Who We Are-Donor Edition

In today’s blog entry, we’re featuring some of the creative and deeply meaningful acts of support A2Empowerment has received. Our co-founder and friend Anne Cheung recently sat down for a Zoom conversation with the Whiting family: Lori, Pete, and their daughters Hannah and Abbey. The whole family is an inspiring example of selflessness. From hosting our annual fundraiser to offering dog-walking services for our raffle, Lori and Pete have taught their daughters, Hannah and Abbey, the importance of giving.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity by Eugénie Olson

Photo of the Whiting family from the Family Photo Session they won at the A2Empowerment Family BBQ raffle, courtesy of Man Ching Cheung

Anne: What inspires you to support A2Empowerment?

Lori: The mission of A2Empowerment and the fact that it’s connected to young, school-aged girls is particularly important. As a mother of two girls, to be able to do something that specifically empowers girls and women is meaningful. My girls are about to go into the world, and they live in a country where their gender will no longer hold them back. It has really changed for their generation, but that’s not true everywhere, including, specifically, in Cameroon. If that weren’t true for Hannah and Abbey, then I would want them to have some kind of leg up.

Also, I have a personal connection with you, but it’s more than that. A2Empowerment has become a big community for us over the past twelve years. It brings all of us at different levels of involvement into the organization together. I love that I’m doing things I would be doing anyway with your friends while supporting a good cause.

The story of how A2Empowerment came to be is cool and also makes us want to support it. I always think back to how these two young women, who didn’t have a lot of money and were just starting out, got a bonus check and chose to use it to start a scholarship program to help other young women. If they can do that hard thing, then the least that we can do is contribute to help them make sure it works, so they get bigger and can have more impact.

Another important thing for me about A2Empowerment is that it’s really efficient. I know how the organization is run and that the overhead is low. At the fundraisers, we hear about the tangible results, like the cost to send a girl to school and how many girls A2Empowerment supports. I recognize it is rare to see such direct impact and tangible results. It makes it that much easier to want to be involved, because I know the results and impact of my donation to A2Empowerment, as opposed to not always knowing where the money goes at some of the big nonprofits that seem amorphous.

Pete: It gives us a chance to fundamentally change the trajectory of these young women’s lives. The students are obviously motivated, driven, and want to participate, so it’s a chance to truly make a difference in their lives at a very critical juncture. As the parents of two daughters of relatively similar ages to A2Empowerment scholarship recipients, to be able to help their peer group means a lot to us. In addition, we live in a homogeneous community, so I think it’s important to expose Hannah and Abbey to this work so they have a better understanding of what life is like outside of our community.

Also, the fact that A2Empowerment is a lean organization, and it’s partnering with the right people on the ground, like the Peace Corps and vetted educators, gives us confidence in contributing. If we donate $1,000 to A2Empowerment, as opposed to some other organizations, we know that supports over twelve scholarships. That’s twelve lives you’ve fundamentally changed. The numbers obviously show the wide impact that A2Empowerment has, but each one of those is a single person whose life you helped change.

Anne: You have given so much to the organization in so many creative ways. What are some nontraditional ideas for potential donors to consider?

Lori: The donation of stock was really easy and it’s incredibly tax-efficient. It has a double tax benefit because we didn’t pay capital gains tax and, just like any donation, it’s tax-deductible.

Other easy examples are AmazonSmile and company matching gift programs. With AmazonSmile, for the same price, a small percentage of every Amazon purchase goes to my charity of choice. It’s so easy that I forgot I was contributing in that way until you reminded me. I’d always encourage donors to check to see if their company has a matching gift program, since it’s easy and doubles the impact of donations.

Hosting the Family BBQ or participating in the Cause + Event 5K race are things that we do for A2Empowerment that we would want to do anyway. They’re legitimately fun for me, and we get to leverage them into being a fundraiser. In the case of the BBQ, I want to have people here to swim, drink, eat, and play games, so it’s an easy thing to combine something fun like that with something that also benefits the charity. Because it’s hard to find time to see everyone, hosting the BBQ with friends and family is a great excuse to get everyone together. We distribute the work, so everyone contributes their small part while making it easier to host.

