Thirteen months ago, Zack Fowler moved the base of operations for an international nonprofit to his childhood home in Sanford.
Fowler, a Southern Lee High School graduate, is the executive director of WISER International, a nonprofit that aims to educate girls in Kenya by removing poverty-, health- and gender-based barriers.
In the region of Kenya where WISER works, only 9% of all girls finish school, Fowler said. Nearly half of those that drop out do so because of early pregnancy, he added. Poverty, HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence also present enormous obstacles to female education.
The WISER Girls Secondary School in Kenya provides girls with clothes, books, housing, healthy food, essential medicine and sexual and reproductive health training. The goal is to empower young women with education and leadership training.
A global pandemic
Until last March, Fowler had been making trips to Kenya two or three times a year to check on the school there. When the news about COVID-19 hit, Fowler was in Migori County, 7,700 miles and three airplane flights from home.
“I actually was in Kenya on the day it announced its first COVID-19 case on March 13,” Fowler said. “I was on our program site in Western Kenya when we got the news that in 48 hours, the school campus was going to close indefinitely.”
By the time Fowler arrived back in the United States, his entire job had changed. With schools shut down, WISER International turned to providing aid to its students, ensuring they had access to healthy food and sanitation materials to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
With the border between Kenya and Tanzania closed, a hunger crisis seemed imminent, Fowler said. The community is close to the Tanzanian border, so many families rely on purchasing large quantities of food in Tanzanian markets, where the Kenyan shilling is stronger, Fowler explained.
“The first thing we had to (do) was figure out how to keep these students and their families fed and healthy,” he said. “We started a really large relief distribution program where we were packing up essentials, healthy meals, soap and sanitation products and delivering these out from our campus.”
Over the course of about 6 months, WISER was distributed 30,000 pounds of relief materials to girls and their families, Fowler said.
“Those were the main logistics that were being run out of what we’ll call Sanford HQ,” he said.
Fowler and WISER staff were also concerned about what the stay-at-home order meant for female health, he said. They were worried about a rise in domestic violence and early pregnancy.
“For the US, the pandemic was 90% about health,” Fowler said. “For Kenya, it was partially about health, but it was also about education, pregnancy, family structure and hunger.”
WISER teachers and staff tried to reassure students they would eventually be able to return to school — that they would not be part of the 91% of female students who don’t finish their education.
“When the school closed during the pandemic, there were a lot of girls who went home afraid that was the last time they were ever going to be in WISER,” Fowler said. “(Our principal) started going to door-to-door ... literally standing in students’ front yards and saying, ‘I want to remind you that you are still a WISER girl. You have not left school, we will see you soon.’ ”
Sanford’s international impact
All of this was coordinated from Fowler’s kitchen table in Sanford. Fowler is used to working virtually, but when the pandemic hit, he returned to his hometown to quarantine with his parents, he said.
It was the first time in seven years Fowler wasn’t regularly boarding international flights, and it was strange to be “so deeply connected and invested in a community that is that far away,” he said.
“You have this kind of international mindset coming from a global health institute, and then when you go back to your hometown, you have this blending of your childhood memories and your future aspirations and your desire to help this international community,” Fowler said. “It’s an odd blend of focus far, far away and very near to home.”
While in Sanford, Fowler reconnected to his roots. The “ultimate hometown perk” was getting to co-host the radio station’s coverage of Southern Lee High School football games, he said. Now moving to Washington, D.C., Fowler looks back on his time in quarantine with fondness.
“It helped ground me a little bit as I was trying to do something ambitious and intimidating, at times,” he said.
By all accounts, Fowler’s efforts during the pandemic were successful. The WISER school partially reopened in October and is set to fully reopen as soon as possible.
As many schools in the region lose more than 20% of their female students to pregnancy during COVID-19 lockdowns, WISER has re-enrolled nearly 100% of its students, Fowler said.
And last week, the organization had a major win when Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey gave $750,000 to WISER International.
“Any time the WISER team receives an investment or gift of any size, it’s a celebration for our whole team,” Fowler said. “It means more scholarships, housing, meals, counseling, medicine, and safety.”