Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya

by WISER International
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Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya
Empower and Educate WISER girls in rural Kenya

Spring has sprung at WISER!

We are deeply grateful to report that as of April 25th, WISER completed it’s first full term with our entire student population since COVID-19 forced the shutdown of our campus over a year ago. As mandated by the Kenyan Ministry of Education, our full population of students returned in January 2021 as part of an ambitious re-introduction schedule that staggers campus time for new and returning students to get back to a normal calendar year school year in 2023. 

While WISER did not have control over the government decision to return students to school, we did have agency over how our students returned, and are proud to report that we have done so without any staff or students needing to be isolated or treated for COVID-19 symptoms. We are incredibly fortunate to have renowned infectious disease researchers, public health and public administration officials, engineers, Kenyan Red Cross leaders, and more on our board and staff to help us safely navigate this new challenge. We have utilized every single resource available to us to ensure that our students, faculty, and staff are healthy and safe, including: 

1) Continuing our successful “learning pod” structure - Each grade level is split into two to three “learning pods,” meaning that students eat, sleep, learn, and spend leisure time with the same small group of students. This design allows students as normal a school experience as possible–providing continued interaction with peers–and also provides a structure for contact tracing among students and staff should needs arise.

2) Universal masking and hand washing and sanitizing stations - Everyone on WISER’s campus is required to wear a mask at all times, other than sleeping and eating, and all students and staff are provided with enough masks for a daily rotation. Additionally, there are hand washing and sanitizing stations at the entrance to every classroom and indoor space.

3) Physically-distanced dining, learning, and sleeping accommodations - Our campus has been redesigned to allow students and staff at least six feet of distance from one another at all times. Our multipurpose/dining hall has transitioned to a dormitory with spaced-out bunks, and many meals, assemblies, and meetings are taking place outside whenever possible. Our classrooms are already designed for maximum airflow to prevent other airborne diseases such as tuberculosis–and we’ve taken physical distancing one step further to keep our students and staff safe. And our dedicated teachers have transformed their own staff room into classroom space to support these efforts.

4) COVID-19 safety trainings and response teams - All students, faculty, and support staff received a comprehensive COVID-19 training before beginning to learn and live on campus again. WISER has also begun implementing COVID-19 response teams, one comprising 19 students and one comprising 7 teaching and support staff members, which are tasked with monitoring physical distancing, hand washing, masking, and other safety precautions among their peers. This peer-to-peer accountability structure ensures that each of WISER’s COVID-19 protocols are being followed.

5) Temperature monitoring and quarantine/hospitalization plans - In close partnership with the local medical clinic, WISER has implemented a symptom monitoring system that includes daily temperature screenings for students and staff and screenings at the gate for the few visitors to campus. WISER also has created spaces for quarantining on campus should needs arise, as well as comprehensive plans for supporting students and staff with safe travel to the clinic or hospital for COVID-19 treatment.

6) Setting an example for Vaccine uptake - like in many places, there is a great deal of misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines, which has led to hesitancy to “get the jab.” We are fortunate to work closely with the local health clinic who received a stock of vaccines for educators and other frontline workers, and in true WISER fashion, our fearless leader Principal Dorcas was one of the first in line. She shared photos of her vaccine experience, and has worked tirelessly to urge all WISER teachers to follow her example. We are proud to report that our educators are following suit, and most importantly, all of our elder and vulnerable teachers have gotten at least their first dose. 

As a result of these measures, not only have our students and staff remained healthy, but they have been able to get back to what they do best: living, learning, and being WISER! We look forward to celebrating the indomitable class of 2020 who recently completed their incredibly challenging and competitive national exams after over a year of disruption. We expect the results of these exams - that determine eligibility and funding for tertiary education - in the coming week. As always, we are in awe of their tenacity and resilience. They truly embody the charge for which WISER was founded: to remove barriers and provide opportunities for the hardest to reach girls to overcome the challenges they face and reach their full potential. 

We look forward to what the next few months hold, and we are grateful that you are a part of the WISER family! 

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Happy New Year! 

We at WISER are grateful to welcome 2021 and the hope it brings for ending the COVID-19 crisis. We are also grateful that, despite the fact that we would not have chosen to do so without government mandate, we are preparing to welcome back all 240 students as early as next week. 

As we have reported to you, Kenyan schools have been closed since March. Since then, WISER has continued to support our students with a robust distance-engagement plan that included over 28,000 pounds in monthly relief packages, continued psychosocial support, regular wellness visits, and remote learning which nearly 90% of our students successfully engaged in. In October, Form Fours - or Seniors - were directed back to campus by the Ministry of Education, and WISER was able to safely welcome them with additional handwashing stations, twice-daily temperature checks, COVID-19 hygiene and safety training, a “pod” learning and living model to decrease potential spread of the virus, and a clear quarantine and healthcare protocol. Although Kenya does not have sufficient tests to screen for the virus asymptomatically, there have thankfully been no indications of COVID-19 on campus. This month, the Ministry of Education is launching its school re-opening plan that aims to recoup the 2020 school year by slowly reintroducing and then staggering campus time for all students. 