Pete: The idea of having a party where you ask everyone to donate a small amount to the charity is an easy way to help. The A2Empowerment raffle is a perfect example. There are so many items that most guests walk away winners.

Service prizes are valuable raffle prizes. Some examples are my dad’s law firm, which provides an estate planning session, and Hannah has offered dog-walking services. Most people attending the BBQ are from this area, so local businesses benefit from the advertising and business they receive by donating raffle prizes. One year I won a trial gym membership to a local facility and ended up joining after the free trial ended, and Lori joined a yoga studio after winning one of their gift cards.

Lori: We also have a lot of crafty prizes at the raffle. I’ve donated handmade tote bags, your friend Mia donated mermaid blankets, and your mom donated monogrammed towels. We enjoy making these crafts, and it’s an excuse to show off our handiwork while contributing in an easy way.

Pete: Another great example is the family photo session donated by [Anne’s spouse] Man Ching. It’s an example of a skill that someone donated as a raffle prize. He clearly has a passion for photography, and he was able to use that to make a huge impact. It not only raised money for the raffle, but my mom is still talking about the photos he took at her birthday party last year when we cashed in the prize.

Abbey: Yeah, my grandma is still talking about those photos and how much she loves them!

Anne: What has been the most memorable part of supporting A2Empowerment?

Lori: The Cause + Event race is awesome for a bunch of reasons. I love that it’s local and community- oriented. When you’re in the race, you look out there and see all the green A2Empowerment shirts, which is super-cool. I also notice people from the community, like friends from Hannah and Abbey’s school.

Hannah: I think the pre-race donut holes are the best! Seriously, it’s awesome when we’re decorating for the BBQ and put up the posters with the photos and stories of the scholarship recipients. We get to learn more about them and see where contributions are going. It’s super-interesting to see what’s going on and to know what’s happening with the money that’s being raised.

Abbey: We did a car wash at the BBQ one year and I thought that was really fun. It was a fun activity that raised money that went toward kids. I think about how I’m a kid and I’m grateful that I get to go to school for free.

Anne: The A2Empowerment community is made up of many members, including scholarship recipients, their parents and mentors, as well as volunteers and donors. What message would you like to send to the A2Empowerment community?

Abbey: If I could say something to the scholarship recipients, I would let them know that I am really glad you get to go to school and it’s great that everyone is excited to go to school. School bonds kids together because we all have it in common. We sometimes take school for granted here. When we didn’t have school last year because of the pandemic, I realized it’s better to be able to go to school.

Lori: If I were talking to the scholarship recipients, I would say it takes bravery to go to school like they do. As I understand it, if you’re a girl living in Cameroon, it’s hard to enroll in school for many reasons. They may have other priorities or even physically getting to school can be difficult. So I applaud them for making sure they can go to school and that they are making it a priority for themselves.

That’s another way this is satisfying for me. I know that money and opportunity is going to a girl who actively decided she wants to go to school. Just that decision in that environment is a courageous one, because it’s harder to do that than to not go.

I would say the same thing to the parents. Although it may be harder for them to let their kids go to school, because they then might have less help at home, for example, they are giving their kids an opportunity. It may be harder in the short term to have their daughter in school, but in long term it will benefit the students and the rest of the family.

Hannah: Building on what my mom said, they’ve been given this opportunity that not everyone is given, and it’s super-brave and interesting to do something that might be not be the usual. In the time of the coronavirus, nothing is normal. Something that we’ve always just done here, like school, has completely shifted and changed. It makes me look at how it feels to not have school, or for it to not be as easy to go to school. It puts a new perspective on something that used to seem so easy. It reminds me that it isn’t easy for a lot of people, so I want to support them.

Pete: I think the only thing to add is to remind the students that they’re part of a community now. They don’t have to do it alone. There’s a lot of power when you come together and support one another. Everyone has highs and lows with things that are going on at home and school, so I encourage them to rely on each other.

If you are a member of the A2Empowerment community who would like to be interviewed for our blog, please contact us at info@a2empowerment.org

Who We Are–PCV Emily Strauss

Emily Strauss is one of our awesome PCV’s: below is a speech she gave about A2Empowerment in 2011. Thanks to Emily and several others, we’ve only grown and improved as an organization since the time this speech was given!

