By Donna Furey | LB Indy
A group from Laguna Beach United Methodist Church refused to abandon their mission to visit Kenya even after a church they intended to help burned to the ground in the wake of a contested election.
“We already had tickets on Air Kenya, so I looked for another project where we could use our airfare and land in Nairobi,” said church member Kay Ostensen, who was planning to make the trip in 2008 with Rev. Jenny Wheeler, her son Jake, and others.
Serendipitously, Ostensen had conversed by email earlier with Peter Luis, executive director of the Indigenous Education Foundation of Tanzania. He was developing a new secondary school near the Kenyan border. “He told me we could help him put together classrooms for their first students,” she recalled.
Most of the church group was willing to continue despite the shift in plans and instability in neighboring Kenya, where insurgents were blocking roads and burning buildings. They began to raise funds, dividing up preparation tasks and collecting supplies for the Orkeeswa School, which they packed into donated suitcases. Little more than a month after the itinerary change, they found themselves in a Maasai community in the Monduli Hills of northern Tanzania, where only 10 percent of the population receive a secondary education.
While there are nearly 16,000 public primary schools in Tanzania, there are only 3,485 secondary schools to serve 45 million people, 44 percent of whom are under 15, according to the CIA world fact book. “Parents, regardless of income level, generally work very hard to raise enough money to afford school uniforms and to send their children to private schools. Students understand how important education is,” said former Laguna Beach resident LeeAnne McIlroy Langton, an ESL teacher at Santa Monica College who spent a year teaching teachers in Tanzania for Georgetown University’s Center for International Education and Development.
With assistance from the Methodist group, the Orkeeswa School opened in 2008 with 30 students in a village church. Today, 220 students are enrolled in a campus of eight buildings that include sports fields. Its first five graduating classes have all performed in the top 4 percent of schools in the country. “The physical transformation of the school since I first visited it is remarkable, but the character of it remains intact—the family has just expanded,” said Jake Wheeler, who last month was named associate director of IEFT, responsible for its financial oversight, management and growth.
His mother believes Jake’s adventuresome spirit was ignited by a first trip to Africa University in Zimbabwe. He went on to make other trips to Fiji and Cuba, returned to Zimbabwe to teach English and continued to support IEFT since visiting in 2008.
“He definitely had a passion for Africa and a heart for helping and healing,” said the pastor, who is currently serving as spiritual leader at a United Methodist Church in Huntington Beach.
Wheeler, now 28, majored in African studies at Emory University. After he completed a master’s degree in global human development at Georgetown University last May, IEFT’s Luis offered him a job.
Wheeler figures in Luis’ five-year strategic plan for the school, which involves expanding to a nearby Maasai community and building a second secondary school there. That would allow for “consolidating resources, maximizing impact within a certain geographic region, and building a culture of competition and collaboration between the schools,” Wheeler said by email.
The school operated with a $602,592 budget in 2013, with 41 of percent coming from individual gifts, 33 percent from grants and partnership organizations and 26 percent from student sponsorships. Nearly half of the budget goes to pay faculty and staff. Another 18 percent is allocated to school supplies, meals and student services including access to the local health clinic and dental and eye exams. The remainder goes to administration, capital projects and transportation. “Some things that make us unique include offering life skills, counseling, sports teams, entrepreneurship [training], agriculture, clubs, and a community service [requirement,]” said Luis.
The Laguna Beach Methodists continue to visit the school and many in the congregation sponsor individual students. They are planning a return trip in 2016.
The school also receives support from elsewhere in the world, including the Groton School, a preparatory school in Groton, Mass., with whom they have a student exchange program, said past IEFT board member and local resident Kristin Thomas.
The Orkeeswa day school takes a holistic approach to education, which “makes students voices of change in the community while they are still students.” Wheeler explained. Students live at home, helping maintain their cultural values and identity, he said.
Wheeler believes he can help the school achieve its goals by drawing on his academic and professional experiences, which included studying refugee and humanitarian emergencies and a stint at the World Bank. He hopes to enlist some of his contacts in Washington, D.C., as partners with the school.
In Tanzania, Wheeler spends school days interacting with students and staff, as well as visiting local primary schools and the surrounding communities to assess their interest in a future IETF campus. “That, and I help coach basketball,” he said.
In the short-term, he’s focused on building more chicken coops for the students to manage as entrepreneurial training, purchasing farmland to supply student meals and establishing more financial sustainability. “Like many non-profit organizations, our ability to achieve these goals depends on what funding we are able to acquire,” Wheeler pointed out.
Luis doesn’t doubt that the right man was chosen for the job. “Jake is great for morale. He is loved by all the staff, students and community here in Tanzania and his mere presence brings joy to us all.”
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