A Holocaust Survivor and a Kenyan Boy

20 07 2010

Director Jennifer Arnold, Chris Mburu, Hilde Back, Jane Wanjiru Muigai during the Sundance Film Festival - Credit: Matt Carr, Getty Images

For Chris Mburu, a young, rural Kenyan student, the opportunity to make something out of his life would’ve ended if not for a small act of kindness.

Hilde Back was a young girl and a Jew who was helped by a stranger to escape from Nazi Germany to Sweden. She never saw her parents (who did not survive the Holocaust) again after leaving. She never forgot the kindness of that stranger and of the people who helped her once she got to Sweden. Hilde eventually became a school teacher on a modest salary, but sponsored…for about $15 a month…a young Kenyan student.

Because she paid his fees to go to secondary school, which his parents could not afford, that student…Chris Mburu…went on to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and become a human rights lawyer for the United Nations. Inspired by Hilde’s generosity, in 2001 he decided to start a scholarship program to help other bright Kenyan students who can’t afford school fees and to name the scholarship program after her. With help, he tracked Hilde Back down and the two are now fast friends. She never knew that her small gift each month made such a difference in the life of one boy…and is now making a difference in the lives of countless other children.

Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline - Credit: http://asmallact.blogspot.com/

HBO is now airing an incredibly moving and important documentary film entitled A Small Act about this story and “the ripple effect one small act can have.” The world premiere of the movie was in January 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival. Jennifer Arnold wrote, directed, and produced this film.

It features three students…Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline…who are the top students in their school and who all have no hope of progressing in school due to the lack of ability to pay the $40 per month fees unless they get one of the coveted Hilde Back Education Fund scholarships.

I mostly subscribe to  HBO because of their documentaries. They are thoughtful, well done, and carry powerful messages. The message is easy to see in this one. So many of us think we don’t have the ability to make a difference in the life of another person so why bother? We may think we are barely scraping by ourselves and what little we could give just isn’t enough. This story shows that a small donation made monthly totally changed the life of Chris, who has gone on to change the lives of Kimani, Ruth, Caroline and so many more and they have all pledged to change the lives of students who come after them.

A few other ripple effects and how you can learn more:

Watch the trailer for the movie, and if you have HBO or if the film is being screened near you, watch the entire film. It will move you…hopefully to make your own small act.

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Don’t Stop Believin’ – Formerly Homeless Journey Lead Singer and Harvard Student

5 10 2009

The early 80s Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin” was sung on the Oprah show today by their amazing new lead singer (and formerly homeless person in the Phillippines) Arnel Pineda, who was discovered by one of the band members in a video Arnel posted on YouTube. Arnel, who had to fend for himself on the streets after his encouraging mother died when he was 13, is a testament to the power of those words, now living a life he says is way bigger than he could ever have imagined.

The song provided a perfect setup for the story of Khadijah, an African-American young woman who was homeless from the time she was six and slept with her mother and sister in bus stations, on the streets, and in many Khadijah - Homeless to Harvard (Oprah website)shelters. She attended 12 schools in 12 years and was encouraged by her mother to better her life through education. She took this advice to heart, studying hard, and spending a lot of time in the Los Angeles Public Library reading every book she could.

When Khadijah was in the 10th grade, she was determined to finish out her schooling at Jefferson High School, and got up at 4:30 a.m. every day to make the two-hour trip from Skid Row in Los Angeles to school. In May she graduated with honors and is now a freshman at Harvard University. Here’s part of the essay she wrote as part of her admission process. You can read the entire essay at Oprah.com:

Being homeless has given me the skills I need to succeed on the pathway towards my higher education pursuits and life-long goals. My experiences have made me a dedicated student both inside and outside of the classroom. I do not let anything stop me from achieving my goals. Hearing such negativity where I have lived has enabled me to focus on my goals and remain optimistic, even when faced with grave adversity. Having to depend on myself for food has enabled me to take charge of my education. I have learned to be resourceful and diligent and I am confident in saying that I am a very self-motivated and determined individual that will stop at nothing to receive an education. When I go to college, I know that this acquired knowledge and skills will enable me to succeed in whatever I do.