As always, WISER has put the health and safety of our students first, re-configuring the campus to allow for safe distancing while students receive the basic necessities, education, psychosocial support, and healthcare we are known for. The cafeteria has been transformed into a dormitory, and a breezeway has been built to allow students to access washrooms without having to go outside. Temporary structures have been built to allow more classroom space, and the teachers have given up their own staff room to this cause. Temperature checks, masking, and handwashing continue successfully. 

While we cannot know what is next, we are confident that we are far exceeding Kenya health and safety recommendations with the support of our wide network of infectious disease specialists and global health practitioners. As we invest in ensuring a smooth re-opening, we are also looking toward challenges ahead. The re-introduction schedule that launched this month includes prolonged breaks from school for some classes as new students are staggered in. These breaks away from campus will present similar challenges that students have faced throughout the pandemic, including food insecurity, poverty, pressure to marry or engage in transactional sex to support themselves and their families, and heightened risk of diseases including COVID-19 along with other endemic illnesses. These disruptions risk generational impacts on the status, success, and independence of women and girls in Muhuru Bay. 

One result is staggering new rates of adolescent pregnancy - in one peer school, nearly 90% of girls became pregnant during lockdown. While WISER students are showing a pregnancy rate of under 5% thanks to our comprehensive and affirming SRH training and peer-education programming, we understand that the threat is not yet passed. Additionally, most schools in Kenya will turn girls away who have become pregnant, disrupting or ending their education and destabilizing their lives just when they need support the most. WISER has always committed to supporting young mothers with healthcare and the ability to finish their education, and we are preparing to provide this care potentially at higher rates as girls return to campus. 

WISER is grateful for the support of our GlobalGiving family that allows us to respond flexibly and comprehensively to the underlying and emerging needs of our students and our community during this crisis. Thank you for investing in WISER, and we wish you and yours a peaceful and joyful new year!

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COVID relief packages for girls
COVID relief packages for girls

When communities around the globe began shutting down this spring in an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, WISER sprang into action. Closures of schools, nonessential businesses, markets, and borders immediately exacerbated existing inequities--of access to food, employment, healthcare, and other vital resources--in Muhuru Bay and all over the world. 

So WISER got to work.

With the help of WISER’s global network of support, our community was able to raise enough funds to provide over 20 pounds of nonperishable food items and soap to every WISER girl who needs them--and their families. WISER was also able to continue employing faculty and staff at full capacity, despite widespread layoffs across the country. 

But WISER’s support for girls didn’t stop there--and it won’t stop now. On July 7th, 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that Kenyan schools would remain closed until January of 2021. Across Kenya and across the globe, long-term school closures are leading to more girls having to engage in transactional sex in exchange for essential resources, or having to marry early to create economic opportunities for their families. One community in Kenya reported over 400 girls becoming pregnant over the course of the pandemic shutdowns. 

With little end in sight to this global pandemic, food insecurity, healthcare disparities, and gender violence are going to continue limiting the life chances of girls across the world. Short-term relief efforts are not enough; nor is it enough simply to provide students with distance-learning options without support in meeting their basic needs. 

That’s why WISER has developed thorough, sustainable, and long-term support programs for our students.

We’ve continued to distribute essential supplies--over 600 packages, or 6 metric tonnes, so far. Students receive cost-free, socially-distanced transportation to campus for relief package distribution, which include mandatory mask-wearing and temperature checks. WISER faculty and staff also conduct regular wellness checks outside students’ homes for students, and coordinate cost-free medical care as needed. These safe, regular, face-to-face interactions are vital in maintaining the wellbeing of our students. WISER has continued to maintain its regular under-18 pregnancy rate of less than 3%, and that is in no small part thanks to the continued support of WISER staff and faculty.

WISER has committed to continuing to employ our creative, resilient faculty and staff, as well as our alumni interns. At the request of our ever-dedicated students, WISER faculty and interns have successfully transitioned to distance learning--and we’re currently the only educational program in the area to do so. Despite challenges across Muhuru Bay, at least 90% of our students are actively engaging in distance learning. This distance-based academic work entails more than just assignments and content review, as our teachers serve as a reliable source of mentorship and comfort throughout this turbulent time. 

The fact that almost all of WISER’s students are continuing to learn and to thrive is a testament not only to their remarkable determination. It’s also a testament to the fact that WISER’s support efforts have kept them as safe, fed, and supported as possible in a time of insecurity, fear, and upheaval. 

That support is critical, and it will only become more critical as the pandemic and its effects continue to wreak havoc across the globe. We are only able to support our students because of the support we receive through GlobalGiving. We could not be more grateful.

