For Junior Leagues, “community” is usually defined by the geographic area from which they draw members, raise funds and carry out their programs. For the women of the Junior League of Evanston-North Shore, who serve in Evanston and the towns of the north shore of Chicago, their “community” has now expanded to include women in one of the poorest sections of the capital of Kenya, Nairobi.
Some explanation is in order.
It began when Jennifer Sapitro, then a pre-med student about to graduate from Northwestern University, applied to JLE-NS for a scholarship so that she could go to Kenya to work in an orphanage. Jen called the JLE-NS headquarters and asked about applying for a scholarship for her trip, although scholarships had been typically for seniors graduating from local high schools. According to JLE-NS, Jen’s application was so compelling, she was awarded the scholarship. That was in 2006.
That relationship between Jen and the JLE-NS has endured over the last decade and today Jen Sapitro is the founder and executive director of a remarkable nonprofit in Kenya called Uweza Foundation, which provides empowerment programs for children and young people in the Kibera neighborhood of Nairobi, described as one of the largest slums in Africa.
Uweza Foundation is a fascinating story on its own. From its website we learn: “Uweza is Kiswahili for ability and power. Uweza Foundation fights the cycle of poverty that persists in Kenya’s Kibera slum. We invest in the future of the children and youth of Kibera through education, life skills, talent development, and economic empowerment. All of our initiatives are developed and/or run by Kenyans, primarily residents of Kibera who are dedicated to the betterment of their community.”
But it was the JLE-NS scholarship that really started things moving. After her six-week trip to Kenya Jen returned to the League to share photos and stories as well how much the trip had inspired her to continue to get more involved. She returned to Kenya the following year and founded Uweza in 2008. That wasn’t all…Jen had also decided to change course from medical school to public health because of her trip to Kenya. She received a Masters in International Health and Development from Tulane University, and turned her internship for the degree into a permanent move to Nairobi in 2011.
The JLE-NS piece of the Uweza success story comes from its development and support of its Bright Futures program. The League’s Karen Miller, a past president and founder of the Scholarship program, had been involved from the decision to fund Jen’s first trip to Kenya and remained the League’s connection with her as Uweza started up and expanded. (Today it has 13 full-time employees and serves more than 300 Kibera residents.)
While the Uweza Foundation focuses on motivating children and youth through education, talent development, and life skills building, Karen and Jen talked about JLE-NS funding for a program that would help young women to start their own small businesses – funded by microloans – providing business and finance skills training and weekly meetings to support the women. That was the genesis of the Bright Futures program, which now provides economic training and support for over 20 women looking to start their own businesses. To date, the businesses have included making liquid soap and rugs. The League has provided financial support for the Bright Futures through a community grant in 2015 and through the sales of jewelry made by Kenyan women and children at their Marketplace event, and most recently at the Evanston Art Center.
Where will this “community partnership” go from here? Karen sees League support as a long-term commitment, and not only as a financial contribution, that will include guiding the women in the program, helping them advance their ideas and launch their businesses. Discussions are under way on how the League women can develop a deeper connection with the women in the Bright Futures program. One idea is a mentorship program connecting one-to-one via Skype or email correspondence.
Bright Futures is in alignment with the JLE-NS’s focus areas – Advancing Employment and Supporting Families. Currently the League has a Fitting Futures and Job Readiness program that supports local women seeking to enter the workplace. Not only that, says Karen, but other Junior Leagues have approached her following her presentation at the AJLI Fall Leadership meeting in Chicago on how they can also get involved with Uweza or other global organizations.
Jen’s simple phone call has led to something ongoing with far-reaching impact for both the women of the League and members of Bright Futures.