Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

April 19, 2006:

Ann Ellis ’01

Ann Ellis ’01, a medical student, has helped start a health clinic and raises money for new initiatives. (courtesy Ann Allis ’01)

Helping the poor help themselves
Ann Ellis ’01 establishes a school in a Nairobi slum

Even though Ann Ellis ’01 keeps the rigorous schedule of a medical student at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City — and at the same time is earning a master’s degree in public health — she wouldn’t miss her twice-yearly visits to Kenya. It’s a route she’s traveled faithfully since the summer after her freshman year, when she lived with a Kenyan family on the outskirts of Nairobi in Kibera, one of Africa’s largest and poorest slums.

Ellis, who majored in mechanical and aerospace engineering, had dreamed of living in Africa since the fifth grade, when missionaries from Ghana visited her Catholic school. At Princeton she tried to find a study-abroad program that would allow her to truly know the people. But she couldn’t find one, so she scrapped the idea of going on an organized program. Through a friend of a friend she found the Beuttahs, the family with whom she lived, whose matriarch has been instrumental in helping Ellis establish first a school and community center and then a health clinic in Kibera.

The plan for the school arose from a conversation Ellis had with two Kiberan mothers, whom she met that first summer while volunteering at an orphanage run by the sisters of Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa. “It was their idea,” she says. For their children to have any hope, the mothers knew that “they needed a job and their children needed an education.” Spurred by the mothers’ wishes, Ellis returned to Princeton that fall to raise money to start a free school. “I came back to the States and started telling stories,” she says, “and I got a lot of moral support, but no money.”

Undeterred, Ellis networked for 18 months, until she was introduced to the pastor of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Princeton. He gave her $10,000 in seed money. When the school’s doors opened, during intersession of her junior year, more than 500 children enrolled. Certain days of the week are reserved for community activities: Parents and children get clothing and attend church, eat, and play together.

As soon as the school was up and running, Ellis insisted that her work should take place strictly behind the scenes. Ellis asked one of the sisters to head the school. “I didn’t want the school to be seen as a handout,” she says. “I wanted it to be seen as coming from the sisters and based on their wants. That way, people there would see it as their own school.”

The school has become a magnet both for Princeton students and the young of Kibera: 10 other Princeton students have volunteered at the school and student enrollment has continued to grow, along with Ellis’ mission. She founded a fund-raising organization, RAFIKI (Resourceful Americans Forging and Implementing Kenyan Initiatives). She and the sisters started a primary-care clinic. Next on the agenda is an HIV clinic, which, Ellis emphasizes, was also something the local residents wanted. There’s little more satisfying, she muses, than “people empowering you to empower them.”

By Jessica Dheere ’93

Jessica Dheere ’93 is a writer in New York.