Elewana Education Project Founder Returns to Friendly City

With support from people in Wheeling and throughout the United States, the Elewana Education Project continues to expand its mission to help young people in western Kenya.

The Rev. Zach Drennen, founder of the Elewana Education Project, returned to the Friendly City to speak to the Rotary Club of Wheeling and at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church Tuesday, Oct. 25. The Wheeling parish provides financial support to Elewana through its outreach abroad fund and from individual donors.

“It is an honor and a joy to come back,” Drennen told an audience gathered in St. Matthew’s parish hall. He noted that Elewana is “building relationships of understanding across oceans and continents.”

Drennen is an Episcopal priest from West Virginia and an Episcopal Church-appointed missionary. The Elewana Education Project is a non-government organization that provides educational scholarships to students and builds computer labs in schools throughout western Kenya. The project also connects Kenyan and American schools through interactive partnerships similar to parish-to-parish companion relationships, including organized mission trips.

Bookending the discussion with a theological thought, the missionary observed, “Mission work is really about building relationships.” Putting the commandment to love God and one’s neighbor into practice is “an important mission for us as people of faith and for our church,” he commented.

Drennen explained that he started the nonprofit project in 2008 to provide access to quality education for Kenyans and to develop awareness of global issues and concerns through partnerships.

“In Kenya, 50 percent of high school students don’t finish because they can’t afford it,” he related. To combat that problem, he said, “Our sponsorship program has grown and is doing very well.”

In 2008, its initial year, the project secured sponsorships for 20 students. This year, 166 sponsorships have been funded, he said. Currently, students in 30 to 40 schools receive the scholarships.

Elewana maintains “a strict and stringent educational policy” for recipients; students must have a B average to apply for a scholarship and must continue to earn good grades, he said.

“The GPA (grade-point average) of all of our students has skyrocketed,” the director said. “This is a hugely successful, integral part of the Elewana Education Project.”

Students who apply for scholarships come from “very desperate situations,” with many being orphans or partial orphans, mostly because their parents have died of AIDS, he said. The HIV rate in Kenya is 5 percent to 10 percent, which is much lower than in other parts of Africa, he added.

Sponsorships – about $500 a year on average – cover tuition, room and board, uniform and books, Drennen said. Parents, guardians and the community are responsible for other expenses.

“Guardians still have to come up with something to get everyone involved,” he added.

At the village level in western Kenya, which is an agricultural area, the average annual income is $500. Without a high school diploma in Kenya, a person has “almost no prospects. You’re going nowhere,” he related.

With that diploma, a student can start college classes and work toward an associate degree.

Providing computers for local Kenyan schools also has been an integral part of the Elewana Education Project since its inception. A dearth of computers is “the most glaring lack” in the schools, Drennen said, adding, “A lot of places don’t have electricity.”

Elewana has partnered with Computers for Africa, an organization that refurbishes used computers and sends them to schools. Through this partnership, “we’ve expanded our reach into schools this year,” he said.

Labs, with at least 10 computers each, have been installed in 10 schools; Drennen hopes to install 15 computer labs next year.

“Computers for Africa also provides a two-week training session for one teacher from every school,” he said.

Unmetered access to the Internet is needed to make computer labs fully functional, and access has been a stumbling block, Drennen related.

However, Elewana representatives have been able to build towers to get a signal from a small Internet company. As a result, he said, “Seven schools now have high-speed Internet. They share bandwidth that Elewana purchases.” The schools pay $50 a month – “a fee that they can afford” – to Elewana for the Internet service.

As part of Elewana’s efforts to develop awareness of global issues through global partnerships, students from three U.S. schools visited sister schools in Kenya this year, doing projects and teaching classes.

During those visits, each student “spends one night in a mud hut with their new friend,” Drennen said. “It’s one of the few times in their young adult life they realize that they are the blessing … (by) showing up to spend the night as a guest in someone’s home.

“We’re slowly changing the world. It’s a very life-transformative experience,” he said, referring to the students’ visits.