Emily Strauss benefit speech 2011

 

Good evening.

As Anne just said, I was in Peace Corps Cameroon between 2006 and 2008, and was the lucky volunteer into whose lap this project happened to fall.  I was sitting in the Yaounde transit house, and Sylvie, our Cameroonian funding coordinator, came in and said, “There is an American woman who has been emailing me.  She wants to do something for girls’ education.  Can you do it?”  I didn’t even really think about it, I just said, “Yeah, I can work with that.”  So I started brainstorming and emailing Anne, and A2Empowerment was born, as was our long-lived and rewarding cyber-friendship.

My region was an excellent candidate for this project for several reasons.  The Adamaoua province is one of the least populated and poorest provinces in Cameroon.  Infrastructure is minimal – the only paved road is the one leading to the capital of the next province.  Most of the population is Muslim, and women and girls are often second-class citizens, in every sense of the term.

Cameroon has a very male-dominated and highly sexualized culture.  The school where I taught had six hundred students, only one hundred of them girls.  We lost 20 or 30 girls over the course of every year to pregnancy or marriage.  The reasons were various, but often boiled down to the fact that in large families with limited resources, girls were required to sacrifice their prospects to relieve the burden on their families.  In some cases, this meant marriage; in others, modified forms of prostitution.  The girls most at risk for this were those between 13 and 16 – generally, once girls finished the first three (of seven) years of school, odds were much better that they would finish entirely.  For this reason, we decided to target girls in this age range.

It’s been a while, so the girls with the stories I remember are the ones that I helped select, that came out of my village.  One was a fourteen-year-old who had just begun school whose father was in prison.  One was the daughter of a subsistence farmer whose family lived miles away, on the Central African border.  She was looked after by the pastor in the village, who said that her father cried when he was told that she had been awarded a scholarship, and could go to school the next year.  The day after the scholarship notifications went out, one of my colleagues told me that one of our girls couldn’t accept her scholarship, because her father had promised her to an older husband.  I flew off the handle, got depressed, and thought we would have to find someone else.  My colleague told me not to give up, and we went to talk with her father the next day. (My colleague talked.  I controlled myself).  He agreed to postpone the marriage, and sent his daughter to school the next year.  In area where life is so difficult in general, and for women in particular, you can imagine that these stories are pretty representative of the girls that we help.

A scholarship gives a girl more than just another year in school.  Our scholarships are renewable yearly if a girl’s grades are high enough, and we do renew most of our rewards.  While the program is still new enough that we haven’t graduated many girls, it’s encouraging that most of the girls who enter our program stay in it.  As part of the award, we also include seminars for the girls and their parents.  We educate them on health issues, like AIDS and birth control; we also expose them to the possibilities that can exist for women, even in the Adamaoua, by having role model conferences with professional Cameroonian women.  The girls get to develop friendships – the adults get to see what we’re doing with their daughters, and can take revised attitudes and useful information home to benefit other female children.  It is a truth acknowledged even among the more conservative Muslims in the area that an educated woman will raise a healthy and educated family, increasing the favorable prospects for her children.  Finally, earning a scholarship gives the girls the opportunity – often, the only one they will get – to achieve something and be recognized and rewarded for it.  Our scholarships are renewable yearly if the girls’ grades are high enough.  This means that not only can they put themselves all the way through school if they wish, but that they gain a measure of control and agency over their own lives.  It’s otherwise extremely unlikely they could ever contemplate, or much less achieve these things.

And thats it!

United State of Women

Peace Corp Volunteer, Kathleen Kirsch (served in Education volunteer in Babadjou, West Region 2014-2016), attended a summit called the United State of Women in June. Here’s what she said about her awesome experience:

Myself at the summit

Last week I attended the first White House Summit on women and girls’ issues- the United State of Women. This summit brought together 5,000 women from around the world to focus on “pillars”- topics that included Violence Against Women, Health and Wellness, Economic Empowerment, Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Educational Opportunity, Civic Engagement and Leadership.
The panels and speakers can be viewed here:  https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/06/10/white-house-united-state-women-summit

The speakers were amazing, with a highlight being the panel with Oprah and Michelle Obama.

