On an unseasonably cold April day three years ago, snow broke from the sky and chilled business for a Castle Rock garage sale. But high school student Hanna Tenerowicz and her friends in the French Honor Society slapped high fives in jubilation.
They had raised $150, enough to pay for two Congolese girls to stay in school another year and lessen their risk of being married at 13 or 14 in exchange for money to feed their families.
“They were just so excited that we raised enough to sponsor a girl,” said Anne Damanti, Hanna's French teacher at Castle View High School.
But Hanna, 19, a wisp of a young woman who just completed her freshman year at Wellesley College near Boston, wants to do more.
Two weeks ago she left for the Democratic Republic of Congo to document the lives of schoolgirls, bring back their hopes and ideas for community transformation, and establish connections to help those dreams come true.
“Gender equality makes a difference,” Hanna, whose soft voice conveys conviction with quiet, deep passion, said before leaving. “It's a domino effect on all kinds of things.”
The story of how this came to be — that a girl so shy Anne often couldn't hear her speak in class has grown into a young woman daring to change lives — converges on a shared connection to the French language and a motivation to help.
It is a story of compassion, determination and, quite simply, courage. Because it takes bravery to stretch beyond the familiar, to push cultural boundaries, to try to make a difference in a world so big and complicated we sometimes wonder whether what we do matters.
Finally, perhaps most importantly, it is a story of empowerment.
And it begins with Sandra Bea, who emigrated to Colorado in 2001 from the French-speaking D.R. Congo to continue her studies in education. A French teacher, she graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver and today is dean of students at Global Village Academy, a language immersion school in Denver.
The daughter of an engineer of a local mining company in Mbuji-Mayi, the country's third largest city, Sandra grew up without worries: “I was eating three times a day; I went to school with a car. I grew up really easily. It was not hard like the other girls are facing right now. We never had any conversation about `You are going to get married in two days because we don't have the money.'”
It wasn't until she was 22 and student teaching in her former high school that she understood the reality. Every two weeks, it seemed, another student would leave. They were, she learned, getting married.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because, Madam, we are not like you,” they told her. “You can afford it. We cannot afford it.”
“That,” Sandra said, “broke my heart.”
So, four years ago, she founded the nonprofit Muanjadi Organization, a women's empowerment project that helps girls complete their high school education and avoid early arranged marriages.
“For many parents in the Congo, marrying off their daughters constitutes a source of revenue in a country where people live with less than $1 a day with a GDP per capita of $300,” Sandra writes on the organization's website.
Through fundraising and donations, the organization — whose name means Brave Woman — provides tuition and supplies for girls in seventh through 12th grades at the same school Sandra attended.
Cost for one girl for one year of high school: $75.
Cost for one year of college: $350.
Anne, originally from Belgium, met Sandra and learned about Muanjadi at a state world language conference three years ago. She brought the idea back to her French Honor Society, which was looking for a community service project.
Students learned how most girls eat just one meal a day and how the school has no water or electricity. They compared the cost of one year of high school to what teens here might spend on fancy jeans or a Starbucks coffee habit. “That's not a lot to have the freedom to actually go to school and try to be something,” Anne said.
That, Hanna said, coupled with the specter of forced marriage, “was a pretty powerful thing to learn about.”
Last school year, Muanjadi sponsored 100 girls, 11 of them thanks to Castle View. The honor society, which has corresponded with the girls through letters, phone and Skype, also is sponsoring a student in college — one of the girls it began sponsoring in high school three years ago. Other organization sponsors include Kent Denver Academy, Metro State, Colorado State University, a lawyers' organization and many individuals and families.
But Hanna hopes to take the program one step further.
Her new project is Portrait of a Brave Woman. Accompanied by Sandra, she has spent the past two weeks interviewing — in French — and filming girls at the school about their lives, but also about their ideas to implement change in their communities.
She plans to share the mini-documentaries with artists who will be encouraged to create paintings about a particular girl whose story connects with them. Proceeds from the sale of those paintings will go toward the girls' personal and community goals, such as becoming a nurse or training midwives to decrease the high infant mortality rate.
The objectives are several: to empower Congolese girls, improve their communities and create meaningful cross-cultural connections with Western artists and buyers.
“I hope community improvement brought about by women's ideas will help to create more positive and respectful attitudes towards women in Mbuji-Mayi,” Hanna, also an artist, said. And “I hope the project empowers the girls themselves by helping them to personally make a difference.”
Her dream is unquestionably big.
But, Anne said, “There is nothing, anymore, that she can't do.”
Hanna's visit, Sandra said, is the concrete realization of what dreams and hard work can accomplish. And having someone their age talk to them and share ideas with them is inspirational: “You don't know me, but you came to give me a chance to become someone.”
Which is exactly what Hanna wanted to do after reading “Half the Sky,” a book about the oppression of women and girls in the developing world.
“It really changed my outlook on the world,” she said. “I was really interested in doing whatever I could to make a difference.”
Hanna returns this week with her videos and interviews and dream.
“I'm definitely prepared for this to change my life,” she said before leaving.
Without a doubt, it will. But, in a school half a world away, girls are surely changed, too, because a stranger from a different life cared enough to learn about theirs.
That's empowerment. The kind that makes a difference.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4110.