Jermoh Kamara was born in Liberia and came to Worcester with her parents at the age of 11. Now she’s founder and CEO of The HVK Children’s Foundation. While the foundation is struggling to raise money, she is grateful for the help from local professors and students.
HVK Children’s Foundation, with an office in Paynesville City, Liberia, “is a social enterprise nonprofit that works in West Africa, Liberia. It commemorates [Ms. Kamara’s] passion for education, health, and serving disenfranchised children and families to fight generational poverty through education. [Its] individual to community-level services prevent diseases, feed, clothe, stimulate behavior change, build capacity, educate and enable Liberians to achieve economic self-sufficiency,” according to LinkedIn.
Ms. Kamara attended high school in Worcester and went to college in Rhode Island. As she explained in a Feb. 10 interview, “In my junior year at South High, I took a trip to Providence College for the first time because I was in the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program and my teacher at the time, Dr. Magdalena Ganias, graduated from Providence College. … I received a scholarship and graduated as one of the top students of my senior class.”
She majored in health policy and management there, and in her junior year studied abroad in Ghana under the guidance of a faculty member, physics professor Stephen Mecca, who brought Providence College students there “to work on systems thinking and design health and education projects.” She earned a master’s degree in public and global health from New York Medical College in May 2018.
Mr. Mecca, who died in 2018, helped Ms. Kamara win her first public health grant. As she said, “I wrote the grant to support the health/sanitation program I was involved with under the supervision of Dr. Mecca in Ghana. I wanted to implement a pilot of the same project but in Liberia. I did not get the grant,” she said.
She learned from that setback. “I learned the politics of why I did not get it, and I did receive positive feedback from the organization. Months later, Dr. Mecca helped me land a small grant worth $5,000 from the Rotary Club of Foxboro, Massachusetts. This enabled me to pilot a revolving microloan sanitation initiative for individuals and families needing sanitary latrines in Liberia,” she said.
The idea for HVK Children’s Foundation was in her mind for years. As she said, “Even before studying abroad, I used to collect school supplies and reading books for students in Liberia. But in October 2016, HVK Children’s Foundation gained its nonprofit status and in 2018, we gained our 501(c)(3). I named the organization Hawah Vainga Kamara (HVK) after my deceased aunt and Children’s Foundation because that’s the population I am passionate about.”
Ms. Kamara sees a tremendous amount of need in Liberia.
“A staggering portion of the country’s population is battling poverty, health services and lack of education opportunities. Liberia has a young population, more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25. Fewer than 40 percent of children graduate from primary school, and in 2016, two-thirds of primary school age children were not going to school. Literacy rates are low in Liberia, about 47.6 percent of those ages 15 and over cannot read and write.”
The Liberian political system makes it more difficult to solve these problems.
“It is not easy navigating and working with the [Liberian] political system and leaders. Most of the leaders are there for what they can get rather than how they can help organizations or businesses build infrastructure. In 2019, Liberia does not have a competent and effective electricity system, and sanitation, drinking water, and basic road networks are lacking,” she said.
HVK Children’s Foundation works with partners to achieve its mission.
“As a nonprofit organization, customers choose us because they know that we really care about what we do. HVK Children’s Foundation is also run by millennials who are Liberian natives so we can relate with our partners. … The truth is that poverty is everywhere in this world, including right here in Worcester. … We share encouraging stories during our teacher training to dispel myths and to encourage Liberians to thrive,” she said.
HVK Children’s Foundation operates an education program and is seeking to expand. As she explained, “We launched our education program, Lab-in-a-Box and we have implemented this program with two partner schools. We are reaching 1,033 students and have trained 11 teachers from the two schools. However, we are signed to work with an additional four primary schools based in Monrovia, Liberia — the capital. We need funding and more people to help us meet our goal for the four schools this 2019/2020 year. Furthermore, we have one staff and shared office space in Liberia.”
She has scrambled to raise funding. “To date, we have raised not more than $20,000 from monetary and in-kind donations. We have hosted two annual fundraisers here in Worcester since 2016, have raised money through GoFundMe and received personal donations from individuals and the Life in the Word church based in the Liberian Community,” she said.
Being in Worcester has its advantages and disadvantages. As she explained, “I’ve met professors from WPI, Clark, Becker and Holy Cross who are already working in international development, but as an outsider, you would not know until you knock on the right doors. … [I appreciate] the support from professors already engaged in this work, and students who are also passionate to learn [about and work] with our organization once we establish an office here in Worcester.”