First Lady and Oprah
The two most powerful speeches were by Vice President Joe Biden, who made an impassioned speech about violence against women, and President Barack Obama’s speech, which can be viewed here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/06/14/follow-along-united-state-women
There was a lot of discussion in the panels about Let Girls Learn and girls’ education that directly related to the work A2 Empowerment is doing in Cameroon. I participated in smaller break out sessions which I chose based upon my Peace Corps projects (specifically on HIV/AIDS prevention and as a math and physics teacher). I attended one session on girls’ HIV/AIDS risks and another on getting girls into STEM fields through education.
The summit’s format was large plenary sessions targeting their pillar topics, broken down into panels and solution seminars focusing on best practices for those issue areas. More so than all of the fantastic panelists, it was the women I met throughout the day who are doing grassroots work in women’s health, education and empowerment every day who were awe inspiring.

I’ll close with my favorite part from President Obama’s speech:

“It will take leadership.  It will take the right policies.  It’s going to take creating more opportunities.  It requires us telling each other and our children the right stories — because the stories we tell matter.
We admire the men who shaped our country, and rightfully so, the men we see as heroes — from Alexander Hamilton to Muhammad Ali — for their confidence and their courage in believing they could change our nation, this idea of self-creation, that there’s nothing holding us back.  In them, we see America itself, constantly reinventing itself, fearless, looking out over the horizon at the next frontier.
But our country is not just all about the Benjamins — it’s about the Tubmans, too.  We need all our young people to know that Clara Barton and Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth and Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Height, those aren’t just for Women’s History Month.  They’re the authors of our history, women who shaped their destiny.  They need to know that.
A woman did not magically appear on a space shuttle.  It took Sally Ride’s relentless commitment, Mae Jemison’s boundless courage to shatter that glass ceiling.  A group of California farmworkers — they weren’t just handed their rights.  It took Dolores Huerta organizing and mobilizing, fighting for the dignity and justice they deserved.
Rosa Parks wasn’t simply a tired seamstress who sat down by accident.  She was a civil rights leader with the eye of a strategist and the heart of a warrior.  She had the confidence to board on that bus, the courage to risk her own life and liberty for the sake of ours.  History did not fall into her lap — she seized that moral arc and she bent it with her bare hands in the direction of justice.
That’s the story that’s still being written, today, by our modern-day heroes like Nancy Pelosi or Sonia Sotomayor or Billie Jean King or Laverne Cox or Sheryl Sandberg or Oprah Winfrey or Mikaila Ulmer or Michelle Obama — the countless ordinary people every day who are bringing us closer to our highest ideals.  That’s the story we’re going to keep on telling, so our girls see that they, too, are America — confident and courageous and, in the words of Audre Lord, “deliberate and afraid of nothing.”
That’s the country we love, and I’ve never been optimistic — as optimistic as I am now that we’re going to create a country where everybody, no matter who they are or what they look like or where they come from or who they love, can make of their lives what they will.  And together, we can build a world that’s more just and more prosperous and more free.  That’s a job for all of us.”
We are the United State of Women.
President Obama

Giving Thanks

A2Empowerment scholarships would not be possible without all the help we receive from those in Cameroon. Today, we would like to give a special thanks to Buba Sulle, who serves as an English teacher at GSS Upkwa and president of the Aku Cultural and Development Association (ACUDA). Sulle co-facilitates A2E sessions for the girls and as they working their way through the curriculum, they have seen real improvements in the self-confidence of each girl. ACUDA and Buba Sulle are largely responsible for A2Empowerment’s success in Upkwa and we are so happy to have their help.

Thanks to the awesome PCV, Sean Gray, for passing this info along.

A letter from Buba Sulle to A2Empowerment:

A2E Appreciation

Who We Are–PCV Edition

My A2Empowerment girls are all Upper Sixth
students, toughing it out through the last year of high schools and
national exams. A2Empowerment has been a great experience, and
recently we discussed volunteering and the importance of giving back
to the community. The girls were optimistic enough to sign on to
helping me with the World Map Project! A few long weekends later, itIMG_1165
came together and we all signed it with our painted hand prints. One of the girls joked that, “after this, they better pass their next
geography exam!”

