Stony Brook University (SUNY)
IN THE BEGINNING
It is a cliché to state the obvious: that the world we live in is a spectacle of contrast, a daily exhibit of intolerable suffering amidst so much wealth. For many, this is a reason to sink into lethargy, a recipe for inaction, believing that they can’t affect, let alone change, a system which is entrenched despite being so unfair. This is a self-inflicted state of paralysis that keeps a person numb to suffering and destroys his/her sense of compassion for others.
For a few, this cruel disparity is a call to action, with the deep conviction that to act is not a choice but the only way to make a difference, whether that impact is small and ephemeral or enduring and meaningful. Silence or feigning ignorance is not an option, especially in a country like Ethiopia where a meal a day is a luxury for many. This is the context within which Fregenet envisioned a future, her own, of service to the needy and underprivileged, a vision her father, Tafesse, has taken up when his daughter lost her life in a car accident. Thus is the birth of the Fregenet Foundation, which, in one way, is as much an act of remembrance to a dear daughter as it is a life-long commitment to her lifetime dreams and wishes. In another, it is a declaration of empathy for others, a dedication to share and care, and make a difference.
Ethiopia, like much of Africa, is a land of contradictions where scarcity abounds in the midst of plenty, and the squalor of the abject poor serves as a daily castigation, not least reminder, of the splendor and excess of the few rich. A cursory visit to a poor neighborhood in Addis Ababa or many other places in the country is like a momentary immersion in the depth and depravity of poverty but also in the power and resilience of the human spirit, in the determination to survive and, if possible, thrive, even in the most unlikely of places. It can be an eye-opener.
In more ways than one, the state of children is a measurement of the progress and character of a country. We determine our development or even our humanity by the attention we give to the small ones, those who can’t fend for themselves. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that there is no hope or future for a nation that ignores its littlest and weakest citizens. The kids who daily roam the neighborhoods because they can’t go to school or shoulder the burden of supporting parents at such a young age, all for lack of opportunities, then signify the crises as well as the possibilities of a nation like ours. It would be utterly irresponsible therefore not to be sensitized by the situation, make a stand and take action. This is by no means a simple act of charity or philanthropy where receivers are considered mere helpless victims waiting for salvation but an attempt to help them help themselves and become productive members of society. This is the philosophy that defines and organizes the Fregenet Foundation.
AN ACT TO EMULATE
I saw that philosophy in action when I was guest-attending (and at times taking the minutes of) the meetings of the Foundation. More often, it was a gathering of six to seven people who came from far and wide, driving through Los Angeles’ punishing traffic but never failing to make time, and be in time, for the meeting from a crowded Sunday schedule. Most have families of their own and many responsibilities to attend to but always unified by a collective conviction in and commitment to a greater cause to which they shared their time but also their labor and finances, all with visible contentment. As I listened to the deliberations, which were always followed by a hearty Ethiopian lunch, I realized the significance of what was happening – a collective quest for Ethiopian solution to an Ethiopian predicament, the commitment of a few to a cause they believe can make a difference in the lives of the many. This is my take-away from my brief attendance in those inspiring sessions.
The importance of such a foundation and what it stands for is therefore beyond dispute. Since the Fregenet School, the most important investment of the Foundation to date, began its work in the Ethiopian capital in 2004, its enrollment has increased “by more than 500%” (from 31 children in 2004 to 286 in 2014, all from impoverished families, attending their education from preschool to 4th grade). 117 of the 286 are in fact enrolled in grade 5 to 8 in a nearby public school. This is an impressive achievement and a profound contribution to the future of those children and their families. They have now a smile on their face and a belief in their future.
There is a larger significance in this noble, even novel, endeavor. If there is a cause that can galvanize, if there are people who are committed, and if there is unity that is unshakeable, it is then possible to deal with the challenges of poverty and inequality, no matter how chronic they seem to be. The story of the Fregenet Foundation and the school is not a story of grand plans and giant interventions but one of achievable visions, actionable goals, and small but important steps at a time. Moderation, an understanding of the need to reconcile vision with capacity, is at the heart of the foundation and the school’s survival over the years and their success despite all the hurdles.
A CALL FOR ACTION: TEN YEARS PASSED, TEN YEARS ON
Notwithstanding its proud record, the last ten years of the foundation and the school it leads are anything but smooth. It is rather a story of daily struggles whether this is to organize funding events to cover school expenses and pay salaries or deal with landlords who rented the school compound. Those ten years saw intense discussions with parents, community leaders, and government officials over questions of enrollment, permits and school expansion.
The question of financing the overall operation of the school and the Foundation’s other activities has been a major source of concern especially in light of current plans for expanding the school and increase student enrollment. The Foundation over the last few years has embarked on a project of buying a plot of land where the school is found and building a bigger school to accommodate more students and provide other services such as a library for parents and the community at large.
This is an important undertaking that will change the lives and future of many young kids. However, a vision of such magnitude cannot be realized without the help of people who believe in it and are ready to make a stand for it. It requires a bold, sustained and meaningful contribution and urgently at that. Over the years, many people from all walks of life, within and outside of the country, have joined this collective effort and have been sharing their resources in many ways. One such case is volunteers, from many places, spending their free time, mostly in the summer, teaching in the school and working with the kids. Another is the many individuals who, with their own volition, commit a certain amount of their income to the Foundation or agree to sponsor the education of a poor kid or kids. The depth of their commitment and the seriousness of purpose with which they engaged in the work of the foundation and the school have been a source of strength and inspiration to those within and beyond. They all set a precedent which we all should follow.
There is no reason therefore to wait on the sidelines if we are convinced of the cause, impressed by the strides made over the years, and have a resource to share, whether this is money, idea, time, labor or all. One way of supporting the vision of the Foundation is to sponsor a child’s education. For $25.00 a month, which is less than a dollar a day, one can send a child to a school and cover all the expenses including tuition, books, other supplies and two hot meals. Another is to make a financial contribution of a certain amount depending on a person’s preference, which could be made at once (especially during funding events) or periodically (monthly, quarterly or yearly). This will pay salaries but, more importantly, help achieve the school’s long-term objectives: the building of a bigger school with the basic facilities and the expansion of its outreach activities.
There is no more joy than to help those without the means, especially young and helpless kids from the poorest of poor families, and change their lives for the better. Our contribution, whether it is a dollar a day or more, makes and is making a big and meaningful difference. Let’s seize this moment and do what we can to improve the condition of those, the very young children in particular, who are deprived of the most basic of needs: access to education, food, and health. After all, to know and not to act is not to know. What benefit there is by knowing something but not acting on it?