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ELEVEat-ing girls to their full potential

By chriscal

Section: Features

October 31, 2008

$25. That’s the price of a dinner out with some friends. To some, it might be petty change; to a young girl in Senegal it’s a future.

Sitting in a car with her Senegalese host mother on her way to deliver books to girls at a local school, Allyson Goldsmith ‘10 realized just that and was struck by how little stood between a young girl and her dreams. “I [couldn’t] believe that the price of going to dinner is stopping these girls from achieving their dreams,” Goldsmith said, recalling her initial shock.

To attend high school, students in Senegal must first pass a national High School Entrance Examination. Sounds easy enough, right? Here’s the catch: to take the exam itself, the government requires something that half of Senegal’s children lack: a birth certificate. An education that research shows could advance their economic situation is out of the reach of many families in the poverty-ridden township of Kaolack, Senegal because they simply cannot afford the $25 birth certificate.

Or maybe they can, thanks to Goldsmith and the nonprofit organization she formed, ELEVEate. During the summer of 2007 as an intern for Women’s Health Educations and Prevention Strategies Alliance in Kaolack, Senegal, Goldsmith developed and led courses in computer skills, English and civic awareness at a school for girls. Struck by the monetary limits preventing so many girls from attending secondary school, Goldsmith decided to follow her favorite Gandhi quotation and “be the change [she] “wish[es] to see in the world.”

In Senegal, Goldsmith’s host mother Madame Sanokho, whose responsibility was to increase the number of girls who remain in school and complete high school, had previously told her about the challenges girls faced. But like the saying goes, seeing is believing and seeing for herself made all the difference for Goldsmith when she visited a local school. Struck by these girls’ yearning to learn, Goldsmith felt compelled to help them. And though her 10 weeks in Senegal were up, her time with these girls was fresh in her mind.

In an email interview conducted in French, Madame Sanokho emphasized the importance of ELEVEate to her community and also Goldsmith’s passion. During Goldsmith’s time in Senegal, Madame Sanokho said, “she was very sensitive to the problems of the girls…We are thankful to know Allyson and I pray each day for the success of ELEVEate. My child is very wonderful. I’m very delighted to speak of my relationship with Allyson who is a very sincere girl with a big heart who loves to help the girls.”

After an email to her parents asking for some financial backing after a life-changing summer experience, Goldsmith formed ELEVEate, a nonprofit organization based in Virginia. Based off of the word ‘élève,’ French for student, ELEVEate seeks to elevate girls to their potential through education. Based on research highlighting the economic and social benefits of secondary education to girls and their families, ELEVEate provides girls with the finances, role models and resources to help them achieve their goals.

Five main programs form the basis of ELEVEate: Birth Certificates, Public School Supplies, Kaolack Summer School for Girls (KSSG), Summer School supplies and Health Awareness and Promotion. ELEVEate’s first and most important program, Goldsmith said, is one that provides birth certificates to girls because doing so “not only gives them education but it also provides them access to healthcare, the right not to be exploited, the right to vote and the right to actually be a citizen [and] exist.”

Similar to illegal aliens in the United States, Senegalese children without a birth certificate aren’t accounted for in the eyes of the government. Within one year, ELEVEate raised enough money to provide birth certificates to 139 girls.

In addition to its birth certificate program, ELEVEate empowers girls through the influence of strong female role models and sponsors the Kaolack Summer School for Girls whose pilot program this summer included 300 girls. Free from traditional female roles of subordination to men and instances of sexual harassment by male teachers, KSSG fosters a safe learning environment for the girls grades nine through 12 who attend. Taught by only women, the school not only provides girls with “positive role models, it makes them more comfortable and willing to ask questions and really engage in” the material, Goldsmith said.

Two of ELEVEate’s other programs provide school supplies for the girls in the public schools of Kaolack and also the girls attending KSSG. ELEVEate’s final program, the Health Awareness and Promotion program, provides girls with the knowledge necessary to follow nutrition-rich diets and sound sanitation practices in addition to reducing the rate of HIV/AIDS, Malaria and water born parasites among the inhabitants of Kaolack.

But Goldsmith can’t do it alone and she has enlisted the help of her fellow Brandeis students such as Lauren Ehrlich ’10. Working with Goldsmith has helped push Ehrlich to work to her full potential, she said. “She’s just really inspiring. She just really makes you want to do the best job you can do because she’s so passionate about everything and she just makes you sort of really excited about what you’re doing.”

It’s this passion that fuels Goldsmith’s work. And even though balancing school with running ELEVEate certainly requires her to sacrifice a bit of personal time, you won’t hear her complaining.

“I wouldn’t want to have all that free time because this is something I love doing so I think it all balances out because honestly I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t do all of this,” she said. “I think that it’s become just very core to who I am and I wouldn’t give that up so I think the most rewarding part is knowing that I have a positive effect on people’s lives whether I meet them or never meet them, it’s knowing that somewhere out there I’ve improved their lives or at least I’m trying to.”

If you ask the girls who recently decided to stay in school and pursue their dreams thanks to ELEVEate, Goldsmith certainly has done just that. “It’s so good to know that it’s actually having a positive impact,” she said, a smile lighting her face.

In the future Goldsmith hopes to expand ELEVEate to help more girls and create a mentorship program through which older girls who have benefitted from ELEVEate’s programs can counsel younger girls. And making sure ELEVEate’s programs are community-driven is always in the back of her mind. “The more community driven it is, the more sustainable it is and the more they’ll be excited about it,” she said.

In addition to running ELEVEate, Goldsmith is also Executive Director of Positive Foundations, a Brandeis club dedicated to eradicating extreme poverty by supporting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. She is the PF representative to the Millennium Campus Network, a group of Boston-based college groups with similar goals to fighting poverty and is also involved in Live Campus, a Brandeis-based country-wide initiative to raise $1.5 million to fund a millennium village in Africa.

In the future, Goldsmith hopes to attend graduate school for public policy and would love to see ELEVEate join the ranks of other major education-based NGOs. Goldsmith envisions herself working for an NGO headquarters and to keep running ELEVEate. In the meantime, she’s content to ELEVEate girls to their full potential.

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