Lexington women working to finance education of Kenyan girls

Jo Robertson and Carolyn Witt Jones held a photo of Julia.
Jo Robertson and Carolyn Witt Jones held a photo of Julia. Mary Meehan | Staff

The headmaster never knew what hit him.

Jo Robertson and Carolyn Witt Jones, known as "the women with the flying white hair," they strode into the office of a private school in Eldoret, Kenya, a girl named Julia in tow.

As is the custom, the girl had been sent home earlier in the day from her boarding school because she couldn't pay her tuition. Robertson and Witt, who had earned their collective nickname riding on scooters during a mission trip in Kenya last tear, emptied their pockets of all their money and promised to pay the rest of the girl's tuition for the year. Julia was soon back in class.

The women were soon planning how to help other girls fund their high school education.

"There are hundreds of girls and what they want more than anything is to go to high school," said Jones, a long-time educator who heads the Partnership for Successful Schools at Georgetown College. There are no publicly funded schools in Kenya, she said. If girls don't go to school they are married young, start having children and generally consigned to a life of poverty. HIV and AIDS is rampant in rural Kenya, Witt said.

"During our trip we saw poverty like you wouldn't believe," said Jo Robertson, a retired teacher who lives in rural Fayette County. Women with 10 children often feed their family with as little as a dollar a day.

Education offers a better path for young girls. Room, board and classes generally cost about $350 a year at private high schools. That is out of reach for most Kenyan families. Those who can afford to send a child to school tend to educate boys first.

"We started thinking if we can just reach one or two, and it has just blossomed," said Witt. She and Robertson have so far secured pledges to send 15 girls through four years of high school.

It was a random meeting that led Robertson and Jones to this cause. Both celebrated their 70th birthdays last summer and were out to lunch with a mutual friend when Jones mentioned that she'd always wanted to go to Africa. Robertson said she'd love to go.

"It was a total God thing," said Robertson.

The two attended Christ Church Cathedral but were acquaintances, not friends, when they embarked on their self-funded, month-long mission trip. The Episcopal church already had a relationship with some churches in the area of Kenya they visited.

"We weren't going there to build houses," said Witt, "we were going there to build relationships."

"Of course," she said, "it turned out to be much more than that."

When they returned, they researched the best way to help the Kenyan girls. They opted to work through existing non-profit organization because they worried about corruption that might result in payments made directly to schools not being accounted for properly.

This is how the process works: Donors are asked to commit to four years at $350 but may pay annually. The money is deposited into an account created with the non-profit, Blue Grass Community Foundation. Three times a year the foundation forwards money to ICAN International Foundation, which gives the money to the "on-the-ground" partner, the Rural Women Peace Link.

The Kenyan non-profit is run by the wife of a man Robertson and Jones meet while he was studying at Asbury Seminary. They identify girls in need, make sure the fees are paid properly and update donors on their academic process.

Lisa Adkins, president of the Blue Grass Foundation, said she appreciates the passion the women bring to their cause. And, she said, their work shows that "a small charitable investment can be life changing" for those receiving the gift.

The women weren't deterred from their dream by what seemed like considerable complications, she said, adding the foundation helped the women find reputable partners and insured that those giving would be able give a tax deductible contribution.

Research and establishing the best way to get the money to the girls took about a year. This summer the two women started recruiting donors in earnest. Robertson, a talented photographer, has blown up images from their trip they use in their talk. They've created a video highlighting their work. They are eager to get their message out.

Their mission trip has inspired their ongoing mission.

"We just knew if we could get the word out, people would respond and we could make a difference," Jones said.

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