Oprah was so moved by Khadijah’s story that she invited Khadijah to accompany her the next time she visits the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa and tell her inspiring story to the girls there.

Arnel and Khadijah…two formerly homeless people with little to hope for. They both had mothers who believed in them and encouraged them, they both believed in themselves, and they both were willing to work hard to achieve their dreams.

No matter what your situation, no matter how hard or hopeless it may be, don’t stop believing. You never know what miracle is waiting for you!

Here’s Arnel and Journey…





Empowering Women to Hold Up Half the Sky

28 08 2009

Her family in need of money, at age 14, Abbas Be left her home in Hyderabad, India and went to New Delhi to become a maid…or so she thought. Instead, she was locked up in a brothel, beaten, gang raped, made to service customers sexually, made to watch girls who didn’t comply be murdered, and was never paid for her work. Eventually she was rescued by police and taken back to Hyderabad, where she found a home in a shelter that helps trafficked girls heal and learn skills for a new life. Abbas is getting an education, has learned bookbinding, is counseling girls on how to avoid being trafficked, and is earning enough money to help her sisters get an education and help them avoid being trafficked.

How can we improve the plight of women and girls globally? One very important way is through education, as is demonstrated in this story and many others in the upcoming book Half the Sky BookHalf the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which will be released on 9/8/09. The book is written by the husband and wife team of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and journalist and author Sheryl WuDunn, who have both won Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting. They wrote an essay called “The Women’s Crusade,” which is adapted from the book and appeared on 8/17/09 in the New York Times. Here are some of the things they report:

  • In 1990, while living and reporting in China, they read an obscure report that stated that 39,000 baby girls die in the first year of life annually in China because parents don’t get girls the same medical care they do boys.
  • A bride is burned once every two hours in India because the dowry isn’t high enough or the husband wants to get rid of her to marry someone else.
  • Anywhere from 60 to 107 million females are missing from the planet due primarily to not getting adequate nutrition and health care. This number is more than all the men who were killed in all the wars in the 20th century.
  • The poorest families in the world spend approximately 20% of their incomes on alcohol, prostitution, candy, sugary drinks, and lavish feasts and only about 2% of their income on educating their children. Studies show that when women are able to have an income, it is more often spent on good food, medicine, and housing and children are healthier.
  • In some cases, fathers drink away $5 a week at bars…$5 that could purchase a mosquito net and save a child from dying of malaria.

Sometimes even the simplest things can make a huge difference in the lives of girls. Examples mentioned in the article are:

  • A study done in Kenya by Harvard economist Michael Kremer showed that the best way to motivate sixth grade girls to better academic performance is to offer them a $19 scholarship for seventh and eighth grade and recognition at an assembly.
  • In another Kenyan study, it was shown that dropout and pregnancy rates can be significantly reduced by providing a $6 school uniform to girls every 18 months.
  • Another way to keep girls from missing classes is to aid girls in menstruation by providing pads and a place to change them.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

President Obama has appointed a new White House Council on Women and Girls. Nicholas and Sheryl have three concrete recommendations for the Council, which would cost no more than the U.S. has given to Pakistan since 9/11:

  • Set aside $10 billion over the next five years to educate girls all over the world.  When Larry Summers was chief economist of the World Bank, he said that “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world.”
  • Sponsor a drive to help countries all over the world iodize salt and eliminate iodine deficiency. Approximately a third of households in developing countries don’t get enough iodine and it can affect particularly female fetuses and reduce girls’ IQs 10 to 15 points.
  • Provide $1.6 billion over the next 12 years to eradicate obstetric fistulas. A fistula is a hole formed inside a woman during a difficult childbirth and it can leave her smelly, incontinent, and shunned by her village. It only costs a few hundred dollars to repair.

There is a Chinese saying that inspired the title of the Kristof/WuDunn book:

Women hold up half the sky.