Thank you to Kathleen Kirsch for sending us this picture and commentary!!

Who We Are–Board of Directors Edition

My name is Tom Landers, and I have been a member of the A2Empowerment Board of Directors since the organization’s inception. I came to A2E by way of the organizations’ President, Anne Cheung. My family has known Anne’s family for years. In my professional background, I am a principal and CPA at Bonadio & Company. Several years ago, Anne was describing to me the organization she was starting to assist girls and women with access to education in Cameroon. At the time A2E needed a treasurer and Anne asked if I was interested in filling the role. Having two young daughters and seeing  the opportunities available to them, I could not pass up the chance to assist in providing similar opportunities to those in need of them.

In my role I have maintained the organizations financial reports, filed tax returns, researched international tax laws and served as a sounding board on various financial matters.

It has been very rewarding to see the growth and success A2E has achieved over the years – please check out the rest of the website for great information on the organization and the girls/women it has helped. I continue to be inspired by our very dedicated board and the whole A2E team and the drive they all have to improve and expand program.  If you are interested in contributing to a girl’s education then visit http://a2empowerment.org/ to donate!

For more information, feel free to visit the organization on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

 

Who We Are–Founder Edition

Reflecting on her experiences as a science teacher with the Peace Corps in the North West region of Cameroon the things that made the strongest impression on Anne were: the disparity between boys and girls in the last few years of secondary school; the attitude of many girls believing themselves to be inferior to the boys.  She also noticed the struggles girls in particular faced in staying in school: their brothers were prioritized when paying school fees, they had extra responsibilities at home such as cooking, working in the market and cleaning prevented girls doing homework or attending school, some even were married and started families before they were able to finish secondary school.  Being the type who likes to leave situations better than she first finds them Anne felt compelled to continue supporting the youth of Cameroon even after she returned to the United States.  A2Empowerment started as a small side project that slowly grew into a larger more fulfilling piece of her life.

Shortly after starting A2Empowerment Anne began working on a Masters of Public Health and International Development at Tulane University. Her studies eventually took her overseas again.  Currently she resides in Jordan supporting the response to the Syrian Crisis.

Who We Are–Peace Corps Volunteer Edition

My name is Claire Kofler, and I have been a member of the A2Empowerment (A2E) Board of Directors since 2012.  My first encounter working with A2E was in 2009, while I was living and working in Cameroon as a Peace Corps volunteer and was first introduced to the inspirational work that A2E was (and still is) doing to promote education and empower young women.

My work as a Peace Corps volunteer initially focused on microfinance development, and soon after moving to the village where I would live for two years, it became clear to me that a community’s economy cannot improve unless its women are encouraged to be educated and empowered to increase their knowledge base in order to lead healthier and more productive lives, equal to their male counterparts. After this realization, I began to focus my work on building capacity amongst the women entrepreneurs in my community. I worked with the pre-existing women’s groups, and also partnered with a nearby Community Health Peace Corps volunteer to develop and lead a combined Business Education and Women’s Health course at a non-traditional school for young women, sponsored by the local Family and Social Affairs office. While working at this trade school, I met and became friends with dozens of smart, strong and motivated young women who were so eager to learn and to make something more of their lives. Many of these young women had dropped out of public school when they were younger due to either family pressures or severe economic restraints, and they now wanted to return to school to learn a specific skill; such as sewing, cooking, or basic computer skills, in order to become independent entrepreneurs and to be able to earn a living to support themselves and their families. It was inspiring to work with these motivated women, however it was also often times heart-wrenching to hear the stories of their many friends, sisters, and neighbors who were not as fortunate as they were to be in school due to the familiar cultural and financial restraints.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 11.43.12 AM

For these reasons, when I learned about A2E and my supervisor told me of the opportunity to work with A2E as a community-based A2E scholarship facilitator, I could not jump fast enough on the opportunity. My role as an A2E volunteer was to: work closely with local Cameroonian counterparts in my community (neighbors, teachers, friends) to seek out the young girls who would be most qualified to receive a scholarship based on A2E’s eligibility requirements; facilitate the application process and, later, the scholarship award process; host monthly progress meetings with the girls; and to act as the main liaison between the scholarship recipients and the A2E Board of Directors throughout the academic school year. I enjoyed this rewarding work so much that I quickly volunteered to become the Regional Coordinator for A2E, and even collaborated with two counterpart Peace Corps volunteers to organize a 3-day camp for the scholarship recipients, focusing on women’s health issues and HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.

