FORT WAYNE – It was the smile on a thousand faces that made it worthwhile for Jason Daenens.
None of the middle school students knew him, but on that day in October, when Daenens and Rotary Club members traveled to West Africa to see what their club dollars had accomplished, the students had come to offer a thank-you.
New classrooms for a school in a West African country wasn’t a project that Daenens thought he could sell. The Rotary Club of Fort Wayne focuses on funding education projects, but mostly at the local level.
Then in 2010, at an annual Rotary Club fair in Ghana, Daenens learned of the need for school books and supplies in Gléi, Togo, a village of about 13,000 people.
“I brought it back to the club with low expectations, and they went for it,” said Daenens, the club’s vice president.
Rotary International is an organization that provides humanitarian service, encourages high ethics and helps build goodwill in the world. The Fort Wayne group has 130 business, professional and community leaders as members.
Togo, a vertical strip of a country, is bordered on the south by the Gulf of Guinea, with Ghana to the west, Benin to the east and Burkino Faso to the north. Its economy is based on commercial and subsistence farming.
Today, Gléi’s middle school has four new classrooms, with walls where a ramshackle open-air building once stood. The project seemed unlikely from the beginning.
Jane O’Sullivan, a Peace Corps volunteer in Gléi and a member of the Chicago Rotary, was at that 2010 Ghana meeting relaying what the local PTA president told her about needing a school building.
With required education in the country only a decade old, there was no infrastructure for the blooming enrollment, and the village was years away from getting government funding for the school, O’Sullivan said recently by phone.
It seemed an uphill battle. The Peace Corps does not fund construction projects, she said, and neither does Rotary International. It would be up to local Rotary member donations.
By 2011, Daenens had developed a relationship with Rotary clubs in Togo, as well as Rotary Club 1 in Chicago and O’Sullivan. The northern Indiana Rotary district awarded a grant for playground equipment and supplies for the Gléi kindergarten.
In the following two years, the Rotary clubs, together or separately, awarded $8,400 for textbooks for the Gléi middle school.
Then in February, convinced by Daenens of the project’s value, the local Rotary Club made building the new Gléi classrooms part of its centennial observance in 2015. So far the group has committed or spent $12,500, Daenens said. The Chicago Rotary has provided $7,500. Along with free Gléi labor, students received a $50,000 building for about $20,000, he said.
Fort Wayne Rotarians had helped fight polio in developing nations years ago, but this was a huge departure for the group, Daenens said.
It culminated Oct. 22 when those 1,000 students and villagers turned out to welcome Daenens, O’Sullivan and other North American Rotarians attending another West African Rotary fair. It was Daenens’ first time in Gléi.
The village went all out with stilt walkers, singers and dancers to welcome the group. Breaking from French, the official language, students performed skits in English.
Daenens presented a proclamation from Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry that declared Oct. 22 “Children of Gléi Day” in Fort Wayne.
Seeing no doors on the middle school, some of the other Rotarians offered $1,800 to fund them. And the Rotary Club of Lomé-Lumiere, Togo, pledged to build two more classrooms.
With a new school to attend and textbooks to read, school attendance has grown from about 600 to 880, according to the Rotary Club of Fort Wayne.
“The students were incredible,” Daenens said. “That’s one of the biggest takeaways from this project.”
O’Sullivan credits the Fort Wayne Rotary for the project’s success.
“I think Jason and the International Services Committee in Fort Wayne have really done the yeoman’s share of the work in terms of project management and communication and stewarding the funds and making sure everything stays on point,” she said.
“It’s all about humanity,” Daenens said. “To come in friendship and to discuss their needs with them and then go about meeting those needs. There are few things more powerful in life.”