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It is astonishing what a dedicated team of talented and committed volunteers can accomplish when backed by committed donors who find a place in their hearts for their shared mission - to help young Gambians have a chance for a better life.

We call this shared mission GambiaRising. 

On the ground, there are now 12 Gambians (three of them former scholarship recipients) implementing our programs, backed by a growing number of donors who understand:

  • how an education can change a young Gambian's life,
  • the multiplier effects of educating girls, and
  • the importance of continued support, year after year.

Our focus is on doing the most good we can do with every donated dollar. We actively debate the trade-offs of supporting more students who have never been to school ($25 per year), vs. supporting some of the nation's top 12th graders to continue on to the University of The Gambia (up to $1500 per year) vs. building a village school where there is none. We all understand that a dalasi spent one place, means it will not be available for something else. This makes it clear to us that we should do without office space; have no fleet of vehicles and use public or borrowed transport; and most impactful of all - volunteer our time. We do have some administrative overhead but it is paid by a Board member, so that all other donations go directly to supporting Gambian students.

Naturally, in a world that can seem more broken every year, these young Gambians are not going to rise to the top of most people's charitable giving list. But those who have lived in the villages and towns of The Gambia, as all of our Board and many of our donors have, or perhaps have read about or have visited, understand how a young person's life can be completely changed by having the chance to go to school. And that it costs so little by Western standards to do so.

In a poor country, where nearly everyone could use some help, how can we tell we are helping those most in need? Our solution is to work through Gambian Coordinators who we know well, and who implement our program in the communities in which they live. They in turn work with schools and community leaders who alert them to children in need of help. One sure way to tell that a student will not be able to go to school without help is to see that they have in fact already dropped out, or have never started. Several students we now support began 1st grade when they were teenagers, when we offered support. Despite watching their neighbors and friends go to school every day, they never gave up hope. Add to these the girls whose families did support them through 9th grade, then decided that was enough education (and often, that it was time for them to be married). But the girls (frequently with their mother's support) disagreed, and found us to appeal for support so they could stay in school. I'll never forget the day one of our Coordinators told me about a teen-aged girl who came up to him on the street of his village as he was waiting for public transport to go to work. "I understand you help girls go to school," she said.  "I do," he replied. That's how GambiaRising works on the ground.

Every week we post one of our students' stories on FaceBook, and. respecting your inbox, just once a month we send an email update. But every summer, near the end of the Gambian school year, we write a longer Annual Report to tell you a bit more about the cumulative effects of this collaboration between our donors and our volunteer staff, and the miracles it is creating in so many lives.

In the last school year, we supported students in more than 100 schools.

Of whom 2/3 were girls.

And more than 200 of those girls were of "marrying age".

Each one of these students is special; each has their own story, which they are working hard to make better every year. Students like:

Saratou:  At the end of 6th grade, Saratou told a teacher at St. Therese's in Fula Bantang that this would be the end of her schooling; her mom was sick and she was needed at home for her subsistence farming family's domestic work. The teacher appealed to GambiaRising's Coordinator (who was also the Principal of Saratou's school.)

Kaddijatou:  In 2012, Ebrima Sanneh had recently completed his accounting certificate studies with support from Gambia Rising. When he learned about a neighbor, whose husband had died and whose daughter was not going to school, he asked if we could help her like we had helped him.

Fatou Kineh's mom supports her family by selling phone credit from her wheelchair at Serekunda's Westfield traffic circle. So when Fatou Kineh was admitted to the University of The Gambia, she looked for help, and luckily, she found us.

GambiaRising offered to pay the costs of Saratou's schooling and her family agreed she could return to school. In June, 2018, she graduated from the senior secondary school built by GambiaRising donors,... first in her class.

We were able to say "Yes" to Kaddijatou, and she started 1st grade; she was in 5th grade this year. And Ebrima didn't stop there; he has become one of our most capable Community Coordinators, through whom students of all ages now attend 19 different schools in the area around his home.

Fatou Kineh also made the most of her chance. She majored in Mathematics at UTG, and in February, 2016, she graduated summa cum laude. And she was Valedictorian of her class. Fatou Kineh was then awarded a full scholarship to study at Ohio University, while we paid the costs not covered by the University.  And this year, she received her Master's Degree in Mathematics.

