From an eighth-grade student’s dream to the first free all-boys secondary school in Kenya: this is Project Jenga.
By Deepa Shankaran
When Mitch Kurylowicz was 12, he witnessed the opening of an all-girls secondary school in rural Kenya and asked a simple question: “Is there a high school here for boys?”
The answer that he received was “no.” Since that day six years ago, he has worked to change that fact. At the start of this year, he stood in that very spot watching as his dream come true.
How could a 12-year-old boy raise more than $1 million to build a school for boys where before, none existed? This is a story of tenacity and generosity and hope, and it would eventually involve a wriggling goat and 33 new friends.
As his question revealed, there was no such opportunity for boys whose families could not afford the steep cost of high school.
“Our girls were rising up, but our boys were being left behind,” says Willy Cheres, a local leader from the community of Enelerai, where Kisaruni is located. “We worried about what they would do with their future.”
An eighth-grade student at the time, Mitch imagined himself entering the workforce at his age. He went home humbled and determined.
“I wanted my new friends to have a chance to go to high school just like me.”
He called his fledgling campaign Project Jenga—Kiswahili for “build”—and started fundraising by selling stickers to his classmates.
True to its name, the initiative grew from sticker sales to silent auctions to annual galas, where young Mitch watched—with some disbelief—as celebrities and activists rallied to the cause.
As groups across Canada and the United States got involved, a coalition was formed, eventually raising more than a million dollars to fund the construction and scholarships for the first group of students. (Watch Mitch’s thank you video to Project Jenga supporters.)
This January, 18-year-old Mitch travelled back to Kenya to watch the boys arrive in their crisp white shirts and blue ties, filing onto the field with hesitant pride.
Dark clouds hovered over the valley as the grounds slowly flooded with community elders, parents and small children eager to celebrate the students and greet the visitors from North America, who had worked to open up the opportunity.
That day, Cheres addressed the crowd not only as a passionate proponent of education, but also as a proud father. His son is among the “Ngulot pioneers,” the class of 2020, no longer reliant on their families’ cattle or farms.
“No one thought anything could come of this place,” says Cheres, gazing over the neatly tended grounds. “But we are lucky now. We have both girls and boys being educated. My son will take me all the way to university. He wants to be an engineer!”
In its first year, Ngulot Campus, a branch of Kisaruni Group of Schools, will host 33 of the brightest and most deserving boys in the district.
“To meet the students who are going to be here, knowing they can be the leaders of tomorrow thanks to the education they can now receive … it was amazing,” says Mitch.
The goat placed in Mitch’s arms was the highest honour the communities could bestow. The rain that streamed sideways over the pitch was a blessing after months of devastating drought.
Mitch says he was most touched by the sight of the boys in their bright uniforms, leading their parents and younger siblings into the school.
Ngulot expects more than 500 applications next year and hopes to increase its acceptance rate by raising money for more scholarships.
“This can be so much more,” says Mitch. “The ripple effect can go on for generations.”
For Mitch and the supporters of Project Jenga, the work is now just beginning.