Operation My People group

Because of the Women

Operation My People

by Christine Scheller

“When you support a woman or you work with a woman, you see how that develops an entire community,” said Gayle Hammer C’03, as she described her passion for Operation My People (OMP), the girls’ scholarship program in Kenya that she and a group of other North Park alumni founded in 2010.

Kenyan Classroom
Scholarships are funded by OMP through the Soul Source Foundation, benefitting students in schools such as this one in Kamasengre.

In its first year of operation, OMP funded two secondary school students from Rusinga Island in the Lake Victoria region of Kenya. The program now funds 40 scholarships there under the direction of the Soul Source Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports education and women’s empowerment in Kenya and South Africa.

Soul Source was founded in 2008 by North Park University history professor Theodora Ayot’s friends, the late Rev. Carleton Peterson S’70 and his business partner, Elaine Millam, after Ayot invited them to go to Africa to meet “her people.”

Ayot affectionately uses this phrase for both her students and friends in the United States, and for “her people” back home on Rusinga Island. “Ingrid, when are you sending my people to Kenya?” she asked North Park alumnus Ingrid Johnson C’01 S’08 G’08 “out of the blue” one day in 2009. When Johnson, Hammer, and other alumni began planning a project to support Ayot’s education and empowerment goals there, Operation My People was the obvious choice for a name.

“As the students graduate, they remain my people, and some stay in contact,” said Ayot. “Indeed, Ingrid and Gayle were the two individuals who mobilized my people.”

Entrepreneurial empowerment

It was in 2009, over traditional African meals at her home, that Ayot began expressing her desire for more of her people in the United States to meet her people in Kenya, said Luke Bruckner C’05. Before the year was out, he, Hammer, Peterson, Heidi (Hjelm) Jensen C’03, and Peter Morris C’02 S’08 traveled to Rusinga Island, too.

Theodora Ayot and Marren
Ayot and her sister, Marren, have close ties to Rusinga Island.

Soul Source also pays for one woman each year to attend an empowerment training certification program at Imagine, a program of the Empowerment Institute in New York, said Bruckner. In conjunction with Soul Source, it supports women’s groups on Rusinga that help women gain independence from husbands who may have multiple wives, Hammer said. These groups operate small businesses, pool resources to pay school fees for themselves and their children, and fund new entrepreneurial efforts.

“Girls who go to high school are far more likely to live healthy lives and not get married at a young age,” Hammer explained. “Women and girls begin to see themselves as valuable parts of their community and valuable parts of society, and I think that is a value that is underrated. We are so much more capable of fulfilling our potential when we see our potential, and we have some sort of way to gauge that.”

OMP scholarship students earned an average grade of D+ on their final exam in 2011, said Soul Source board member Matt Peterson C’00, Carleton’s son. He visited Rusinga Island in January to evaluate student progress and meet with school staff about ways to improve it. “One of the things that we believe is super-important and super-simple, is oversight,” said Peterson.

Grades from the most recent term show a “slight improvement” over 2011, with one student earning direct entry into the public university, said Hammer. “We expect a slightly bigger jump in 2013, but we are patiently waiting to see what happens with the class of 2014 who will have had full access to scholarships and facilities.”

The current crop of graduates didn’t begin receiving aid until their third year of secondary school, Hammer said. Prior to that, their attendance may have been sporadic, because education is often not prioritized for girls, and because there is a scarcity of feminine hygiene products, so girls often miss school.

A profound experience

“Professor Ayot’s faith had an impact on my faith, the way I view God, and the way I view the world,” said Bruckner. “She has a certain aura of wisdom that I sense comes from the richness of her culture and also from a deep faith in God and a deep understanding and knowledge of the Bible. That very much came across to me as her student and her friend.”

Kenyan Nursery
Matt Peterson C’00, right, visited Gunda Nursery School, Rusinga Island.