COVID outreach on-campus
COVID outreach on-campus
Temperature checks pre-distribution
Temperature checks pre-distribution
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WISER is and always has been more than a school . . . we are a family, and like a family, we take care of each other! 

All over the world, communities are grappling with the effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Strict measures to contain the virus, such as closing schools, markets, and nonessential businesses, imposing stay-at-home orders and curfews, and shutting down international borders are deeply necessary. But as we have seen in many communities, these measures reveal existing disparities and create new challenges for families like unemployment, inadequate healthcare, and increasingly, food insecurity.

Job opportunities, which were scarce already, have all but disappeared. Muhuru Bay is based on a fishing economy due to its location near Lake Victoria, but most fishing takes place at night, when insects and the fish that feed on them can be lured to boats with small lights. However, due to the pandemic, 7pm curfews have been put in place, preventing any night fishing, and putting dozens, if not hundreds, of fishing boats at risk of losing nearly all of their income.

Even if residents have money for food, there is not enough food to go around. Muhuru Bay is located in the westernmost part of the country, in a remote area that is hard to reach by car and air travel. Muhuru Bay residents usually cross the border to Tanzania where supplies are more affordable or shop at local open-air markets. These avenues have been closed or dramatically limited by social distancing measures.

This leaves WISER students and their families in a dire position.

We heard from students that their families are struggling to put food on the table every day. We believe that no one in this community should go hungry. So while we will adhere to and respect national and international policies for containing the virus, we are quickly, safely, and intentionally redistributing our existing resources and procuring new ones to ensure that our students and their families have what they need to survive, right now.

Under the leadership of WISER’s principal, Madame Dorcas, campus security staff (the only staff still on campus) have pivoted to begin distributing relief packages containing over 20 pounds of non-perishable food staples, including maize, flour, sugar, and beans, as well as hand soap. Girls receive free transportation to campus and come in small groups to maintain social distancing. Each relief package, which contains a month’s worth of food staples to support a family, costs just $25. 

Over 150 girls have already received enough food products to sustain them and their families for the next month, and we committed to provide all WISER girls with these resources for at least the next three months. Overall, this is a $12,000 commitment we have made to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19. We are so grateful for our GlobalGiving family, and appreciate your continued support in such an uncertain time. 

We wish health, safety, and stability to all of you as we weather this storm as a global community! 

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For many of us, stressing over a test is something we remember all too well. I know that I have friends in their 40s who still wake up in the middle of the night, having just jumped out of a nightmare in which they forgot to study for a quiz. It's something nearly all former (and current) students are familiar with - the desire to do well, mixed with the fear of what might happen if we don't.

Now imagine sitting for a single test that had seemingly everything riding on it.

The WISER girls, just over a month ago, finished their KCSE national exams. The KCSE is daunting; a three-week long test with as many as 11 different subjects administered for as many as 6 hours per day. To make matters more intense, the results determine not just your final grades in Kenya, but whether or not you graduate from high school, whether or not you are eligible for college, whether or not you can receive scholarships, and even what you are allowed to study

The levels of mental fortitude, practice, dedication, and preparation needed to thrive in those conditions are nothing short of jaw-droppingly impressive. And every single WISER girl is up to the task. 

For the seventh year in a row, 100% of WISER girls have passed the KCSE in an area where fewer than 10% of girls do so. 

You read it right–all members of the Class of 2019 passed their exams with flying colors. The scores of every student qualified them not just to graduate from high school, but to attend higher education programs, which means that all students graduating WISER this year have the opportunity to enter a certificate program, a professional course, or a four-year university degree.

Of those students, 55% of them scored highly enough on the KCSE to earn full university scholarships from the Kenyan government. That's over three times the rate of success across the rest of the country. Plus, for the fourth consecutive year, physics was one of WISER's top 5 highest-scoring subjects - which is not the case for the average girls' school results nationwide.

And where is all of this success coming from? From girls who live in one of Kenya's most remote fishing villages. From girls who are the first in their family to even enter secondary education. 

From girls who have been tirelessly putting in the work needed to succeed. 

Our mission at WISER has always been to establish an environment where girls can thrive - free from limitations based on their gender, poverty, disease, and more. But establishing the environment, offering support, providing resources, etc. only goes as far as the students are willing to go. And wow, the WISER Girls sure are willing to go as far as they can. Our team in Kenya and in the US often returns to the metaphor of a door - our job is to open a door for these gifted, brilliant young women. But we don't have to lead them through the door. We only have to get out of the way. 

These young women have been tirelessly preparing to seize opportunity their entire lives. And for the past four years, the girls in WISER's class of 2019 have been doing just that. Last month was the ultimate example to date - but more is on the horizon. Soon, these same young women will enroll in college, they'll begin their professional lives, and they'll serve as mentors, beacons of success for girls that come after them. 

It's safe to say that the hard work has paid off.

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WISER International

Location: Durham, NC - USA
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Emily Dake
Durham, NC United States
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