Empower Playgrounds has helped opened educational doors to thousands of students, but along the way we’ve learned that educating students takes more than a great facility. In addition to places to learn and study and a supportive community, teaching also takes a few very basic supplies.
One of these supplies is the pencil--so small, inexpensive, and easy to get in the United States, that we often forget how vital they are to the learning experience. Thanks to modern technology many of us may not even use pencils in our everyday lives, and we forget that every education starts with this simple tool.
So where does that leave students without pencils? In developing countries such as Ghana where millions of dollars are spent on providing basic facilities, the pencil often gets left behind. Ghanaian schoolteachers are acutely aware of this shortage--when supplies are lost, or stolen, or simply run out too quickly without being replaced, teachers must resort to frugally using writing supplies.
Imagine going to school without a pencil--trying to learn math in your head and writing through recitation only. Consider all of the other doorways that pencils opened for you when you first learned to read and write. Pencils unlock the imagination, and writing and drawing with pencils is tremendously important to both the way that students consume and create.
Empower Playgrounds does everything that we can to provide Ghanaian students with the tools that they need to succeed. In 2015, we began partnering with One Million Pencils for Africa to distribute pencils, in addition to light, to the students that we serve.
One Million Pencils for Africa was founded by Meg Shriber in 2014. Meg, who was at that time a high school freshman, recognized what an important role pencils had played in her education as an artist and writer. After hearing about the cause in Ghana, she designed a line of pencils and began to use funds from her projects to send pencils with Empower Playgrounds to Ghana. Meg currently goes to UC Berkeley and her pencils can be found online at https://www.onemillionpencilsforafrica.com as well as in Bay Area museums such as the Exploratorium and the UC Berkeley student store.
Today our partnership has allowed us to bring over 5000 pencils with us to Ghana. Whether they enable students to deepen their learning, help them discover a love of writing, or empower them to create something new, we hope that each pencil brings each child a little bit closer to reaching their potential. And they’re a bigger reminder not to take the simple things for granted: even the most basic of tools can allow us to make our mark.
Beyond lacking adequate facilities or supplies for learning, there are other barriers that Ghanaian girls face that stop them from getting the education that they need: lack of access to feminine hygiene materials, and a stigma around menstruation.
In 2014, Sustainable Development Focus, an NGO, found that 95% of rural Ghanaian school girls miss school for an entire week each month because they have no way to manage their menstruation. Nearly a quarter of their education is missing because they lack basic supplies that many women in developed countries wouldn’t think twice about.
Missing one week of school each month doesn’t just mean that a girl is learning 25% less than her peers, it also means that when she returns she also must teach herself both the missed material as well as the current week’s material. Anyone who has ever missed a few days of school due to illness can relate to this--the anxiety of trying to learn something that makes little sense so that one does not fall further behind, the desperate asking around to be sure that one knows exactly what they missed the last week, the busy nights spent trying to do a double load of work…
Empower Playgrounds became personally interested in this issue when founder Ben visited the village of Bahankra one day, and requested to meet the top student in the school. He was informed that the top student, Erika, was not attending that day due to her menstruation. When he did meet her, he learned that she wanted to become a doctor, and spent extra time each night studying because she loved learning so much. Erika, and girls like her who work hard to not only stay in school but excel in it, deserve to be able to come to school every day. But what can be done to enable them to stop missing school?
So Empower Playgrounds began looking for a partner to help students like Erika continue learning even while they’re on their periods. Another organization, Days For Girls, seems to be the answer.
Days for Girls is an NGO that creates affordable sanitary kits for girls in developing countries worldwide. Their kits contain reusable pads, soap, wash clothes, panties, absorbent liners, a drawstring bag, and Ziploc bags for washing used pads. And they’re beautiful--each piece of the kit is hand-sewn in bright colors to remind girls that being on their period isn’t something to be ashamed of.
These kits haven’t reached many of the schools that EPI has worked with, but this fall we intend to change this. Empower Playgrounds will start by taking 500 DFG kits to Ghana this summer, to make the lives of 500 girls easier and help them take full advantage of their educational opportunities.
Our girls' scholarship program is one we are so excited about, we can hardly contain it! The idea of this program is to give girls the opportunity to receive a high school education when they otherwise wouldn't have the ability to. We have awarded 3 girls this scholarship that will cover 3 years of school fees. It will cover room & board, school uniforms, books and travel to and from home.
The entire reason we decided to invest in a girls scholarship program is simple. Students desire to attend high school, but the financial burden it brings causes them to lose hope and stop attending school prematurely. This is a problem across the board, but it is even worse for girls. Most families in Ghana don't have the finances to have their children attend high school, and if they do it doesn't usually go to girls. For the educational benefit and need to see equal amounts of each gender in high schools, we decided to develop this program.
We have a great partnership with one of the most amazing foundations that will be supporting the initial steps of this program. They are donating the funds for the 3 girls to be awarded scholarships. On top of the donations they have so generously given, we have implemented ways to continue to build a great quality of life for these girls on top of education. One way is Josephine (see below).
We just selected the 3 girls to enter into this program. The parents of these students have been very supportive of their daughters education by regularly attending PTA meetings, helping them complete homework and study in the evening with the EPI lanterns. These girls also had the highest BECE scores (required testing for enrollment to high school) on their island. Each one of them works hard in class and had high recommendations from teachers as well as a great need for financial assistance, making them some of the most deserving.
Empower Playgrounds First Library
This summer we installed a pilot library at the school Bahankra. They were thrilled to provide their students with access to fun children's books as well as reference materials.
The picture below is of the librarian who had never held a dictionary before. She is very excited to teach children who do not have access to internet, how to look up words.
After she gathered litter of black plastic bags and used tissue paper into a small pile, she hid her face shyly and ran off to her classroom with bare feet. She joined a crowd of students curiously staring and giggling at the older student as she set up three blue plastic chairs for an interview.
The older student’s legs were bruised on the knee and on her heels; her hair was cut the same way as the boys in school as part of their uniform. Her body was built like an athlete, properly proportioned and as if she didn’t carry any unused muscles.