For Bruckner the Kenya trip was a “profound experience.” He had never been to a developing country before and had never seen the depth of poverty he witnessed there. And yet, he was moved by the rich anthropological history of Rusinga Island (where many early human fossils have been found) and by the vibrant hospitality of its people.

The group’s host was Sabina Otieno, a leader in one of the women’s groups that grew from work Ayot’s sister, Marren Ojode, had begun years earlier. Bruckner recalled approaching Otieno’s home at dusk after a particularly long day. “There were about 20 girls out in front of the house. They had prepared four or five songs to sing for us. They even included our names in the songs. We sat on the porch as the sun was setting. It was an extremely powerful, memorable moment,” he said.

Ayot’s passion for her homeland was transferred to her American friends through relationships like these. The North Park alumni listened as leaders from the Kamasengre Mixed Secondary School talked about the needs of their students. They saw the strength of Rusinga’s women as they worked with them to build a fence around a shamba, or small farm, that the Kamasengre West Women’s Group operates to help feed and support its members’ families.

This fence was a godsend, said Ojode, because the women had long been frustrated by the devastation that wild and domestic animals would do to their crops. “Now the women have crops in the farm throughout the year. This has improved the income and nutrition of the individual families,” she said.

Encouraging communities

Soul Source raises funds for OMP and determines its budget, said Bruckner, who is the foundation’s treasurer. Monies are transferred directly into the school bank account and are distributed by its administrators. Three-fourths of school fees (approximately $350 per year) are funded, but students must contribute the rest before OMP money is released.

Scholarship income helps pay teacher salaries and administrative costs that are vital to the school’s success, Hammer said. “What the students will tell you consistently and what I saw is that when students couldn’t pay their school fees, they were sent home … until they could pay,” she said. “When students are consistently in school, more teachers are in school and more teachers in the community are seeking to work at the school, and more students in that community are seeking to go to that school.”

Community attitudes toward female education have changed because of OMP, said Ojode. “A girl from a poor home was helped by OMP and she ended up studying medicine. This has not only encouraged parents, but also girls who look up to this girl as a role model.”

Peter Okomo Ogweno is Kamasengre Mixed Secondary School’s principal. He said scholarship recipients must meet objectives in three areas to retain their funding: performance, discipline, and community service. If they do this, OMP guarantees their scholarships through high school, said Hammer. New recipients are added only when money for long-term support becomes available.

Class of 2013
Operation My People, working through the Soul Source Foundation, sponsors several scholarship recipients each year, including these 2013 recipients.

Building long-term relationships

From its inception in 2008, Soul Source has sought to build long-term relationships with the people it serves. Hammer, who spent three months teaching on Rusinga in 2010, said OMP consults with school board members, teachers, and community leaders about how to do this in a way that benefits the whole community.

Ojode describes the relationship as “a family knit closely together.” So close, in fact, that both a women’s group and a nursery school have been named in honor of Carleton Peterson. Additionally, the community has given Hammer goats in appreciation for her work, said Millam. Hammer has returned these gifts to the community.

“Members of OMP who have visited the Island have been able to identify the peoples’ needs and have integrated into the community in such a way that both will discuss freely any project that is deemed to be useful to the community,” said Ojode.

The Soul Source board now considers how new projects will mesh with OMP and the empowerment programs, said Millam, its executive director until Hammer assumes the role later this year. Nursery schools, post-secondary support, and a community center are all in various stages of development. “Everything is starting to have linkages of a thriving community, and we want to keep it that way,” Millam said.

Peterson said he’s involved in this work “because Theodora changed my life.” He also wants to carry on his late father’s “legacy of philanthropy and caring for those in need, and especially trying to do that as wisely and respectfully as possible.”

“The Kenyan people are very much appreciative of the approach the Soul Source and Operation My People have taken, which involves doing together as opposed to being done for,” said Ayot, who, along with Ojode, serves as a key advisor for the work that she herself inspired.

Next Steps

Read more from the Summer 2013 North Parker.