(Courtesy photo by Eric Sucar)
When she was 6 years old, Summer Kollie’s mother won the green card lottery, allowing her and her family to leave a conflict-torn Liberia and move to the U.S.
The lottery, also known as the diversity immigrant visa program, is an initiative under the U.S. Department of State that grants a limited number of visas each year to applicants from nations with low numbers of immigrants to the U.S. in hopes of diversifying the population.
Fifteen years later, in summer 2018, Kollie returned to Liberia for the first time to begin fulfilling a dream she’d been trying to solidify for years: giving back to girls in her home country.
Kollie and Princess Aghayere, both University of Pennsylvania health and society alumnae, spent a month and a half in Monrovia launching the pilot program for Rebound Liberia, an initiative they’ll lead with bioengineering graduate Oladunni Alomaja, aimed at empowering young women in Liberia through basketball, personal development and literacy education.
“We envision it to be a pipeline program for young girls, where they can receive guidance and support as they navigate their journeys, learn about themselves and think about their futures,” Kollie said. “The center will be a space where they can feel safe, relax, play basketball and have fun, as well as brush up on any literacy issues that they might be having.”
Both Aghayere — who played on the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s basketball team — and Alomaja are Nigerian immigrants who had wanted to return to Africa at some point to do impactful work.
The trio won one of the university’s coveted 2019 President’s Engagement Prize, an award created to empower Penn students to create social impact projects following graduation.
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The Prize gave them $100,000 and a living stipend of $50,000 for each.
In September, Kollie, Aghayere and Alomaja will head to Liberia for a year, during which they plan to use the Prize funds to build a basketball court and resource center and further develop the program’s literacy component.
Rebound Liberia is envisioned as a summer program designed to serve girls across Monrovia between ages 8 to 18.
The pilot program for Rebound, PEACE (Promoting Education and Cultivating Empowerment through Girls Basketball), was done in partnership with SOS Children’s Village, an international humanitarian organization, and saw 35 participants come together for morning basketball clinics focused on specific skills, like ball-handling and shooting, and sessions on personal development, where they discussed everything from career planning to sexual health and education.
For the pilot, Kollie and Aghayere renovated a local basketball court and the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s basketball team donated basketballs, shoes and jerseys for the participants.
The trip was funded by grants Kollie and Aghayere won through Davis Projects for Peace, an organization that encourages youth to implement ideas around global peace, and the University’s Gelfman International Fund, which supports juniors pursuing international service projects.
The literacy component of Rebound Liberia’s curriculum was added after Alomaja joined the team last year.
“Across the continent, girls’ education isn’t always encouraged and valued as it should be, but specifically in Liberia, as a result of the Civil War and the weakened education system, there’s a disparity between men and women in terms of literacy,” Alojama said. “We’d been looking for a way to strengthen our curriculum, and this felt like an important issue to address.”
They held had a campus-wide book drive during the spring semester finals season, and collected all sorts of books, ranging from traditional story books to textbooks in Mandarin.
They’re hoping to partner with local organizations, specifically KEEP Liberia, a woman-led initiative working to provide educational support to underprivileged youth, to collaborate on building a reading room in the center.
Rebound Liberia is an ambitious project, they said, with Aghayere adding that their main hurdle will be making sure it’s sustainable.
“Usually, people go out and do these kinds of social impact projects after they’ve established their careers,” she said. “But we’re just coming out of college and all have different things that we want to pursue. We could do all these amazing things with the program, but in a year or two, if it’s run down or not operating how we want it to, how helpful were our efforts, really?”
Kollie said there are opportunities for girls who age out of Rebound Liberia to take on leadership roles within the program, which would help ensure that its mission is honored and prioritized.
“We want to come back every year and see it launching and see leadership passed down through the hands of girls who have been through the program,” she said. “We also want to connect with people on the ground who are committed to girls’ empowerment and development and would help the project succeed and be sustained,” she said.
Alomaja said they’re aware that there are limits to how far the program could take the girls.
“We just want to be able to empower them in whatever way possible,” she said. We know that we might not be able to give them the best opportunities afterwards in terms of school or work, and for us that’s something that we battle with. But we have to be okay with the fact that even if we don’t do that, we’re able to help strengthen them from within and foster personal growth.”
Kollie, Aghayere and Alojama are staring down the barrel at a year of ambitious construction, research, networking and curriculum building, but they’re keeping sight of their end goal.
“If at the end of the program’s day, the girls are just more confident, more inquisitive and inspired to seek opportunities for themselves or to seek alternative ways in which they can grow as women in their community, then we succeeded,” Aghayere said.-30-
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