Sometimes women just need a little help. If you’d like to make a difference in the lives of women and children all over the world, here are just a few of the many organizations that would appreciate even a small donation:





That’s SO… Think B4 You Speak

31 05 2009
Source: GLSEN

Source: GLSEN

That’s so…CHEERLEADER! What if you said that when someone said something vacuous? How do you think that would make cheerleaders feel? Or what if you said “That’s so jock” if someone talks like they are dumb…like a football player who can complete a pass, but not a sentence?

Now imagine that you’re gay and people make the comment “That’s so gay!” as if to say that’s stupid or queer or effeminate or whatever. How do you think that makes you feel as a gay person? Do you ever stop to think about your language and how it affects others?

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) is running a campaign now called ThinkB4YouSpeak to make people aware of their use of homophobic language and to reduce bullying of gay people. The campaign to reduce bullying kicked off with the 4/17/09 Day of Silence, which I wrote about in a blog post entitled LGBT (Gay) in America, LGBT in Iraq.

This is from the GLSEN website and tells what the organization stands for:

GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, is the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students. Established nationally in 1995, GLSEN envisions a world in which every child learns to respect and accept all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. GLSEN seeks to develop school climates where difference is valued for the positive contribution it makes to creating a more vibrant and diverse community.

Dr. Jill Biden, a lifelong educator and wife of the vice president, will speak at the GLSEN Respect Awards, a gala in New York on 6/1/09.

Carl Walker-Hoover - Credit: www.towleroad.com

Carl Walker-Hoover - Credit: http://www.towleroad.com

Perhaps you think that every kid gets teased in school so what’s the big deal, right? Think again. Children are committing suicide after being bullied and called gay repeatedly. An example is Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old Massachusetts sixth grader who hanged himself after yet another day of school bullies calling him gay, making fun of the way he dressed, and threatening him. His mother had called the school repeatedly before this happened. Now she lives with the devastating and senseless loss of her son.

What can you do? Stand up and call people on it when they use language that belittles, diminishes, or bullies gay people. Notify the school if your child is being bullied and make sure that steps are being taken for it to stop. If your child is a bully, educate them on the possibly devastating effects of their actions and let them know that there will be zero tolerance for that kind of language. Educate yourself by reading the materials on the GLSEN website.

Here’s a video from the ThinkB4YouSpeak campaign that makes the point of how ridiculous and hurtful it is to call something gay and what you can do about it.





Three Cups of Tea’s Greg Mortenson: An Unlikely Hero, A Builder of Schools

24 04 2009
Greg Mortenson didn’t set out to be a hero, but life pushed him into it. His sister Christa, a lifelong epileptic, died and he decided to honor her memory in 1993 by climbing Pakistan’s K2, the second highest mountain in the world and possibly the most difficult to climb. After 78 days, he did not reach the summit and stumbled into the village of Korphe…ill, worn out, exhausted.

The people there nursed him back to health. He visited the local school and saw 84 children writing their lessons in the dirt. They so desired an education, but poverty prevented them from having what they needed to learn. He promised the people he would come back and build them a school.

Greg Mortenson with Pakistani Schoolchildren - Image courtesy Central Asia Institute

Greg Mortenson with Pakistani Schoolchildren - Image courtesy Central Asia Institute

That promise led Greg to build 78 schools…and counting… in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 28,000 students so far have gotten an education because of Greg’s promise and passion.

The thing that is remarkable about Greg is that he had no money when he returned to the U.S. He lived in his car for a while. But he was determined to keep that promise. He wrote letters to 580 prominent people. He said he could build a school for $12,000 and finally Jean Hoerni, founder of Fairchild Semiconductor, sent him a check.

Greg had no experience fundraising or building schools, but he had a strong will to help the children get an education and he continually found the way to make it happen. On Hoerni’s death, he endowed the Central Asia Institute with $1 million and named Greg the director. It gave Greg the funds to build more schools and eventually more people were brought on board to help in the efforts, both in the U.S. and in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Greg has given tirelessly of himself in the last 16 years and has had tremendous support from his wife and two children. He spends part of each year in the Pakistan/Afghanistan region and the other part in the U.S. giving fund-raising speeches. He is a current nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and has won numerous awards.

This post just cannot do justice to the miracles that Greg Mortenson has brought into reality through his tenacity and passion. He has withstood personal danger, financial hardship, long separations from his family, and much more to make an education a reality for children…especially girls…who would otherwise have no future.

