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American Grandmother Helping Senegalese Schoolgirls


An American grandmother is helping thousands of Senegalese girls do better in school.

Viola Vaughn's five grandchildren came to live with her when her daughter died. But instead of raising them in the Midwest state of Michigan, she moved the new family to Africa to home-school them in the Senegalese city of Kaolack.

That's when the real changes started. "There was one little girl who was nine-years-old, who was the same age as my granddaughter, who played with my granddaughter and saw that she was being tutored in class at our home," she says. "She came and asked me if I could assist her with her education. I told her, 'Of course not.'"

But everyday the girl kept coming back. So Vaughan went to her parents to find out why. "When I went to her mother, her mother told me that, no the reason why [was] that she was number 46 out of 48 students or 47 of 48 students, she was the last of her class. And the reason she was last in her class was because she was not intelligent. And I told her mother that obviously she was intelligent enough to come and find me, so therefore allow her to have class with my granddaughter," she says.

When the girl came to Vaughn's house the next day, she brought three friends. "In two weeks, I had 20 girls in my household, so therefore at that point I decided I had to do something that was a little bit different than what I had intended for my grandchildren," she says.

Vaughan checked her bank account and her retirement pension and figured she could help 100 girls with a simple concept: get the materials they need, make the time to study, and find a place to study.

But she also wanted to find out why so many girls were failing, why only one percent of girls who enter primary school in Kaolack end up graduating from high school. Her conclusion: It is largely because mothers find girls useful at home. And while they don't want them to drop out of school, they do need them to miss a few days here and there to help out. "They ask her to, 'Today, don't go to class. I have to go to the market. You watch the kids or fix lunch or do the washing. Help me do this and help me do that.' And so the girls start missing days. She starts missing days in school. And when she starts missing these days, she starts losing her place in class, she starts missing her lessons, and she starts to fail," she says.

So part of Vaughan's 10,000 Girls program is a contract parents sign agreeing to keep their daughter in school everyday. Chores can be done on the weekend.

As the program grew, so too did the expenses. But Vaughan wanted everything about it to be self-sustaining. So she asked the girls how they planned to manage their growth. They started selling cookies and juice door-to-door. "I asked the girls, 'Who is going to take over this program when you go to school because it has to run five days a week.' They said they already had sisters, aunties, cousins, other people who had already failed who were at home and would take their places."

So then there were two groups of girls. One group who was beginning to fail. And a second group who already had and was working to support those still in school.

Dassira Samba Ka started selling juice. Now she is Vaughan's account manager. "In this program, we take the girls who are last in their class and we give her school supplies and everything. We help her with studies, with her math and English. And we pay the teachers to come help them," she says.

Now the program has a sewing workshop where young women make soft dolls and bags for export to a retailing partner in California.

Veronique Wode Senghor teaches girls how to sew.

She says the program has changed her life because now she earns her own living and is helping her parents and sisters. Senghor says it has taught her responsibility.

Cookie and juice have grown into catering. The girls have trucks buying and selling agricultural produce. And they own 25 hectares of land where they are growing organic cashews and hibiscus.

There is literacy instruction for girls who have never been to school, an entrepreneurial program for girls no longer in school, and a new bookmobile touring surrounding villages.

Vaughan says she is up everyday at 5 am because there is no telling what will happen next. "In all these jobs, in all these work situations I had, this is the first real job I had. I had to be fifty some years old before I found a job that I could stick to that I really, really like. I had to retire before I started to work again," she says.

From those first four girls, Vaughan now has more than 2,500 students in her program, with 700 more on a waiting list and a ten-year goal of helping 10,000 girls do better in school.

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