Not your typical corporate giving story
How a little inspiration, buy-in from colleagues, and a generous matching grant made one Madison American Family Insurance employee’s dream of building a school in Ghana a reality.
This story ends in the Adaklu Avelebe community of southeastern Ghana, nearly 6,000 miles from Madison geographically but worlds away in many other ways.
There you’ll find a sturdy three-classroom schoolhouse, completed in June of this year, that’s filled with the laughter and learning of pre-primary and kindergarten students.
To find out how this school came to be, we need to travel back about 20 months, back to Madison and American Family Insurance.
Pencils of Promise
To hear Stuart Rogers, marketing business operations director at American Family, tell it, his quest to build a school across an ocean began modestly enough.
Rogers first learned about Pencils of Promise through an author he follows, but he says he was really inspired to get involved after hearing Adam Braun, Pencils of Promise founder, speak live at an American Family leadership event in January 2016.
Can you imagine not being able to read this sentence?
250 MILLION CHILDREN CAN’T.
According to the 2013/4 UNESCO EFA Global Monitoring Report, 250 million children of primary school age lack basic reading, writing, and math skills.
Modest is actually how Pencils of Promise got its own start. According to the Pencils of Promise website, the organization was inspired by an encounter Braun had in 2008 with a young child he met while traveling in South Asia.
Braun, then a young Brown grad and Bain & Company consultant by trade, had a passion for backpacking. He would ask one child per country he visited what they would want if they could have anything in the world. One boy in South Asia said that his biggest wish was simple — a pencil. That answer changed Braun’s life.
He put $25 into a bank account and threw himself a 25th birthday party with the goal of building one school. Together, Braun’s friends raised $25,000, which built a preschool in Pha Theung, Laos.
When he shared photos of the build process and the students in their new classrooms, his friends saw their dollars changing lives and wanted to build schools of their own — as did their families and the companies they worked for. Pencils of Promise was born.
Today, Pencils of Promise works in Ghana, Guatemala, Laos, and Nicaragua and has broken ground on over 400 preschools and primary schools in remote and underserved regions.
“Having three children of my own, I know how important education is and how excited kids are to learn,” says Rogers. “The thought that any of my kids could easily have grown up without the educational opportunities that they have just breaks my heart. Like many, I want every child to have access to quality education and Pencils of Promise is making that dream a reality for thousands of kids around the world.”
According to Rogers, Braun hadn’t even finished his presentation to American Family leaders and yet Rogers was already texting others to express his enthusiasm for the idea forming in his head.
“That evening I approached our CEO, Jack Salzwedel, with my idea to build a school,” recalls Rogers. “His response — ‘That sounds great, get it done.’ — was the gasoline on the small fire that I needed. That night, I went home and set up a website through Pencils of Promise. The next morning, I was given the opportunity to say a few words and challenged our leadership team of approximately 200 people to raise $25,000 (the cost in 2016 for Pencils of Promise to build a school in one of the communities in which they work).
“Immediately after I finished, [Salzwedel] pledged that if the leaders in the room raised $25,000, the American Family Dreams Foundation, our Community Investment team, would match those donations to make it $50,000,” Rogers continues. “Then it was a full-on social media and word-of-mouth campaign. I tweeted and emailed out links to donate and asked people to help make my dream a reality, and they came through. Over the next 28 hours, American Family leaders contributed $28,000. Along with the $25,000 from the Dreams Foundation, that meant we were giving Pencils of Promise $53,000 to build a school and fund it for three years.”
Judd Schemmel, community investment director for American Family Insurance, notes this project was a bit of a departure from the company’s typical corporate giving campaign.
“We encourage philanthropy within our employee and agent groups,” says Schemmel. “To this end, in 2016 American Family, through its Dreams Foundation, established a matching gift program where the Foundation will follow the lead of employees and agents and match donations they make to organizations important to them. In the case of Pencils of Promise, while this was a bit outside our regular matching gift program, the opportunity arose organically, and the Dreams Foundation decided to support this initiative that had gained a great deal of momentum with a broad range of employees and agents in a brief period of time.”
While construction on the school Rogers and American Family funded wouldn’t start until November 2016, Pencils of Promise gave Rogers the opportunity to see firsthand where the money he helped raise was going. He traveled to Ghana in late September 2016 and got to see school Pencils of Promise had previously completed, as well as meet many of the community members his fundraising will benefit.
The feeling Rogers had upon his visit — indescribable.
The new Adaklu Avelebe DA Basic School features three classrooms and will serve pre-primary and kindergarten students in the small farming community for at least 20 years.
Previously, the pre-primary and primary school students of the Adaklu Avelebe DA Basic School attended classes in one of two provisional structures built by the community. These structures were made of materials from trees and offered no shelter from the elements. Additionally, they lacked proper floors, formal windows, and doors, which resulted in little separation from outside distractions. This exposure to the elements, paired with the lack of formal spaces for learning, hindered student engagement and development.
“To see the conditions that many kids go to school in was amazing,” Rogers explains. “I can’t imagine trying to learn in a building with cracking mud walls or a tin roof on a day with driving rain. Not only that, but many of these kids walk two to three miles to school each way every day, starting from the age of 4 or 5.
“Having a 4-year-old myself, I can’t imagine sending him off in the morning for a two- to three-mile walk to school. It was a great reminder for me that every child is born with the same potential as any of my boys. Inside one of those kids’ brains might be the cure for cancer or a solution to world hunger or another great scientific discovery. They just need the opportunity to unlock that potential.”
Rogers particularly notes how surprised he was to see everyone he met filled with so much joy. “Even though they had very little, everyone we met was incredibly joyful and willing to share whatever they had. The sense of community and coming together was palpable.”
He also didn’t expect the region to be so green and filled with luscious plant life. The eastern region of Ghana, along the border with Togo, gets an abundance of rain due to its proximity to Lake Volta.
His final surprise came from learning just how much of an impact the $53,000 he and American Family raised will go. In addition to making the outer structure possible, the school was outfitted with desks and chairs, as well as four new latrines and a hand-washing station, ensuring better hygiene for all students and teachers.
The building is expected to serve the hundreds, if not thousands, of children in the small community for the next 20 years, and the money raised will provide books and other educational materials — such as e-readers — to the school for its first three years.
One of the things that set Pencils of Promise apart is its commitment to 100% direct giving. By covering its operational costs through private donors, events, and companies, 100% of every dollar donated online goes directly into Pencils of Promise’s programs to educate more children.
“The biggest difficulty was just getting started,” notes Rogers. “Everyone has a great idea and wants to make a difference, but getting started is the hardest part. I’ve never done anything like this before, and I’m not comfortable asking others for money. But when it’s something you’re passionate about, asking others to jump on board is much easier.”
He credits the success of his fundraising campaign on two things — “Pencils of Promise is a great organization doing great work to improve the lives of others, so they are easy to get behind. And it was a shared experience for all the leaders and an opportunity to accomplish a tremendous goal together. People love helping others achieve their dream and this was an opportunity for those 200 people to collectively help me achieve a dream.”
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