Greg has found that educating a girl does three important things:

  1. Significantly decreases the population explosion over a generation or two
  2. Reduces infant mortality dramatically in a decade or two
  3. Significantly improves the basic quality of health and life itself

Greg’s efforts have also helped build bridges, pipes to provide clean water, women’s centers, and other structures necessary to make it possible for children to attend school.

three-cups-of-tea-book-coverGreg is a testament to what one person can do…an unlikely hero, but a hero still. Read the book Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time by Greg and David Oliver Relin about Greg’s journey. It is captivating. You can read more about Greg on the www.threecupsoftea.com website.

You can also learn more about the Central Asia Institute and make a donation to help build more schools. Pennies for Peace is a program of the Central Asia Institute that educates children about the world outside their experience and encourages them to make an impact globally by contributing pennies.

It only costs $1 a month to educate a child and $1 a day to pay a teacher’s salary. Consider giving. Your money will go a long way to making a huge difference in a child’s life.

Bravo, Greg Mortenson! You are my hero!

UPDATE 11/28/09: In a 11/25 letter from the Central Asia Institute, they say that they established 21 new schools in 2009 in Afghanistan. They also “started two dozen more women’s literacy centers, scholarship programs for hundreds of eager students and a new maternal health-training program in northern Pakistan.” Their Pennies for Peace program grew from 250 to over 4,600 schools in 2009. The program brought in the equivalent of 160 million pennies to help students all over the world. Greg’ new book Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books Not Bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan is being released 12/1.





Kids in School: Getting an Education Plus a Beating

10 02 2009

Did you know that chewing gum in class could be enough to get a child beaten? I remember kids getting sent to the principal’s office to be spanked when I was in school in the 1960s and always felt sorry for them. Sometimes teachers would spank the child in the classroom in front of all the other children. I hated that. I saw that and experienced that at home and it still affects me.

Human Rights Watch put out a report in 2008 entitled “A Violent Education: Corporal Punishment of Children in US Public Schools.” I had no idea that this was still going on in schools and the more I read of this report, the more upset I got. Here are some things I pulled from the report:

  • 223,190 students nationwide were spanked in schools during the 2006-2007 school year at least once. Administrators admit the numbers are underreported and could be twice as many as reported.
    • 49,197 of those were in Texas – about 20%
    • In Mississippi during that period, 7.5% of students were paddled – the highest percent in the country.
  • 21 states permit corporal punishment in schools.
  • The Austin (where I live) school district does not permit corporal punishment.
  • 106 countries outlaw corporal punishment in schools; the U.S. is clearly out of touch.
  • Corporal punishment in schools has a disproportionate use against African-Americans, special education students, and boys.
Paddles Used on School Children

Paddles Used on School Children

For more information, check out The Center for Effective Discipline website. They have a long list of U.S. organizations that oppose corporal punishment in schools. There are also links to many articles and resources on the effects of corporal punishment, laws, what parents can do, and more.

So what is corporal punishment? Corporal punishment in schools usually involves a wooden paddle about 15 – 18 inches long being swung against the child’s buttocks 3 – 10 times; paddles are often even made by the students in woodworking shop. I’ve read that some paddles are as big as 27 inches and some have holes drilled in them to hurt children even more. For many teachers and principals who spank children in schools, the idea is clearly to inflict maximum damage.

Paddling can be done even for rather benign things like chewing gum, being late, sleeping in class, talking back to a teacher, violating the dress code, walking on the wrong side of the hall, not turning in homework, or going to the bathroom without permission. They even reported a 16-year-old 5-months pregnant girl being paddled for being tardy.
Principals who administer the paddling have done things like turn on the loudspeaker so every class could hear it being done and patrol the hallways with a paddle, ready to strike anywhere.

Hitting a child in the place he/she goes to get an education can have the following effects on the child:

Leads to environment of humiliation, violence, and degradation

Destroys trust between the student and the school

Often leads to real physical injury such as bleeding and deep bruising

Causes children to act out, become violent, become a bully, and even drop out of school

Human Rights Watch urged President Bush to ban corporal punishment in schools, but he never took any action. That doesn’t surprise me given President Bush’s authorization of torture.

