- Associated Press - Saturday, October 11, 2014

NORTHFIELD, Mass. (AP) - The six friends behind the Daughters of Toleza Scholarship believe in the ripple effect strongly enough that they are helping to put a handful of girls through private school 7,000 miles away in Africa.

“You can do great things with small steps around the world,” said Brianna Drohen of Wendell. “We’re very small; we’re six people.” Those six people are putting a handful of girls through high school in Malawi in the belief that their drop in the bucket will grow as the impact of an education spreads through generations.

This year, the group has seven teenage girls enrolled in Bakhita Secondary School in Balaka, Malawi. There they do what most girls in the country don’t - continue their education beyond primary school. They learn, among other things, the language of business and government in Malawi.

“Knowing English, that can open the door to better jobs and that’s what we want - we call that the ‘girl effect’ - if one girl gets educated and helps her family and then her kids get educated, we can break the cycle of poverty,” said Magda Ponce-Castro of Northfield.

Ponce-Castro and Drohen are the Toleza group’s newest members and traveled to Malawi at the end of July, returning Aug. 4.

The two women spent two weeks narrowing the pool of applicants from 39 to 15 to five to two. They selected the first 15 girls based on their academic performance. Those 15 took a test and Drohen and Ponce-Castro interviewed the five highest scoring and selected two applicants based largely on personality. They can only offer two scholarships a year and are anxious that these go to the girls most likely to succeed.

Due in part to an unexpected twist in the selection process, they are hoping to raise enough money to put one girl through school with a fundraiser Oct. 19 in Northfield.

“We were supposed to choose only two, but when you’re there it’s kind of hard, so we ended up with three,” Ponce-Castro said.

The first girl, they said, was an easy choice - she had the best grades and the best interview. The second was trickier, with two girls essentially equal on paper and in person, with the deciding factor in favor of one being an orphan. Home visits to assess financial need were the last step and revealed a problem.

“We went to visit their houses, the two girls who were pretty equal, and they’re neighbors,” Ponce-Castro said. “And they’re friends and their families are friends, so I just felt that I couldn’t break someone’s heart when they’re trying to go together, and I felt that if they were together they would kind of support each other.” They contacted the other board members and decided to fund all three, not a decision taken lightly.

“By me and Brianna deciding to take a third girl, we also have to raise money to cover her for the next four years,” Ponce-Castro said. The group tries to gather the money for four years - $2,700 - for each girl before they award a scholarship.

“Once the girls are in school you just can’t say ‘ooh, you might not be able to be in school next year because we don’t have enough funding,’” Ponce-Castro said.

That $2,700 is all-inclusive, excepting a small contribution expected from the families toward school supplies and other expenses. The financing is designed, they said, to fight the pervasive “Western handout” mentality they acknowledge they are contributing to. Bakhita is a boarding school, food and clothing included, and Ponce-Castro describes it as the Northfield Mount Hermon School of Malawi. There are cheaper options - another school they visited cost about $12 a year, but had little to offer. Drohen said the group chose the boarding-school option to keep the girls away from the work pressures of home and other factors that could derail their education. One earlier scholarship winner has already dropped out. She went home for winter break and didn’t come back. They assume she got pregnant and married.

The scholarship was first awarded in 2011, after a teacher and five MBA graduate students from the Managing for Sustainability program at Marlboro College in Vermont returned from a study trip to the sustainability-focused Toleza Farm in Malawi.

Ponce-Castro’s husband, Don Simms, was one of the original six.

“They had extra money left from that trip, and my husband thought it would be a good idea to use that money to start a scholarship,” Ponce-Castro said. From leftover souvenir money they have moved on to collecting money with small fundraisers and online, with the directors now spread out geographically and coordinating occasionally by phone.

The Oct. 19 fundraiser is scheduled for 4 to 6 p.m. in the Green Tree Gallery, 105 Main St., Suite 1, in Northfield with a presentation, raffle, and light refreshments donated by Terrazza Ristorante, Noble Feast Catering and chef Myron Becker.

The group has a Web presence and online and mail donation information at daughtersoftoleza.org.

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