When Judy Beggs sat down at age 49 with a career counselor, she never imagined that 15 years later she’d be providing career counseling to girls on the edge of the Sahara.
Beggs was in the middle of finalizing her divorce and had her mind set on joining the Peace Corps. But after years working as a lawyer taking hundreds of people through divorce, Beggs says, “I knew there’s a tendency to do wild things after a divorce. I wanted to make a grounded decision.”
At the end of her sessions, the career counselor gave her a list of things people did who had her profile: Peace Corps volunteer was on the list.
“If you’ve got a wild hair, I think you ought to follow it,” says Beggs, who lives most of the year in Denver. “You were sensible when you were younger. It’s time not to be sensible.”
Planting the Seed in Senegal
A year later, Beggs was stationed as a Peace Corps volunteer (and about 25 years older than most) in Guéoul, Senegal — a village of about 11,000 on the edge of the Sahara in northern Africa. Her two-year tour, she says, felt lonely and ineffective.
Beggs was assigned to work with the village’s head medical worker who was not keen on help from a Peace Corps volunteer, particularly one who caught him stealing small fees from incoming patients. She returned home to practice law in Denver, feeling “frustrated and unfulfilled.” And yet, part of her heart was still pulled towards the people of Guéoul.
About 10 years after her Peace Corps tour, Beggs returned to Guéoul with her friend John Montaña, who also lives in Denver. During their visit, the pair sat down for tea with a teacher who told them about the problem keeping girls in school.
When Montaña learned that Beggs was already contributing her own money to keep a few girls in school in Senegal, he said, “Let’s keep a bunch of them in school!” Within a little over a year, in 2004, Friends of Guéoul (FOG) was established as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, with Beggs as executive director. Its vision: by helping girls attend and succeed in school, the overall quality of life in the village would improve and further impact the entire country. This outcome is one that many African countries are striving to achieve.
Impact of Educating a Girl
“When you educate a boy, you educate a man. When you educate a girl, you educate a whole nation.” The girls in Guéoul can recite this African proverb by heart. It may sound cliché, but the impact of female education on a country can’t be denied.
According to UNESCO, girls with a higher level of education are less likely to get married early: Child marriages would decrease by 14 percent if all girls finished primary education. Also, according to UNESCO, girls with more years of education are less likely to have children at an early age and less likely to die in childbirth. Improving girls’ education also decreases malnutrition in the world.
To date, FOG has supported 181 girls. Each year, 14 new girls in first grade (usually from the poorest families in the village) are identified for a yearly $100 “scholarship.” With the extra income, families are less likely to ask their daughter to stay home to work or send her off to get married (so she’s no longer a financial burden). These scholarship girls are called boursières.
In the summer of 2018, FOG offered the first journalism program for Guéoul’s girls through a grant from the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Imagine teaching a 16-year-old Senegalese girl how to write a story about her life, her village, and/or her country. Then imagine teaching her how to type on a keyboard and broadcast it so that the whole world can read the story. When you empower someone with the ability to share stories, you ignite change that grows exponentially.
FOG 2018 summer journalism student DioDio Diop (who contributed to, and is pictured in, this online story) is one of the boursières who completed high school and is now attending midwifery school. She started receiving the yearly scholarship when she was seven.
Obtaining the high school diploma is not easy. Whether you earn your diploma depends on passing a single exam. Beggs says, “Last year only 46 percent of the students passed.” For the first time in FOG’s history, two of the kids who passed were boursières.
With help from of a long list of volunteers and donors over the years, FOG has provided ESL (English as a Second Language) summer school programs to children of all ages; ESL training for teachers; journalism classes for boursières and computer literacy classes for the entire community. It also built a computer lab.
While FOG plans to continue supporting girls’ K-12 education, it is also beginning to raise funding for post-high school educational pursuits for graduates like DioDio. The hope is to further establish Guéoul as a digital hub for education and literacy between the new capital city of Dakar in the south and the old capital city of St. Louis in the north (a five- to six-hour drive).
Twice a year for 15 years, Beggs has been making the multi-day trek to Guéoul. There she meets the new boursières and asks them what they want to be when they grow up. “I present them a list of possibilities — ideas they might never have considered,” says Beggs.
Now 78, Beggs admits that as she has gotten older, the journey has became more difficult and the living environment harder to adapt to; but this doesn’t stop her.
“Most physical shortcomings don’t keep you from going on ahead and doing things that are a stretch,” she says, and then asks, “What are the dreams you had as a youth that you absolutely buried?”
(You can learn more about helping the Friends of Guéoul’s mission here.)
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