Quite the meeting I attended at St. Andrews Secondary School day before
yesterday. It was on the surface a budget meeting to fix the school fees charge
for 2013. I was invited to come as a guest member of the committee,
representing the Board, because the budget is determined by the parents! It is
chaired by the Chairman of the PTA and everyone on the committee is a
But...it was a meeting of hearts for me. I serve on the Board of Governors of this school whose students come from a very poor community - and I mean VERY poor. I am priviledged and humbled to see into the real lives of parents who struggle to educate their children. Even for me - who has lived and worked among the Africans for over 15 years - I can honestly say that until that day "I HAD NO IDEA". There was a switch flipped. For the first time I was an insider and not an outsider. I now understand and it has changed me. I knew these people, these moms and dads, these kids, and I empathized with them. But my empathy was on the surface. Arthur Rouner (our former senior pastor) was right. PRESENCE is how you grow in your understanding. PRESENCE with them over time. PRESENCE so you really get to know them, one woman, one man, one child, one story at a time. PRESENCE that moves you from your head to your heart and THEN back to your head!
I came armed with my facts. I wanted them to think critically about the situation at the school. I knew the answers. I wanted to tell them that they had to be realistic. I wanted to tell them they had no choice but to send those kids home that couldn't pay their fees. I wanted to tell them to prioritize the budget so the school could conntinue. I wanted them to be tough on those parents who just sat back looking for a handout and for somebody to pay the fees for their kids. I wanted...I wanted...I wanted. What choices were there?
And then Peter, the principal, in a very kind way said "we are so glad you are here so that you can undertand why your way won't work and understand the truth about our families." WHOA! Every parent there was looking at me with a smile on their face, while I wanted to crawl under the chair. But I'm a learner and a listener (finally, at this old age)!
Peter and the PTA chairman reminded me that yes, there are those parents with an attitude problem - with a dependency, entitlement attitude. But, they are truly the minority. Still, we need to be careful about how we partner with them and the school as we try to come alongside As I listened to the stories of parents doing unbelievable things to find money for school fees, I began to feel complete and utter frustration and a feeling of a hopeless situation. Let there be light!
A mom with few resources. Renting a donkey and walking up hills about 10 km each way to buy peas and transport them back to sell. Arriving exhausted at dark only to have to fix a meal for her family and drop into bed thanking God for giving her the strength to walk those 20 km. Would I have been thankful? Would I have been feeling like there is no hope? Would I have done that walk? Let there be light.
A father who lost his work, his wife, children to care for...coming to the Principal literally crying and begging to be allowed to keep his child in school. Men in Africa don't cry...
Or the father who begged the school not to send his child home because it was the only meal (lunch) that he gets every day. I thought, when was the last time you didn't have a meal in a day unless you are fasting?
Story after story of hardship. But what was most humbling to me was the compassion expressed by the parents in that room. They were approaching the school's financial situation FIRST from a place of compassion and not from the reality of the numbers. The question was "what can we reasonably expect from the parents". THEN we will worry about where to get the rest. We began to talk together. The budget committee was going to address the parents the next day to give them the news about the new fees for 2013.
The meeting started at 3:00. It was now 6:45 and nobody even cared. But it gets dark at 7:00 and the school has no power. Where was my camera? I wish I had a picture to show you! Now seriously, I looked around the room and couldn't see anyone - they are dark, the dark has come and we still had work to do. Out comes the handheld calculator (no backlight) and the person next to him is giving him light from his cell phone. It was normal for them. I was thinking about budget meetings in the US and how "they would never believe this". Was I the only one that thought this was just too much and I began to laugh.I made a joke of it by saying that the only way I knew where they were in the room was when they smiled and I could see their teeth! They all laughed hysterically and the room lit up. Let their be light!
The bottom line was that they had to increase the fees by 10% and so in 2013 each parent will be asked to pay 15,250 Kenya shillings (about $200) for the entire year. That pays for teachers, food, some supplies, any building projects, and a parent project to add value and need to the school. This year there will be a 13% debt from unpaid school fees that will be the start of the 2013 budget.
At the parent meeting yesterday, the parents accepted the budget and when asked for a commitment, they said they could commit to paying 1000 shillings a month (about $12). Times 9 that equals 9,000 shillings per student a year - against an assessment of 15,250. Let there be light!
So now the struggle. But here is the amazing thing. The first course of action was prayer. Faith that God would find a way to help these families so they could
pay the fees. NOT faith that God would find a way to help the school. Amazing. They actually believe the school logo - they own it - they have faith that "With God We Excel"! And you know what? I believe that God will honor these hearts. He sure prepared MY heart that day... and there was light...