Local Education Startup Nominated for a “Grammy of Charity”

Arlington social entrepreneur Jessica Shipman’s organization, Cheti, which helps fund community schools in Africa, has been nominated as 2012’s Best New Charity.

By: Mary Yarrison

Two years ago, Arlington resident Jessica Shipman was working at an advertising firm in Manhattan, seemingly living the dream but feeling like she should be doing more. Having promised herself years earlier that she would find an opportunity to volunteer abroad “in Africa, for whatever reason,” she took an unpaid sabbatical in early 2010 to spend five weeks in Tanzania. She would teach English, she thought, touch a few lives, meet great people, and return to the States feeling as though she’d helped others and herself.

But the children she met there shook her up, she says. “As self-aware as five-year-olds can be, these kids knew there was something better out there for them. They wanted to learn about it, they wanted to be at school, and they fought each other for English books.”

The kids she speaks of come from shocking poverty. They live in huts, sometimes with only one parent and outhouses their families have overgrown. The culture of their communities, historically, didn’t acknowledge that education could help enrich the entire lot, not just the lives of the educated. During her five weeks, Shipman taught the community’s kids, but she also met their families, became invested in their development, and felt obligated to help it along.

So Shipman, 26, started Cheti, an organization that raises money for community-run partner schools—they provide intangibles such as teacher training and scholarship subsidies as well as essentials like buildings and books.

“A lot of the [educational] issues there stemmed from the fact that there was always something more pressing going on at home,” Shipman says. When families needed another pair of hands in the household, education would fall by the wayside. If this urgent need could be alleviated, she thought, kids could stay in school, possibly go to college, and grow into the businesspeople, teachers, and social entrepreneurs they told her they dreamed of being.

“At first, I thought that if I could get a family to tell me a really compelling story, I could film it and bring it back here, and I could get 10 or 12 kids sponsored, which would help the school and the families,” she says.

While working full time—first in New York and then in DC—Shipman, along with four friends, raised money for the Tanzanian families whose strength and eagerness she so admires. She’d hoped to help a dozen kids, but in less than two years, her group has affected 1,000 people. The all-volunteer organization has purchased land and school buses, built eight classrooms, provided uniforms, food, and HIV tests, and helped replace the sense of urgency once felt about feeding children with a similar feeling about educating them.

Earlier this summer, Shipman left her international development job in DC to work full-time for Cheti. She’s set financial rules requiring that all sponsorship dollars donated to the organization will be spent directly on educating its kids and that operations will be financed exclusively by other means (think corporate partnerships and contributions made specifically to help the charity itself grow).

Her plans for Cheti are big: The model will be used throughout the region to provide tools such as school buildings, qualified teachers, and the community engagement necessary for families to want their kids in school no matter what. Cheti will work with its two current partner schools until those schools no longer require the organization’s help; then efforts will move to new schools. Shipman will continue to find partner schools run by strong, committed local activists, and will work with them to educate and empower Tanzania’s youth one small group at a time.

Thanks to Shipman’s hard work, Cheti has been nominated for a Classy Award as 2012’s Best New Charity. The awards, the country’s largest philanthropic award ceremony, are considered the Grammys of charity work—and are decided partially by public vote. Cheti is the only local organization to make the regional finals. Once voting closes on July 26, regional winners will be selected from pools of five per category, and national winners will be announced from that final group at a ceremony in San Diego in September.

For more information about:

Cheti, visit sponsorcheti.org

Voting, visit stayclassy.org/classy-awards/vote

Fundraising, stop by the Cheti Summer Bash at Breadsoda after work on Thursday, July 26