When long-time West Roxbury resident Ellen McGill visited a friend in The Gambia with her husband in 2008, she was struck by the state of the youth in the small village of Farato.
The village had no running water or electricity, and many of the children appeared malnourished. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- these circumstances, the McGills were charmed by the children and the hardworking families of the village, noting that its parents all seemed to wish for a brighter future for their children. But what made this difficult, said McGill, was that none of the children were being educated, because the closest schools were far beyond walking distance and because their parents could not afford the $50 school fees; the average family in the village earns $350 per year.
For the McGills, the village's circumstances coupled with a lack of education spelled a dead end for Farato's youth.
"I thought, if they're living so poor that if they don't get an education, they have absolutely no future," said McGill.
That option soon appeared unacceptable in her eyes, so the McGills set out to help when they got home, launching their non-profit Future for Farato. They began raising money, and with it bought students bicycles to attend classes and began paying fees as well. As a result, 30 new students began school through the project, and when a new school was built within walking distance of the village, the cost for bicycles became redirected to more fees and tuitions. Now, the program sponsors 100 students.
Now the McGills are looking to keep the program going.
"If we weren't sending them money, these kids would have to drop out and that would be absolutely tragic," said McGill.
Long-term plans for the project include eventually turning school payment responsibilities over to the students' families. Future for Farato runs a mini-loan program that helps build the village's economy. The program helps local parents start their own businesses, which should in turn help them afford school for their children.
"We're slowly turning our attention to supporting families to support their children," McGill said.
Biran Sallah, a Gambian man the McGills met in their first trip to Farato, manages the program free of charge in Africa. A local woman, Fatou, administers the mini-loan program.
The McGills will host a fundraiser at their home (186 Stratford St.) this coming Sunday from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m., featuring African drumming and an auction of Ellen's original artwork. Dennis will cook, something his wife said is one of his stronger suits. "He knows nothing better than to cook for great numbers," she said with a laugh. The fundraiser is open to anyone who wishes to attend.
McGill said she would be alerting her neighbors about the fundraiser, though doubted they would mind. The community has been very supportive of the program, she said, and has seen generous donations from Centre St. businesses like Atlas True Value, iScream Works, and Lord & Lady's Salon.
"It's fabulous," she said. "Everyone's very interested in the project. They understand it's pretty vital."
You can learn more about Future for Farato at its website.