Jenni and Jason Doherty pack boxes in their San Rafael home. They are moving to Kenya to start a school for girls. (IJ photo/Frankie Frost)
When Jason Doherty asked his wife Jenni to leave her friends, her job and her San Rafael home to open a boarding school for girls in Kenya, she didn’t immediately leap at the opportunity.”I think I said ‘OK,’ but I wasn’t 100 percent sure,” said Jenni Doherty, a research associate at WestEd, a San Francisco consulting firm.
After she traveled to Kenya in 2006, however, “it was a done deal,” said Doherty, 28. “Africa changes something in you. For me, it was going to the slums of Nairobi and seeing the little girls with their torn clothing standing in front of me.”
On Monday, the Dohertys will move to Nanyuki, Kenya, and begin the process of readying Daraja Academy for its first class in February. The project is the fulfillment of a decade’s worth of effort by Jason Doherty, a history teacher in Vallejo who previously taught at San Rafael’s Terra Linda High School.
“This started as a dream,” said Doherty, 34, who visited Africa as a child and later taught for a year at Makambako Secondary School in Tanzania. “But a dream is not worth doing if it doesn’t end up doing good for other people. A lot of people who have started similar projects didn’t do their research. They didn’t find out what Africa needed.”
With Daraja Academy – the name means “bridge” in Swahili – Doherty hopes to provide access to high school for academically talented Kenyan girls who cannot afford to pay tuition.
“Most (Kenyan) families are not willing to pay for women to go to school,” said Bob Bessin, a math teacher at Woodside Priory, a Portola Valley private school, who serves on the Daraja Academy board and visited the school last summer. “And yet girls essentially manage families.
The Dohertys traveled to East Africa in 2006 to scout out sites for their dream, and stumbled upon what seemed to be the perfect opportunity: the Baraka School, an American institution whose owners were looking to sell.
The school, featured in the 2005 documentary “The Boys From Baraka,” had housed an immersion program for troubled 12-year-old boys from Baltimore schools.
“The program was really working. A lot of the boys flourished,” Jason Doherty said. “But once the ‘war on terror’ got going, travel became much harder, and the school’s insurance went through the roof. They had to shut down.”
Although the Dohertys eventually hope to house 200 students at Daraja Academy, the school’s first class will include only 25, drawn from three areas. By bringing together girls from many parts of Kenya, the Dohertys and others believe they can lay a foundation for the nation’s future.
“We wanted these girls to not only be educated, but to understand what it is like to be part of other tribes and other regions,” Bessin said. “They can be a stabilizing force economically and politically in a place that has recently had a lot of tribal conflict.”
Daraja Academy will share space at the former Baraka School with MS Kenya, a Danish volunteer organization that will pay for 40 percent of the school’s initial expenses, the Dohertys said.
As heads of the San Rafael-based Carr Educational Foundation, the couple has reached out to friends, neighbors and foundations for other donations. An ongoing holiday fund drive asks donors to contribute whatever they can, from $11 for a backpack to the $3,579 it costs to educate a single student for one year.
Several local schools have contributed to the campaign. In Kentfield, Kent Middle School student Megan Oeschel raised $2,123 for Daraja Academy through a bake sale and information booth at the Woodlands Market.
“It just seemed like it was the right cause to raise money for,” said Oeschel, an eighth-grade student. “Kids in Kenya don’t get an education like we do here.”
As their school begins to take shape and they adjust to living in Africa, the Dohertys plan to keep in touch with family and friends through e-mail, newsletters and an ongoing web log.
In the mean time, the couple is adjusting its expectations.
“We have running water, which is great,” Jenni Doherty said. “And we have a generator in place, so we’ll have two hours of electricity each night.”
For more information on the Daraja Academy, visit www.daraja-academy.org
Contact Rob Rogers via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org