Morgan Sheppard and her father, Don, have embodied the spirit of WISER for years. Morgan, a longtime advocate for quality education, traveled to WISER as a Duke University sophomore in 2009 and helped lay the groundwork for programs that still exist today. Curious about Morgan’s experience in Muhuru Bay, Don made the trip to Kenya as well, and what he saw then continues to inspire his work as a WISER advocate today.
Now, Morgan lives in New Haven, Connecticut where she works as a 3rd grade humanities teacher in a charter school and Don has continued to act as a passionate philanthropist. We sat down with both Morgan and Don to hear their WISER stories.
W: What first drew you both to WISER?
Morgan: The summer before my senior year of high school I was in Nairobi for a project, which led me to think about women in sub-Saharan Africa. That interest intensified my sophomore year at Duke when I took a course called “Women in International Development” which WISER’s founder, Sherryl, was advising at the time. I applied to go to WISER and it fell in line perfectly with my passion for education and empowering women. This connection between development and working in schools was really compelling.
W: And Don, what did you think about Morgan preparing to travel to Kenya?
Don: Well, I got to meet Sherryl right before Morgan left and I was quite taken with WISER’s work. I asked Sherryl if I could go and visit this budding program and she invited me! I was already doing some philanthropic work in Africa – I had put in a soccer field in a Nairobi orphanage and I was already so passionate about helping disadvantaged youth through enriching opportunities.
W: So WISER was a natural fit for both of you.
Don: That’s right. I was ecstatic to be there, and we were there in the early years – electricity was a concern, buildings were just going up, but we were so taken care of and so inspired. I learned more about the girls in the area and what they were facing and it was heartbreaking for me. But I saw what WISER was starting and it was just awesome. The people making this happen were heroes.
W: So, Morgan, when you visited in the early stages, what were you doing with WISER?
Morgan: So, my main role was to help launch some of WISER’s primary school outreach as a teacher leading general primary school prep classes. I was doing small group work with kids, particularly focusing on providing practice with native English speakers to reinforce what those students would see on their national exams. My first 6 weeks were focused on teaching in these ways. And the 8th grade girls that we were teaching that year became the first class of WISER girls.
W: That’s amazing!
Morgan: Yeah! It’s been incredible to see those girls grow and flourish over the years. I mean, just think, some of those 8th grade girls I was working with are in college now.
W: And Don, did you get to see Morgan in action as a teacher while you were visiting?
Don: A little! But I was also busy, I was lucky to bring a female soccer player with me, someone that played on the US world cup team, and we ran soccer camps and enrichment programs together. And I was so floored by the girls around me that wanted to participate. They so embraced the opportunity to have an education. They were so dedicated to working on their studies, I was just floored by the effort.
W: So much has happened at WISER since those days. What do you think of where WISER is now versus where it was when you first visited 8 years ago?
Morgan: Well, the expansion, obviously, is very exciting. I think this has been a thoughtful expansion for the girls and that’s important. With other programs, I’ve seen that expansion often comes with loss of quality, but slowly growing each class as you’re doing shows an advanced awareness of quality and control. I think it’s amazing, and I trust WISER’s leadership in Muhuru Bay to meet their vision of excellence.
Don: I wanted to say this earlier, so I’ll say it now. What I found most impressive about WISER is that its role in the community is somehow even more than providing education. WISER is providing water, it’s focusing on environmental health, it’s doing sexual and reproductive outreach – it’s focused on helping the community build itself up.
Morgan: It’s incredible to hear it listed out like that, it seems like WISER just does everything.
Don: And that’s my point! WISER’s doing everything you need to do for a community. All I ask is that you continue to do that.
W: I’m glad you brought that up – when you say that WISER does “everything you need to do,” what are the most important things WISER does, in your opinion?
Morgan: One thing we think a lot about in the US is this idea of going on to college and then going through and finishing. Kenya’s education system, certainly for girls in the area where WISER is, is mostly focused on trying to get students to go to secondary at all and going through and finishing is still a huge deal. The support that WISER has in place is absolutely essential and it makes sure students don’t just attend, they finish and they succeed. They go through, not just go into.
Don: On top of that, the girls that are finishing have confidence and pride in themselves. They have a belief that they can accomplish anything and so they do. This is true for WISER’s students and WISER leadership! There are people at WISER who are working and have gone from down and out situations to becoming land owners, leaders, administrators, and more.
Morgan: And the thing about WISER is that you’re building and educating leaders, both staff and students, that have a role locally. It’s possible that these students and staff might find their passions outside of Muhuru Bay, but so many of them return and become the developers of their community. They are the heart of Muhuru Bay.
Don: That’s a good way to say it – this is an organization that inspires and equips everyone associated with it to be a community champion.
W: It seems like you both have an incredible way of articulating how you feel about WISER, so I’m excited to ask this question. What message do you have for the WISER girls?
Morgan: I know that the WISER girls are going to go on and accomplish amazing things. I want them to know that, and I think they already do. And I want to encourage them that, while they’re in high school, they should take any opportunities they can to go back and be the role model for younger girls, to show that dreams can be accomplished. They can be such amazing examples to young girls.
Don: I would tell the girls that they must remember that there is an army of people around the world that believes in them strongly, that is so inspired by them, and that eagerly awaits to hear their accomplishments every year because they know WISER girls do amazing things. The whole world is cheering for them. We should never let them forget that.