Evelyne Keomian and Her Foundation are Transforming the Lives of Women and Children in West Africa and Beyond
Growing up in abject poverty in Ivory Coast, West Africa, Evelyne Keomian knew firsthand the hardship of going hungry and being unable to attend school. Even when there was little to eat, her mother would share with those who had even less. This greater level of compassion left an indelible impression on Evelyne and continues to shape her worldview to this day. Currently living in Palo Alto, California, she is still considered to be a low-income single mother by US standards. Even so, she founded the Karat School Project with the funds she had available. Her mission is to give children in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Ivory Coast, particularly girls, the opportunity to receive a quality education and make a better life. Through the KSP, Evelyne has impacted the lives of over 10,000 young girls, single mothers and widows, through the distribution of education supply kits here in the United States and through clean water pump installations, women’s health screenings and COVID-19 testing and prevention in the Ivory Coast.
Give us a flavor of what your childhood growing up in the Ivory Coast was like. How was your childhood different from a typical childhood in the United States?
It wasn’t a typical childhood even for the Ivory Coast itself, and it was really different than growing up in the United States. I’m the youngest of seven children. I have five sisters and a brother, so being the youngest one, I felt like my sisters had already made all the mistakes that confirm those traditional beliefs of what the girl should be: she’s going to get pregnant early, she’s going to get married, so there’s no need to educate her.
In our household, only my dad worked, and he was a vet so he wasn’t really making much and my mom took care of the kids. We planted a lot in the backyard to help with food. We often ate one meal a day. Even with that, my mom was always so giving. She would give our food away to those who lived nearby who didn’t have food at all. I remember often having this conversation: I would go out and play and when I came back, there would be no food left. I’d say, “Hey mom, you cooked today what’s going on?” And she would say, “Well this kid came, and he was hungry, so I gave him your food.” I would look at her and say, “Well, you gave my food away, so now I’m the starving child.” Nevertheless, it was a fun childhood. We had all sorts of trees in the backyard. Climbing mango and papaya trees on a daily basis are really fun memories. We had a farm and every weekend, we would go to the farm 6 km away. We would walk there and back to help with the chickens and growing food to keep extra income coming in. That was my childhood.
What were a few of the biggest challenges you and your family faced due to poverty?
The biggest challenge we had was having to pick what was the most pressing need of the day. If it was time to buy something and we needed to eat, the choice was between are we going to eat or are we going to buy this thing? We got one new outfit every New Year’s and that was what we would wear on Sundays throughout the year.
How did it feel when you saw siblings and other kids around you receiving an education when you were not able to attend?
Seeing other people around go to school was very bizarre to me, especially because the area we lived in, there were poorer people than us. Boys would go to school and girls helped their mom in the kitchen and with cleaning. Even in our household, when my parents could send somebody to school, we had male cousins who would take over the house and go to school. My sisters and I had to fight our way through school for the most part. It was really bizarre that these boys could go to school whenever they wanted. If dad could afford one book, he would buy the book for the boy over the girls.
When did you realize education was the key to creating a better future for yourself?
I remember my mom was able to read one book to me, and she barely read through it. It was like three syllables. I remember saying I wanted to read more with her, and she would say I don’t know how to read anything else but this one book. I was probably four years old, not even school age, but I remember thinking, if I don’t know how to read and write, I won’t be able to read to my kids. We had a bookshelf in the house where my dad had all these books, and I remember looking at them and thinking that I wanted to be able to read them. Eventually, I would see people in town who had cars and things that we didn’t have, and it became really clear to me how these people talked and were able to write things. My dad went to school and was able to write things that my mom couldn’t, so it became very apparent to me early on that knowing how to read puts you at a somewhat higher level in society then I was being offered.
How did life change for you when you had your child?
Getting pregnant at sixteen definitely was not the easiest thing, but it resulted in one of the most amazing human beings I think I have ever seen in my life. This kid is so wonderful, but it definitely changes your life, especially when you have fought as hard as I did to be able to go to school. The first time I had to take the exam to enter high school, I needed a new birth certificate, and my dad wouldn’t get it so I flopped. The next year I got myself into a different school. I wasn’t going home between 12-2 p.m. for lunch because I stayed in the classroom to study to pass the exam and get to the next level. The next thing that happened to me after passing was I got pregnant. I lived right by the high school so I would see my friends and the people I knew from town walk by and go to school, and I couldn’t because I was pregnant. That was a trying time for me, and it made it hard to even be excited. But as soon as I had my baby, I went back to school. I just couldn’t let the dream of knowing how to read and getting a better life just slip by me. I would look at this precious little thing, my baby, and think about his life. I didn’t want the restrictions of what I experienced to be perpetuated with my son. He’s a new generation. So having a baby did give me a push.
Did you have a support system as a teen mom in the Ivory Coast?
In Africa, we say it takes a village so my baby was the village’s kid. I could get up and leave. In the United States, I can’t just get up and leave. You have to get a babysitter and make sure someone is there. Back in Ivory Coast, I went to night school. I would just leave my kid and go to school because I knew my sister would take care of him. My mom would take care of him. There was always someone constantly there. If anyone was bathing and he needed a bath, he would get a bath. If anyone was eating and he was hungry, someone would feed him. The village system was really very helpful.
Why did you migrate to the United States, and what impact has the move had on you and your child’s life?
