2011 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW Major: Political Science
Age: 26 | St. Paul, Minnesota
U.S. Development Director, Kibera Girls Soccer Academy (KGSA)
Since helping found KGSA in 2006, Ryan Sarafolean has worked to give hundreds of Kenyan women an education to help them stand up to threats of discrimination, rape, domestic abuse and forced prostitution.
The idea for the free secondary school for girls and young women started when Sarafolean was living in Kibera, Kenya, on a study-abroad experience with Minnesota Studies in International Development, an experiential grassroots program of the University of Minnesota open to students from other universities. Home to more than a half-million Kenyans, the Kibera slums play host to rampant disease and poverty brought on by overcrowding, scarce clean drinking water and a lack of basic public services. It is an even scarier place for women, who face constant threats of discrimination, rape, domestic abuse and forced prostitution. It was here that he met Abdul Kassim, and Sarafolean never dreamt of where their chance meeting and conversation would lead.
Kassim led Sarafolean through the slums, detailing these hardships and how he was working to combat them through his recently founded Girls Soccer in Kibera program, which he hoped would foster a supportive community of emotional support for young women through the sport. The program was successful, but fell short of his goal to not just provide an escape from the hardships of slum life, but empower the women of Kibera through a solid education in a safe and welcoming environment. Kassim figured it would cost a few hundred dollars to get his school up and running. Sarafolean knew he could help, and shortly after, KGSA was born.
"Traveling in Kenya, I realized most women just simply don't have a chance after they're 14," he says, noting the age when Kenya's primary school system ends and most women aren't afforded the opportunity for secondary education. "I believe everyone has the right to have their basic needs met and also an opportunity to create a sustainable future."
Since 2006, Sarafolean has worked with Kassim to grow KGSA from a nine-foot-by-nine-foot single classroom to a two-story building, including four classrooms, a science lab, a library, a teacher's office and a daily meal program. The school's 15 volunteer teachers educate more than 130 students each year, and each member of the class of 2009 (the school's first graduating class) passed the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exam, a vitally important step for Kenyans to pursue advanced work opportunities or higher education.
Empowering the girls with the tools to take their education out into their communities, KGSA also works to provide vocational training programs and prepare them for higher education. The school's science club recently completed work on solar light bulbs that students can charge during the day and take home at night (as most homes are without electricity), with the hope of turning this into a business. Students in the journalism program recently formed their own media company and are now writing, editing and producing a quarterly magazine.
Ventures such as these highlight Sarafolean's current role as KGSA's U.S. development director, and his task is to help realize the school's mission to achieve financial self-sufficiency. As an autonomous organization, KGSA would retain its decision-making power and remain a Kibera-born-and-run organization, empowering its people to realize they have a voice and a right to make decisions in their lives. Sarafolean's major endeavor, the Secure a Future campaign, seeks to raise $100,000 from 100 individual donors, which would allow the school to continue to run for several years as its sustainable business ventures, such as its new taxicab company, gain traction.
"I feel very fortunate," says Sarafolean. "I grew up with a lot of privilege and I realized that at a young age. I just knew that I wanted to utilize that for the benefit of many more [human] beings."
In his own words
What's next for you? What do you see happening or hope will happen in the next five years?
Our goal is to have the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy become a financially sustainable school through several different income-generating opportunities that we've identified that would exist in Kenya and would be implemented and managed by Kenyans. We are searching for 100 individuals that can donate $1,000 each, as we need to raise $100,000 in order to make this a reality. If you would like to learn more about how you can help with this initiative, please visit our Secure a Future website.
What occupies your free time?
If I have a free morning, I like waking up to a podcast, either This American Life or a Radio Lab. If it's an afternoon, then I try to be a poet with a cup of coffee and headphones. If it's a free evening, then I'm playing the keyboard at home.
What advice would you offer to graduating seniors?
Don't try and control life and the direction it takes you in. Ultimately, life is beautiful and your job is to enjoy each moment. Continually challenge yourself, search out new experiences, allow yourself to laugh at least five times each day, be part of building community, ask for help, say thank you and take your grandma out for breakfast every now and then and you'll do just fine.
If you could trade places with any person for a week, living or dead, real or fictional, with whom would it be?
If I could trade places with any person for a week it would be with his holiness, the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje of the Karma Kagyu lineage. If only for a week, it would be quite an amazing experience to feel how someone of that awareness truly experiences life on a daily level. If he weren't available for trading places that week, my second choice would be Desmond Tutu — that man never stops laughing.