Bristol family's foundation makes international impact

BRISTOL — The Wells Mountain Initiative began with a simple act of friendship.

As a 16-year-old student at Mount Abraham Union High School, Jordyn Wells traveled to Ghana in West Africa for a study-abroad program. In the coastal village of Kopeyia, just north of the tropical Atlantic, she met Victoria Ghalley and forged what would become a lifelong friendship.

A few years later, when Wells returned to Ghana to conduct research for her college thesis, Ghalley helped her with interviews and translation. Unlike Wells, however, Ghalley had not been able to continue her own education.

“I thought, ‘This seems unfair,’” Wells said. “While I was going to college Victoria was stuck in a rural village.”

Wells appealed to her parents for help. Carol and Tom Wells agreed to help Ghalley obtain a formal education in her native country, an annual cost of roughly $2,000.

From that moment, Tom Wells, who was already involved with YMCA World Service Programs in Senegal and Haiti, worked tirelessly to create and grow what is now known as the Wells Mountain Initiative, or WMI. Thirteen years and more than 300 scholarships later, Jordyn Wells is managing director of WMI, overseeing an annual budget of $500,000 and changing lives all over the world.

“This is my life’s work,” she said.

WMI helps college undergraduates in developing countries pursue degrees in community-oriented fields and encourages them to be the agents of change in their own communities, nations and the world. Scholars study medicine in Mexico, Ethiopia and Nepal. They study agriculture in Uganda and computer engineering in Pakistan. They also volunteer in their communities for at least 100 hours per year — a WMI requirement. In 2017 WMI scholars completed a total of 16,106 service hours.

After they graduate, more than three-quarters of these scholars find employment in their areas of study.

Anne Marie Louise Ndiaye, from the West African country of Senegal, is one such scholar. After graduating with a degree in business management she saved up to self-fund her graduate studies and earned a master’s degree in project management. Her five-year-plan aims high and reaches out:

“I will be a member of the African Development Bank participating in the design and implementation of development projects with the aim of improving living conditions throughout Africa,” Ndiaye wrote in a recent WMI newsletter.

“Graduate scholars are creating the change they want to see,” Jordyn Wells emphasized. “They’re creating businesses that employ people, and starting NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). They’re creating networks across countries, sharing wisdom and skills and knowledge.”

Nearly 80 percent of WMI graduates go on to support the education of others.

“It’s a tremendous bang for the buck,” said Tom Wells.

Including this year’s class of 58 new scholars, which was announced Aug. 1, WMI has supported a total of 345 scholars from 42 countries.

HEART-WRENCHING STORIES

Choosing those scholars can be difficult, however. In 2017 WMI received more than 1,100 applications but was able to award only 73 scholarships, roughly 6 percent.

Elizabeth Sutton of Middlebury was one of more than a hundred volunteers who reviewed those applications.

“Reading people’s stories can be quite heart-wrenching,” Sutton said. “Sometimes I get applications from people living in refugee camps who happened to hear about WMI through Christian organizations there. One girl was trying to get away because her parents were forcing her to marry a much older man whose land her family hoped to inherit.”

Sutton gets so invested in their stories that she can’t bear to look when WMI announces its scholarship recipients each year.

The Wellses review the most promising applications and make the final decisions.

“Going through those applications, we’re literally crying over the ones we can’t accept,” said Tom Wells.

For some potential scholars, WMI may be their only shot at getting an education.

“Some are down to the choice of selling their last piece of land to fund their final studies to become a doctor,” Carol Wells said. “But if they sell the land they’ll have nothing to farm.”

Fundraising poses the biggest challenge for WMI, the Wellses said.

“We would choose so many more people — 200 or 300 a year — if we had the money,” Tom Wells said. “It’s hard to be my friend or my client,” he added with a laugh. An attorney specializing in areas such as business and commercial law, Wells secured one of WMI’s earliest large gifts from a friend and client, David Bolger.

As word gets out, however, donors continue to step forward.

In 2015, thanks to retired New Jersey pediatrician Mary Clark Romney, WMI launched its Women in White Coats program, which supports female scholars hoping to become doctors or other medical professionals.

WMI has evolved well beyond just awarding scholarships, however, said Jordyn Wells.

THE UGANDA FELLOWSHIP of the Wells Mountain Initiative, a Bristol-based organization, is one of seven national fellowships that provide opportunities for WMI scholars to network, advocate for change, serve their communities and work for a brighter future in their home countries.

Photo supplied

In 2015, WMI held its first Dream Big Conference (DBC) in Nairobi, Kenya. Every three years, scholars past and present receive travel stipends to come together for five days of skills training, workshops and community service projects.

Many of the panelists and workshop leaders are WMI scholars. At the 2018 DBC in Kampala, Uganda, this past summer, Maureen Oduor led workshops on Social Entrepreneur Development. She is a graduate scholar from Kenya who completed a bachelor’s degree in development studies and has worked for more than 10 years to advance opportunities for adolescent girls and young women.

“The energy and enthusiasm of these scholars — they want to change the world,” Carol Wells said. “It makes me feel better about the future of the world.”

WMI has also initiated a micro-grant program, awarding anywhere from $100 to $1,000 to graduate scholars to help them start or significantly expand an initiative of their choice. Since 2015, grant recipients have used a total of $21,475 to provide primary and secondary education programs, vaccination clinics, agricultural empowerment projects and peace and conflict-resolution programs.

Scholars also develop ideas for how WMI can be more effective.

In 2019, in Nairobi, Kenya, WMI will host its first “Academy.” During three weeks of intensive capacity-building courses in community-based and nongovernment organization enterprise development, graduate scholars will enhance their professional skills training, network and gain tools to launch or enhance their professional careers.

“The Academy was an idea that came out of feedback from our scholars,” Jordyn Wells said. “They told us, ‘We want more in-depth training in business and nonprofits.’”

Scholar by scholar, the Wells Mountain Initiative provides hope and changes lives.

“You have lit and given me a candle that I should not only keep burning, but use it to brighten the way to my future,” Harriet Akello told WMI.

The sixth of eight children in a family struggling to procure sufficient food, Akello grew up in a displaced persons camp in the war zone during the time of the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. She aspires to work to strengthen her country’s agricultural infrastructure and food security.

“I will do my best throughout my studies, so that I can use the knowledge and skills gained to create change that I want to see in my community, Uganda and beyond.”

For more information about WMI, visit wellsmountaininitiative.org.

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.


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