09/13/2012 04:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Year's Tuition or a Pedicure? How Small Donations Create Big Changes at a Senegalese High School

When Yasmin Diallo Turk, a graduate student at Texas State University and mother of two, made a visit to her husband's high school in Senegal, West Africa she saw a chance to take action on her belief that small efforts can create large changes for the better.

Senegal is a West African nation with one of the most stable democracies in the region. With a population of 12.5 million, 1.8 million live on less than $0.50 per day. In talking to some of the 4,000 students at Lycée Malick Sy High School, Turk found that many current students at her husband's alma mater believe education to be their only chance to escape poverty, help support their families, and contribute to their community. Turk decided she wanted to help increase the students' chance of success, and reduce their most obvious obstacles to an education. She first started helping through donations from friends, and then partnered with the non-profit HOPE Campaign.

One of the first issues Turk addressed was that many students walked many miles to school in the hot sun every day, and yet could not afford to buy a bag of drinking water. She raised money to build a simple drinking fountain. Now all 4,000 students have access to free drinking water. For 2012, HOPE for Senegal set a fundraising goal of $15,000 to meet three crucial initiatives for Lycée Malick Sy High School: scholarships for girls, medical supplies, and a science lab.

Turk found that while the literacy rate in Senegal is 39 percent, it's only 29 percent for women. For many families, education for women is a lower priority than for men, and many families cannot afford the $25 yearly public school tuition to send their daughters to Lycée Malick Sy. So HOPE for Senegal set a goal of providing scholarships for 10 girls. Twenty-two girls were identified as particularly high need and given applications. "In their applications, almost all of them had an awareness of, 'I'm a woman, and here that's not easy," Turk said.

Four of the applicants were legally blind. In one application, a girl named Mariema wrote:

Education is very important to me because I am blind and it is my only chance to not beg (on the street). I want to help my parents and to be able to meet my own needs instead of relying on my parents... I would like to go abroad and study economics, because Senegalese universities cannot accept blind students due to lack of resources."

A girl named Daba wrote:

As a girl, education can help me to be free to choose my future... I can make my life better... I can be an example for other girls of my community... I lost my mother a long time ago and my father is responsible for a family of 16 children, so I do not have help to be successful in my education.

After receiving so many applications, Turk felt torn. HOPE for Senegal had committed to providing 10 scholarships, but each of the 22 applications told the story of a girl working hard to overcome the difficulties of her circumstances. Turk couldn't decide whom to deny. Yet she didn't want to expand the number of scholarships, because she wanted to make sure she could maintain the support from year to year.

Turk posted on Facebook about her dilemma. That's when a female friend called Turk and said she has her nails done each month and that the cost of her manicure-pedicure is the same as the cost of sending a Senegalese girl to high school for a year. The woman told Turk she had decided to skip her mani-pedi one month each year and donate the money to HOPE for Senegal instead. "I thought it was a thoughtful gesture for her to think in very real terms of what that money would mean for her versus what it would mean to one of the high school girls," Turk said.

Others also reached out and covered the additional scholarship costs. As a result, all 22 applicants received a scholarship, which included $25 for a year's tuition, and $25 for personal expenses.

Additionally, while the school nurse provides the only access to medical care for many of the 4,000 students, she had no medicine or supplies. HOPE for Senegal sent over $3,000 in medical supplies this year, including first aid, blood pressure monitors, fever reducer, and antibiotics.

Lycée Malick Sy High School had no real science lab. The teachers taught science by drawing examples of experiments on the chalkboard. Teachers and students expressed a desire for science equipment to "make learning science real." So HOPE for Senegal raised money to build a science lab. They also provided materials for the lab, including 30 digital microscopes, a laptop and projector, as well as 15 solar teaching kits. "We wanted to emphasize solar technology, both because Senegal is equatorial, and because their electricity is sporadic and shuts off regularly," Turk said.

The science lab was named after Turk's husband, Papa Mballo Diallo, who graduated from Lycée Malick Sy in 1995. Diallo currently lives in Texas, with Turk and their two children. He has a master's degree, works at a company he loves, volunteers his time and talents and, Turk said, "is an example to me, and I think anyone who knows him, of true kindness."

Turk continued:

When I went there [to Lycée Malick Sy High School], and I spoke to the students, I felt that every one of them was filled with potential, just like Papa must have been at that age. I think Papa is one of the smartest people that I know and he has overcome so many challenges growing up in a family where not all of his siblings made it beyond elementary school; and his mother is among the 71 percent of Senegalese women who never learned to read. I could see each of those students is overcoming so much, just like he has. Papa is a graduate of LMS, so I hope the students see his name on the science lab and are even more inspired to work for their dreams, look to Papa as an example, and know they too can make a difference.

HOPE for Senegal would like to raise $22,000 before January 2013 to provide 25 scholarships to girls, establish a teacher resource room to give the 136 teachers at LMS the tools they need, and provide ongoing medical supplies to the school nurse.

To learn more about HOPE for Senegal, go to or email Yasmin Diallo Turk.