Of course, each of these students deserves an education. And none of them were going to get it without our support.  After 12th grade, we can only support "the best of the best." But from nursery school through 12th grade, we try to support as many as we can, with no criteria except willingness to work hard and need.

There are still far too many young Gambians who don't get an education; only 25% nationwide complete 12th grade, and among the poorest 20% of families (where we focus), only 3% of the children do. So the need is still great, and we are only beginning to make a dent.

Because of GambiaRising's zero-overhead model, when a person joins us and sends a donation, it changes lives. It is that simple. None of the funds go to pay for salaries, or fuel, or phone charges, or "communication".  It all goes to change lives.

There are challenges to managing a volunteer organization to accomplish this much. Deep commitment, along with modern technology, enables it. Focusing on the communities in which our Coordinators live and work enables informed decision making. School officials and teachers, along with Peace Corps volunteers currently serving, alert our Coordinators to cases they are aware of, which further expands that “local reach”.

This networked structure also allows work to be done by whoever has the time (or the internet connectivity) that day. A video of a student can be taken in a remote rural village on a cell phone, later uploaded to WhatsApp, downloaded and saved to DropBox from a laptop in California, so the student's record can be updated when a team member in Massachusetts has time. Similarly, budgets, accounting, and student records are uploaded electronically, from wherever the local Coordinator is able to access the internet.

We have to be careful about adding new members to our team. Three of the most recent are former scholarship recipients who have now graduated, have professional jobs (one accountant and two teachers), and want to give back to the program that educated them.  Needless to say, we already know them well.

In the U.S., our Board of Trustees has expanded to 14, all of whom are returned Peace Corps volunteers who served in The Gambia, or former Peace Corps or U.S. Embassy Banjul staff.

But What if There is No School?

Kebba Sanyang couldn't believe his eyes. Everywhere in the village of Pacharr were school-age children, not in school.  Kebba was Principal of the school in nearby Fula Bantang, so he should know. St. Therese's in Fula Bantang is the regional K-9 ("basic cycle") school into which other lower basic cycle schools (grades 1 to 6) feed students for grades 7 to 9. This used to include the children of Pacharr, but suddenly they had stopped coming. Kebba wanted to know why. "It is too far for the little ones; they can go when they are older," he was told. But why did they used to come? And then came the shocker: "One of the youngest was recently killed by a speeding car on the road while they walked to school."

What could be done? "If we had a school for the early grades, then they can go to St. Therese's when they are older," everyone agreed. Kebba is also GambiaRising's UpCountry Program Coorinator, and he swung into action. An empty ramshackle temporary building was found; Kebba asked permission to send a teacher from St. Therese's. The government had no funds to build a school, but they agreeed to send teachers.

While students were back in school in the temporary location, plans were made to build a new mud-brick school; GambiaRising would supply cement, corrugate for the rood and wood for the roof, windows, and doors, as well as plywood and blackboard paint. It would not be pretty but the children would have a school. (You can read more about this project here.)

Several miles the other way from Fula Bantang, the commuity of Njie Kunda heard about Pacharr's school. They came to Kebba with a simple application: it was just a list of 114 school-aged children from Njie Kunda and nearby villages who were not in school because there was none close enough to walk to. 

Plus a drawing of the land that the village chief had allocated for a school to be built.  We agreed, and the next summer, work began.

The same formula worked again; GambiaRising supplied the materials, and the community built the school. The government supplied the teachers.  And the Njie Kunda Lower Basic school opened in September 2015.

But it doesn't end there. The Pacharr School was visible from the road, and elections were coming. The government came and added two more classrooms, teachers' housing, and a well. Not to be outdone, the community turned out to raise the walls of the mud-brick classrooms to reduce the heat during the day. In the 2017-18 school year, Pacharr Lower Basic School had 359 students from kindergarten through 6th grade. 197 of these were girls

Njie Kunda soon outgrew its two classrooms. With support from GambiaRising, the community built two more, along with teachers' housing. With support from Water Charity, they built four latrines, and are building a school kitchen and garden to provide hot lunches for the students in September.  In the 2017-18 school year, the school had 224 students from kindergarten through 3rd grade. 120 were girls.

