I heard a phrase today which took on a whole new meaning for me. When I was growing up, “Back-to-School” meant meeting new teachers, getting ‘school clothes’ and holding a brand-new notebook and unchewed pencils. It was an annual ritual marking the end of my summer freedom and of the adults in my life trying to get me excited about my next nine-month sentence. But regardless of how we felt about school, the ritual seemed to be intended more for retailers than for children.
Today I was on an update call with World Vision’s national director in Kenya. She was explaining the tremendous added risks that children are facing right now in that country because the schools are closed for COVID-19. She said that many girls and boys are at risk of not ever returning to school after the extended shutdown, because families may be in such financial distress that the children are forced to work instead. Early indications indicate a major uptick is coming in domestic violence against children and in sexual violence against girls. Pregnancies may result, as well as increases in child marriage—exchanging a daughter for a critically needed dowry which feeds the rest of the family. And child labor is a growing risk for both boys and girls.
This leader went on to list several of World Vision’s strategies for combating these anticipated issues. One strategy at the time seemed so quaint that I didn’t even write it down at first: she said they are planning “Go Back to School” campaigns. Considering the grave nature of the issues and the technical jargon she used to describe several additional strategies they’re planning, this one seemed something of a sidelight.
But a few hours later I received an email about a shipment of shoes for children and youth that is being donated for World Vision’s work in Somalia, which is Kenya’s even more-vulnerable neighbor. Our staff there explained how the shoes would be used…
Community Education Committees will entice families to send their children to school, because this gift (shoes) will create a “back to school” campaign. This will steer community forums, home visits and sensitization on the value of education… for boys, girls and children with special needs.
Suddenly the pieces came together for me. I realized what a critical strategy these Back-to-School campaigns are for encouraging parents to allow their children to return to their studies instead of keeping them back to work or to marry. After this unprecedented year of global school stoppages, when educational continuity is so at risk for an entire generation of school children in these highly vulnerable places, Back-to-School campaigns can be the difference between a child having a future of possibilities and choices …or not.
Originally, this was probably the same reason Back-to-School campaigns were launched in our own country. Families, perhaps especially in farming communities, would be tempted to keep their children from returning to school at some point, especially the girls. “She’s already completed fifth grade; why would she need more than that to get a husband and raise a family, when she could be bringing in money now as a housemaid?” Or, “I need him helping on the farm and not wasting his time with school-learning he doesn’t need.” Those arguments sound absurd to us today, but we know well that they were powerful points of discussion and marital discord only a couple generations ago. Back-to-School campaigns provided positive energy, enthusiasm, and community social pressure to convince parents to let their children return to their studies and have a brighter future. Our own family histories prove the value of this strategy, and it still works! There is nothing quaint about Back-to-School campaigns. In places where education is not yet a “given”, they can determine a life’s trajectory.
And beyond all this, there was something very holy in this experience for me personally. I’m privileged to work with the donors making this gift of shoes, which is a wonderful gift at any time and place. But the gift came because their manufacturing company is having such a difficult time due to the pandemic. Yet they chose to watch and pray: “God, we know you have a plan in all of this. Show us how to be part of it.”
When they found a way to donate nearly 30,000 pairs, everyone was blessed and encouraged. But it was absolutely stunning to learn today that this donation would have an impact beyond anything that the donors and I could ever have imagined. I’m always eager to know that “gifts in kind” like this are not simply handouts but are used developmentally, meaning that they further our development goals for communities. But when this donation was first discussed, none of us had any idea that school closings would happen all around the world. Yet today we learned that, while we each faithfully played our little parts, God had intentions beyond anything we could have asked or imagined.
Now, not only will 29,600 children and youth each receive a new pair of shoes and experience all the health benefits those will bring, but in a place as vulnerable as Somalia, as part of a Back-to-School campaign these shoes will make the decisive difference between an education and a truncated future for many hundreds of these children.
All I could do was stop and thank God and celebrate with the donors this miraculous opportunity God had given us.