February 1, 2010

Cornell Students Bring Light to Kenya School

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It is sundown in the tiny, poverty-stricken town of Mbaka Oromo in Western Kenya, and the lights of a newly-renovated school are illuminating the mountainside on which the building is perched. A year prior, the school’s students would have been forced to make the trek back home once the sun had set, as the town had no source of electricity.

Thanks to a fundraising project led by 20 University students, these children, however, are no longer limited to learning during daylight hours. The project raised over $8,500 to bring solar-powered energy to the Mbaka Oromo Primary School, according to Prof. Cindy van Es, applied economics and management, director of the Business Opportunities in Leadership Diversity (BOLD) program.

Eighteen of the students involved in the fundraising project are members of BOLD’s two-year Leadership Certificate Program (LCP), which requires them to complete a substantial community service project during their time at the University. This is the first community service project to be completed since the program’s establishment back in 2007.

“There’s nothing in the world like seeing people get light for the first time and seeing the opportunity in their eyes,” said Marlene van Es ’11, who was there when the first light switch was turned on in the school. “You could see these people dreaming of all the things they could do now that they had [electricity].”

Marlene is involved in the Partnership for African and Lansing Schools (PALS), which works to raise money for the Mbaka Oromo Primary School and promote the formation of cultural and personal ties between the students in Lansing and the students in Kenya. Since 2004, the PALS program has built a library, 10 new classrooms and an administrative office at the school in Mbaka Oromo.

The school — located on the outskirts of Kisumu, one of the biggest cities in Kenya — is one of the poorest in the country. About 40 percent of the children who attend the school have been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic and many cannot afford lunch or even shoes.

Despite the unfortunate circumstances of many of the children and the lack of resources the school had to offer them, Mbaka Oromo is the top performing school in its district, scoring better than 1,000 other schools on the 8th grade assessment exam even before the intervention of the BOLD and PALS programs, said Prof. Cindy van Es.

“The principal of the school wouldn’t let the students say ‘oh we’re orphans and we’re poor,’” said Marlene. “He kept telling them, ‘if we are the best in the world then people will notice.’”

It was this resolve that motivated Cornell’s LCP students to find a way to bring electricity and new computers to Mbaka Oromo.

The LCP students teamed up with alumnus Darragh Caldwell ’04 and Christopher Clark, the founder of Sunflower Solutions — a company that provides a more efficient and less expensive method of harnessing solar energy — to facilitate their goals. After hearing about the LCP students’ project, Caldwell offered to donate the solar installation system that Clark had created if they could raise $8,500 for the cost of the panels and installation.

Had the students opted for a regular rooftop solar panel system rather than Clark’s ground-based system, it would have cost them an extra $5,000, according to van Es.

In order to raise the money, the students broke up into three teams, each dedicated to a different aspect of the project. One of the teams held a silent auction in New York City, attended by over 100 Cornell alumni. Another team entered and won a competition called the True Hero Contest, which awards money to different community service projects on the basis of how many votes they receive from the general public.

These combined efforts ultimately met the students’ fundraising goals and allowed the procurement of five refurbished computers from the University libraries.

Once the money and computers had been collected, Marlene, along with her friend Peter Kelly ’11, spent six weeks in Kenya last May to make sure the installation of the solar panels by Sunflower Solutions went successfully.

The two devoted time and labor to help improve the school. They worked on an erosion control system involving a series of dams and trenches, which would prevent the flow of run-off water from flooding the school and eroding the building’s foundation as it had done in the past. They also interacted with the teachers, sat in on lessons, set up the computer lab, taught the students and teachers how to use the computers and helped the people adjust to the new technologies available to them, Kelly said.

Although the LCP students, who will be graduating in May, are done with their community service project, PALS is continuing to work with the people of Mbaka Oromo to make sure their children have the resources to match their determination to learn.

“This trip to Kenya has changed me forever and I look at the world we live in now and feel much more fortunate and gracious for the cards I’ve been dealt,” said Kelly, “Not everyone is as fortunate as all of us and it is essential that we continue to help these people in any way we can.”

Original Author: Samantha Willner