Korop is a small village east of Janjanbureh, between the South Bank Road and the River Gambia. Two years ago, they came to Kebba Sanyang and told him that there was no school close enough for the children to walk to school. There was a grain storage shed in the village and the government had agreed to send teachers if they used it as a schoolhouse instead. We send blackboards and some supplies. But by now, they had crowded 160 students into two shifts in the storage shed and a temporary corrugated iron shelter. And so, this summer, we are funding another school.

Graduation (and a Legacy) in Fula Bantang

For six years, we focused on supporting students (mostly girls) in the Lower Fuladu district who didn't have a senior school to go to towns that had such schools, where they boarded with families. Few thrived; even the brightest found the stress too great to thrive.

But when donor Jon Vallee learned he had a serious health problem and made what he knew would be his last visit to The Gambia, he made an offer to help fund a senior secondary school in Fula Bantang. Far out of our comfort zone, we nevertheless knew we had to try. Building one grade per year, the school is nearly complete, and graduated its first class this July. It was covered on national television. And 60% of the students in the school are girls.

For these communities, it wasn’t school uniforms or books that students lacked; it was the school itself. Not counting the Korop school (not yet completed), 789 students were enrolled in these GambiaRising-funded schools in the 2017-18 school year; 58% were girls. 

Tightening the Belt, Doing More with Less

Our Back-to-School campaign last year couldn't have come at a worse time. You may remember it as a time of hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods. We remember it as the first time that more than 20% of the previous year's donors didn't renew. We were able to find some new supporters to narrow the gap, but our waiting list of students hoping for support grew to more than 150. None of them went to school last year. This year we are determined to change that. First, we are praying for good weather!  Second, we will continue to tell the stories of the young Gambians we're supporting, who surely deserve better than they would otherwise get out of life, in hopes that more people will find a place for them in their hearts. Third, though we are among the most efficient scholarship programs in the world, we will continue to seek ways to do more with less. You may remember that one of our Coordinators' brothers, Omar Sanneh, has been sewing school uniforms without pay, thereby honing his skills, building good will, and contributing to his community. This year we have expanded our volunteer tailor team to four. We have are working on a plan to supply sewing machines to the new senior school in Fula Bantang, so the students there can learn new skills, and make uniforms for those in our program in that school.  

They Need Every One of Us

75% of Gambia girls still do not finish high school. (Nor do most boys.) Many of the girls who don’t, are married after reaching puberty. And some never go to school at atl. So we must do more.

We must keep supporting those who we have begun supporting. We have raised their hopes and we must not let them down. That means simply that we need everyone who donated last year to do so again this year. Everyone.  And to support new students, we need to spread the word to our friends and families, so that we can find others willing to include a Gambian student or students in their financial lives.

It costs $25 to support an elementary school student for one year. Think of the difference that will make in their life. And the cost for a girl to finish senior secondary school (high school) is less than $200 per year. Completing 12th grade is one of the few things that every study has proven will make an inestimable difference in those graduates' lives.

I am confident that we can continue to expand our networked organization as needed. What will determine how many we will say “Yes” to (and how many we will say “No” to), is how much we can raise. I know it must seem like we've got plenty of donors now; we don’t need you as much as before. It is simply not true. When you bring hope to a community, word gets around. I am confident that our Gambian team is qualified and able to tell the difference between those who will not be in school without our help and those for whom paying school costs is merely very difficult. But I also know that our waiting list of the truly needy will be longer this year than last.

How many we help this year starts with how many of our donors stay with our kids again in the new school year. If they do, then, as new donors step forward, we can support new students, who also surely deserve that chance. 

From the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of our team, our students and their families, thank you to our supporers for your vital part in bringing hope, and the opportunity for a better life, to so many young Gambians.  But we can't do what must be done unless others join us. So if you did not last year, PLEASE JOIN US.  So little can do so much, especially if you can DONATE a small amount monthly.

It's up to us.

Mike McConnell
Managing Trustee
GambiaRising Charitable Trust
1500 Park Ave., Apt PH503
Emeryville, CA  94608-3578

P.S. Here are some of the students supported by GambiaRising's donors this year:












































Mam Jarra

































Graduation at St. Theresa's Senior Secondary School

Njie Kunda's Children Are Happy to Have a School