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Student-created foundation brings Loyola social justice mission to life

Student-created foundation brings Loyola social justice mission to life

Rukiya,* an 11th-grade student in Nairobi, Kenya, is a gifted scholar with special talents in French. But she almost didn’t make it to high school.

Rukiya’s large family struggles financially. When Loyola 3L Stephen Fleischer, then a volunteer teacher at the Marianist school in Nairobi’s Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum, learned Rukiya’s father had arranged for her to be married to a 70-year-old man in Somalia as a way to pay for some of his other children’s studies, Fleischer knew he had to step in. He offered to pay for the girl’s education himself—and Rukiya became the first student to benefit from a program that grew into The Fleischer Foundation.

The Kenyan government isn’t able to fully cover public high-school fees, so many talented and hard-working students end their education after primary school. “I was frustrated. I had many eighth-grade students who had a lot of potential, but none of them went on to high school,” says Fleischer of the year he spent teaching between his undergraduate years and law school. With contributions from family and friends, Fleischer began informally sponsoring high-school fees for several of his best students.

Then Fleischer arrived at Loyola and met now-3L Ethan Domsten, himself a longtime activist and fundraiser. With the help of Loyola’s Business Law Clinic, the two formalized and expanded Fleischer’s Kenya student sponsorship program into a 501(c)(3) organization. The Fleischer Foundation currently sponsors six students, and hopes to raise enough additional tax-deductible contributions by December 31 to add 10 or 11 more students for the 2018 school year.

Support that has a ripple effect

“These are kids who’ve done everything right—they’re almost always in the top 5% of their classes. They want to be successful and they have the grades to prove it, plus the family structure to support it,” says Domsten, who handles many of the foundation’s day-to-day legal and financial issues. “Supporting students like these through high school isn’t a one-time handout. It builds skills that can lift entire families up.”

Though it’s less well known than other Nairobi slums like Kibera, Mukuru—the foundation’s focus—is home to more than 100,000 people and lacks electricity, stable buildings, and running water. “Your money goes a lot farther there than it could ever go here,” Fleischer tells potential donors. “If you give $1,000, we can dramatically change someone’s life. That amount often barely makes a dent in the U.S.” 

Smaller donations make a significant difference, too. “We tell people, ‘If you go out for two fewer Starbucks drinks a week, you can have a huge impact,’” Domsten says.

Several part-time employees in Kenya and the U.S. assist the foundation with student development, academic and spiritual counseling, and donor outreach.

“Angela Hashisoma, our director of student development, is our strongest role model,” says Fleischer, who set up the detailed program the foundation’s Kenya-based employees now run. Raised in Mukuru, Hashisoma got one of the best primary-school exam results in Kenya and is now an international economics student at the University of Nairobi. She assists with a variety of foundation operations, including the organization’s unique mentorship program.

Holistic development

“We don’t want to be invisible donors who pay for someone’s education and disappear; we want to have more of an effect on their development,” Fleischer says. Three to four times a year during Kenyan school breaks, the foundation holds mentorship sessions that include individualized discussions on academic, spiritual, and personal issues, plus group social time.

The foundation’s eventual goal, Fleischer says, is to operate its own high school that can provide more specialized, one-on-one attention than Kenya’s crowded public high schools can offer.

Meanwhile, besides ensuring students can continue their education and build life skills, the foundation is helping to provide basic needs. “In Kenya, almost all high schools are boarding schools,” Domsten says. “Our main focus is tuition and mentorship, but supporting our students also means you’re taking them from a dangerous place with poor sanitation and ensuring they have food, a safe place to sleep, and medical attention.

“We have a winning model with the foundation,” Domsten continues. “There’s so little cost on the administrative side that every contribution means a lot. We know we can’t change the whole world, but if we help other students do what Angela’s done, we can change their worlds.”

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*Name changed to protect privacy