President Obama is a compassionate, caring father and abhors torture and violence. Inflicting pain and injury to a child is a form of torture, is violent, and shouldn’t happen in homes or in schools. Children should be nurtured, not violated. Join me in calling on President Obama to outlaw corporal punishment in schools. Hitting a child is never the answer.

You can contact President Obama by going to http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact.

UPDATE 9/27/09: The Los Angeles Times reported on 9/24/09 that spanking lowers a child’s IQ, study findings that were presented in San Diego at the International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Trauma. Regular spanking creates chronic stress, leads to post-traumatic stress, and is this is thought to lower the child’s IQ. The more spanking done to the child, the more he experiences post-traumatic stress. The lead author of the study, University of New Hampshire professor Murray Straus says:

It is … time for the United States to begin making the advantages of not spanking a public health and child welfare focus, and eventually enact federal no-spanking legislation.

UPDATE: Since I wrote this, many people have found this post because they entered words that indicated they like seeing spanked bare bottoms. I had included a small photo showing the effects of school spankings, but have deleted it. I did not write this post to titillate; quite the opposite. I hope it angers you and disgusts  you to the point of finding out if your school system allows paddling. If it does, I hope you will take action. I would never allow my children to be in a school that allowed spanking. I find it barbaric and to work against the kind of respectfulness and safety that is needed for children to be able to actually learn.

This post has gotten the attention of teachers who love to spank and many of them are reading my post. GOOD. Maybe your eyes will be opened to what you are advocating and doing.

What I said is now being called “unfair” on a forum where teachers debate the positive (and for a few, the negative) aspects of paddling. That is beyond hypocritical considering what these teachers are doing to children. It’s unfair to report the facts and how paddling children has NEGATIVE effects on the child? Do they expect us to say “Oh, that’s okay. Go ahead and beat our children, hurt them, and damage their self-esteem. No big deal.?????”

Why is it that beating or hitting an adult is called assault and is a felony offense and beating a child is called punishment and is okay? Our animals have more rights than children do. If we beat an animal the way we beat children in schools and at home, we would be arrested. I found this statement in an article on the www.nospank.org website:

In Texas, if somebody beats your dog with a wooden board for no reason, you’d sue and win. In addition to the civil action, the perpetrator would undoubtedly face criminal charges and be punished. But in Texas if somebody beats your child with a wooden board, and the perpetrator happens to be a schoolteacher, you’d better back off and keep your mouth shut. If you try to seek a remedy in the courts on behalf of your child, it is you, the parent, who will be punished. That’s the way it is in Texas. Family pets are cherished, but children… Well, they’re a different story.

Children have rights too. They are not just objects for adults to take out their aggression and frustration on.

Even on that forum, there are teachers who call corporal punishment in schools child abuse and talk of enormous paddles being used sadistically. I am not backing down on my stand. This is child abuse plain and simple and even on that forum, some teachers say many of those who practice paddling children do it because they enjoy it. Hitting children because you enjoy it? That is truly twisted.

A reader sent me additional information that adds to the shock of what is going on in schools. Some teachers are forced out of schools for not practicing paddling. A teacher was arrested for child pornography whose main interest was spanking. A little boy allegedly shot his father and the roommate because of his 1000th spanking at school. The reader also made the important point that there are children abused at home who may very well be the ones acting out in class, putting themselves at further risk of abuse from paddling teachers and school adminstrators. I even found a site that advises teenage children on how to approach your parents to ask them to spank you and how that will bring you closer together. The more I read on this topic, the more stunned I am.

I hope you’ll take the time to read the comments below. I went to the site mentioned by a reader. A photo from that site is pictured below. For those who think the damage done to a child from paddling is only temporary, I can speak from experience and tell you that the emotional damage done to a child from being beaten like this can last a lifetime.

High School Football Player Hit for Failing Grade while Those Who Watch Know They are Next

High School Football Player Hit for Failing Grade while Those Who Watch Know They are Next