And EVERY girl should have the opportunity to receive an education.
2. What is your short-term goal and your long-term goal for your non-profit?
For the short term, we are in the process of raising $100,000 in order to fund the construction and first year operating expenses of our first major project, First Priority Hope Academy. FPHA is a secondary school (equivalent to U.S. high school) that will educate youth from one of Africa’s largest slums, Kibera. We have raised the funds that allowed us to purchase the land on which to build and phase two is funding the school building and beginning construction and then the subsequent sponsoring of the kids that will attend the school.
Long term, as Every Girl Counts grows as an organization, we will develop outreach programs to address discrimination and cultural issues that prevent many girls from attaining an education. Once the existing project in Kenya is completed, we will seek to partner with existing NGOs in different countries for implementation because we feel its most effective to partner with locals in educating, empowering and sustaining communities. Kenya is our first country– and specifically Nairobi– where we are making inroads to address the very interconnected issues of poverty and education.
3. What will you be doing in Africa on your next trip, Feb. 21-March1?
I’m very excited about my third trip to Kenya coming up Feb 21. Each trip comes with anticipation of the unknown–I just want to go with a willingness to help in whatever way I can–without any preconceived notions about how “help” can be delivered. One highlight of the trip is the opportunity to be a featured guest speaker at the Jitambue Girls Conference. Jitambue is Swahile for “self worth.” This conference, sponsored by native Kenyan Peter Abungu’s Swahiba Youth Networks, brings together over 500 girls who attend secondary school in the Kibera slum, for a day of music, motivation, spiritual development and receiving sanitary supplies that enable them to attend school without interruption. Beyond the girls conference, I will be working with Peter all week to make home visits and deliver food to needy families, facilitating small group bible discussions with girls in local Kibera schools, visiting with boys ages 10-17 for an afternoon at the Kabete Juvenile Offenders Center, assessing the progress of the young man we empowered last year with his own sewing machine to start a tailoring business, evaluating other such opportunities for future investment, washing the feet of Kibera youth and giving them a new pair of sandals while sharing the love of Jesus.
4. What has impacted you the most about what you have seen on your previous two trips to Africa?
Upon returning home following my very first trip I had a really hard time. Not by means of jet lag. Not hard because of physical labor. But hard to absorb the reality that such poverty and discrimination against girls exists juxtabposed to the backdrop of our American excess. It was unreal and angered me that girls would prostitute themselves to pay for school fees in order to go to school; that mothers would be forced to choose whether to spend the money they earned through poverty-necessitated prostitution on food or on school for their kids. Seeing pictures of poverty doesn’t even begin to convey what poverty is really like. I love making home visits in the slum and learning names and seeing where their everyday struggles take place and hear personal life stories–because we all have a story to tell. Putting the names with the faces of poverty makes it real. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t see the faces of those that have shared their stories. I look at my own three girls and see the enormous opportunity they have here in the U.S. and it compels me to help educate girls and advocate for awareness of the gender disparities prevalent elsewhere in the world.
5. Every Girl Counts is a great name…what inspired you to come up with it?
As I mentioned, every girl has a basic right to an education. Every girl matters, every girl has potential, every girl has dreams. Every girl counts. The name really came to me as I considered the data about impoverished girls and the lack of education and the vicious cycle of poverty. Consider that, according to a report published through the Center for Global Development “girls in developing countries are in trouble. They face systematic disadvantages over a wide range of welfare indicators, including health, education, nutrition, labor force participation, and the burden of household tasks. Because of deprivation and discriminatory cultural norms, many poor girls are forced to marry at very young ages and are extraordinarily vulnerable to HIV, sexual violence, and physical exploitation. Lacking a full range of economic opportunities and devalued because of gender bias, many girls are seen as unworthy of investment or protection by their families.” A working research paper published through the Chronic Poverty Research Center concluded that “education, particularly of girls, ‘is a central means to breaking the intergenerational transmission of poverty’”.
We believe that every girl counts. We also believe that education is a primary and essential way to help break the cycle of poverty that is so pervasive–especially among girls. We are working to Educate, Empower and Sustain. To do so, we want to not only educate girls, but to educate the very young men and boys that are the next generation of leaders in their countries, to educate them that every individual has value and worth. There is empowerment that comes with and through education that will help sustain communities in the future. So as the Every Girl Counts organization grows we will be developing and implementing initiatives that communicate to both boys and girls that they are valuable and worthy and have purpose.