SHOFCO Alumni Spotlight: Ellie

Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) is a grassroots movement that catalyzes the large-scale transformation of urban slums by providing critical services for all, community advocacy platforms, and education & leadership development for women and girls. SHOFCO believes in the transformative empowerment of the girl child and her ability to change the world through education. SHOFCO provides free education for girls through the Kibera and Mathare Schools for Girls, and provides students with the support needed to access academic excellence through university, ensuring they receive the education needed to become future change agents of Kenya.

The work to support high-achieving, low-income students to access quality education is never-ending – there will always be more deserving students than our programs can absorb. We all hope that the students selected for our programs take the opportunity and then find a way to give back to their community. If this is done, our impact will be doubled – as it’s not just the student or their family’s lives that have been impacted by the education they’ve received, but the community as a whole. However, this is a big ask of anyone, particularly pre-adults. Thus, when we see such things happen, they deserve to be celebrated.

Ellie is from Kibera – the largest slum in Africa- with anywhere between 500,000 and 1 million people. Unrecognized by the Kenyan government, no government services are provided  – from water to electricity to education. While her father was around, the family had a combined income of $65 a month to support Ellie, her five siblings, and two orphaned cousins – all living together in a one-roomed house. The money was barely enough for rent and a single meal a day. At age 4, Ellie was accepted into the 2nd class of students at the Kibera School for Girls (KSG). There was only one problem – the school was a 1.5-hour walk from home. With her other siblings already out of school due to lack of fees, her mother knew that KSG was the only option for Ellie to get an education. With the decision made, Ellie began her journey at KSG – including the 3-hour daily walk she took from Pre-K to Class 8.

Always a top performer and exemplary leader, Ellie received a full scholarship to a top US boarding school for high school after completing Class 8 at KSG. It wasn’t an easy transition – she had to do her first semester from home when COVID-19 closed the US Embassy. Remote learning was challenging for all, but to do it from Kibera for the first semester at a new school was particularly difficult. However, as she always does, she overcame. When she finally arrived, she was surrounded by amazing opportunities – but also wealth in stark contrast to home.

Ellie writes, “Growing up, I watched my peers and siblings unable to attend school because of access to tuition facilitation, school uniforms, school shoes, and exam fees. It’s important to note that most informal schools within informal settlements do not have access to qualified teachers or resources for the students to excel academically. This led to most peers getting into drugs and substance abuse at a tender age or getting exposed to early pregnancies, and some even getting married early. I was the only family member to study in a well-established school. Last summer (sophomore year), as I spent time with my family back in Kenya, my older sister was preparing her son for the start of school, and I watched her figure out how to make her child look decent. That’s when it came to mind that I could try to do something in my own small space. I knew I didn’t have the capacity to pay tuition for high-achieving low-income students in Kibera, but I could make an impact in my own little way.”

When Ellie returned for her Junior year, she launched her “Shirt Off Your Back Challenge.” She created a video saying, “Every day, we all start our day trying to figure out what we’ll wear to school. What if that decision made the difference between whether you could attend class? In Kibera, where I’m from, students need to wear uniforms to school, and many students can’t access an education because they don’t have uniforms. So, what if we at this school made a connection with the people from my community by donating necessary funds so that students in Kibera can go to school? The Shirt Off Your Back Project is simple: look down at what you’re wearing right now, choose one item, and donate the value of that item to help educate students in Kibera.” She shared the video at the school assembly, parents’ weekend, and the Young Yale Global Scholars session she attended. In the end, she raised $2,500.

Once she returned to Kibera for the summer, it was time for the real work to begin. She selected two informal schools within Kibera and worked with the school administration to ensure the project met the needs of the school population, not just what she thought were the needs. To ensure the money was used to its full potential, she worked with local vendors to supply food packages and make uniforms – thus supporting the students and the local Kibera economy. She then created a comprehensive curriculum focusing on effective communication, sexual reproductive health, mental health, and healthy relationships – topics she says “in an environment like Kibera… are often dismissed as taboo topics but are essential to the well-being of these children.” She mobilized four fellow SHOFCO Scholars studying in the US to help with the content creation and delivery, and before each session, they would deliver it to each other to make sure they were fully prepared. At the end of the project, she gave 62 students new uniforms and food packages. 

It’s hard to articulate the full impact. The day the uniforms and food packages were distributed, happy tears flowed from the students, their families, and the SHOFCO team, who marveled at this high school student’s impact on her community. She gave the students and their families hope for a better future – this is the dream and why we work so hard.

Ellie concludes a report about the project stating, “Doing something in my community has enabled me to look beyond the impossibilities that others may spot in the slum areas, and rather identify the opportunity I have, to make an impact through contributing positively to the change that I hope to see in the future. Kibera counts on us (my fellow scholars and I) who got chances to acquire quality education to be the change agents in the future, and I can affirm that I am in the process of making this a reality, for I know where much is given, much more is expected.”