When I returned to the United States and I was invited to join the A2E Board of Directors I, once again, could not jump fast enough on the opportunity.  I feel so fortunate to have seen first-hand the inspirational work of A2Empowerment and its powerful impact on the lives of young women, and I am beyond honored to have the chance to continue to contribute, in a different capacity, to A2E’s noble mission of educating and empowering young women in Cameroon.

Who We Are–Founder Edition

Video of Founder

My name is Anne Cheung, and I am the President and a co-founder of A2Empowerment.  This summer I was honored as one of Fortune 500 magazine’s Heroes of the 500.  My employer, Biogen, nominated me and created a video to share on the company internal website when the list was announced.  Biogen graciously allowed A2Empowerment permission to share it here.  I’m choosing to share this video, in lieu of writing about myself, because it perfectly explains my story surrounding A2Empowerment.  

Continue reading

Who We Are–Intern Edition

 My name is Lilly Skerlj, and I am A2Empowerment’s summer intern. I am 17 years old and a soon to be senior at my high school. When I was 10 years old I moved to Boston from Vancouver, Canada. Because I moved at the age of 10, I was young enough to be able to call Boston my new home, but old enough to carry a different perspective that I had acquired from living in a different country. For example, while living in Vancouver I was exposed to very liberal ideas, which have shaped my opinions today.  Many of our friends there were part of the green movement, doctors who practiced socialized medicine, or members of philanthropic organizations.  I witnessed that they not only believed in the cause, but they lived their lives true to the cause. Because I have always been around people who sought to create change in the world by helping other people, I have always wanted to do something to leave my mark on the world. 

      Every morning my family reads the newspaper to keep up with what is happening locally as well as internationally. My parents discuss what is happening around the world at our nightly family dinners and how it has an impact on our life and the lives of others. The discussions often end up in debates, which are encouraged in our house. Additionally, my parents enjoy entertaining at our house and having lively philosophical discussions with their friends. I look forward to participating in these conversations and listening to new opinions. 

       My background of living in different places, and the environment of worldly discussion within my household aroused my interests in politics and current events from a young age. Two years ago I participated in a summer program at Brown University and chose to take a class about power, philosophy, and democracy because I wanted to better understand the democratic process, its history and the importance of its future. I was interested in global aid and political refugees, and my research paper in the class was about the impoverished region of the African Sahel and how to improve the impact of aid. I learned that aid, especially in the form of money, can sometimes be detrimental to a nation’s attempt to move out of poverty. The one form of global help that has been the most successful is expanding people’s access to education, allowing more people to have an opportunity to attend school. 

      At school, I am a leader of a club called Up-Close which is a place for students to discuss current events. Furthermore, I have been a member of my school’s Model United Nations club since my freshman year. As a junior, I served as the club’s Under Secretary General, and next year I will be Secretary General. My experience at MUN has made me passionate about coming up with solutions to global problems. In the club we have discussed issues like terrorism, international aid, the food crisis in the African Sahel, the oppression of women around the world, and balancing development and resource management. For every issue discussed, a reoccurring root of each problem is the lack of education, specifically for women. The fact that simply educating girls can alleviate so many different problems, compelled me to do something to help. 

        I read about A2Empowerment online and was inspired by the work that they do to help girls in Cameroon attend school. As their summer intern, I have been working on their social media outreach, as their cause is one that should be publicized. For their social media outreach, I have been managing their Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and have started this blog. If interested in contributing to a girl’s education, then visit http://a2empowerment.org/ and give a donation! Remember to subscribe for more updates about A2Empowerment!