Like everybody else who lives far away from the US, you see images in the movies, and I thought, okay this is where I want to go. So I worked my way through the migration process and the moment I got here, I applied and became legal to stay here and brought my son, and I went back to school. It definitely had a positive impact on my son and me because I now have a Bachelor’s Degree, and my son is going to school and thinking about going to law school. It’s two lives changed, and we’re looking to change more lives.
What was it like for you to become a college student in the United States?
I was working and staying with a family in Palo Alto, and they asked me, what are your dreams for being here? I told them that I wanted to go back to school and wanted to work with children as a professional, while also learning how to speak and write English proficiently. I remember saying, “I don’t think that’s possible because now I’m too old,” and the wife looked at me and said, “No, you can go to school at any age here in the United States.” She got me Foothill College and DeAnza College catalogs in the mail. So I started taking classes, learning and building a path. It was really hard because my son eventually came, and I was a single mother, working long weeks, caring for my son and going to school at night. New challenges were born, but the potential I had to go to school, earn a degree and make something of myself was definitely a driving force.
How did you come up with the idea for the Karat School Project and when did you found the program?
It has always been in my heart to own a school. The Karat School Project (KSP), is a school where all of the obstacles I faced are taken out. If the kids don’t have to pay for school, then the parents don’t have to say I can’t put you in school because I can’t afford it. Kids are given uniforms and don’t have to worry about that. I remember wearing my sister’s old uniform, the whole back of it was torn out. I would have to tie a shirt around my waist to cover the back. I thought, one day I’m going to make sure that every child, every girl, can get to school. And so when it came time to do something meaningful in my life, I thought about what really made a difference for me, and that’s how the Karat School Project started. It was really a leap of faith because I didn’t have the money sitting there. I knew I had it in me and I knew these kids needed me, so I started. I said I’m going to start from somewhere and I’m going to build it up and we are going to see what it becomes.
What is the mission of KSP?
At KSP, our mission is to provide education to children and women who live in extreme poverty as a way to help break the cycle of poverty. We’ve created a school that hosts programs providing full-time education, skills-based learning, and programs for women. Women and children can
come in and receive an education. A nine-year-old who has never been to school can come in, learn to read and write and learn other skills too. We garden, we cook, we bake, we’re actively teaching the skills you need every day.
For the mothers, we do health education, some financial programs, and we’re helping them become self-sufficient because they are the providers for their families. We’re looking at solving poverty from a holistic point of view at the family level because that’s how it will be sustainable. We provide access to education in Ivory Coast and make the education experience really practical. This approach helps children to find a love of learning because they’re doing rather than sitting on a hard chair with a blackboard in front of them and somebody telling them what’s true and what’s not. We’re giving them the possibility to learn by doing and giving them the ability to think critically.
How can our readers support KSP?
We need skilled board members to help create programs and who can actively help fundraise to make sure these programs get implemented. We need people who are going to be our supporters. They can sign up to donate on our website (theksp.org) by setting up a recurring gift or whatever is affordable to each person, so these kids can keep being fed everyday and these women can find programs to enhance their lives and give them a better future for their families.
What programs or services do you offer women in your hometown?
Socially, we’ve had events like cervical cancer screening where we had 150 women come to learn about it, how to help ourselves, and how to get tested. These are things we can do in the community to bring some progress to the mindset of the people. We’ve also installed water pumps that now allow 5,000 people to go to a water source for clean water.
Can you share any success stories about women you’ve been able to assist?
One of the greatest success stories I have is of a woman who came to a training we did on how to make a local yogurt-based drink. Taking that knowledge, the woman created her own business where I was her first funding partner. Today she’s grown her business, and she’s hired four young single mothers who are working and bringing in income and providing for their families. This is the model we want to follow, where we provide training and seed money to allow women to create business and to sow into their families and communities. This is the backbone of the KSP.
Why is it important for you to give back to your community in West Africa and right here in the Bay Area?
We really look forward to enhancing more and more lives, not just in the Ivory Coast but beyond. I live here in the Bay Area and we have this crisis now that is attacking our health, our economy and our education. All kids are being asked to stay home. There’s poverty everywhere. Even here in the Bay Area, there are children who don’t have access to computers or tablets. How can we keep those kids educated so that when they go back to school, they aren’t falling behind? This is something that can be done locally, so I took on this initiative with my organization to distribute educational kits to these kids. These kids are now home and no longer have access to meals and lunches at school. We’re including gift cards so they can get food to eat. Community is everything. If you look into your community, there’s so much that can be done. We can all make an impact. Here, I can see what my community needs and back in Africa; I can see what my community needs, and I’m able to make an impact. It doesn’t have to be scalable or the biggest thing. I’ve done it, I’ve seen the smile on peoples’ faces. I walked to a trailer home on El Camino and this 14-year-old sees me, and it’s as if it’s Christmas. He’s happy and he calls to his mom, “She’s here, she’s here!” He knows there’s a book in the bag I brought for him to read, a gift card to allow him to eat, diapers for his baby sister, and that brings him joy.
What pivot have you made to your philanthropy efforts due to COVID-19?
Back in Africa, we’re telling people who don’t have running water that they need to wash their hands for twenty seconds often throughout the day. How do we solve that? We’re installing hand washing stations. There’s no place to go buy masks, so we have someone making them and we’re delivering them with hand sanitizer.
We’ve had to figure out how to educate children who don’t have internet or computers, and whose parents are illiterate. So we’ve found really creative ways to deliver education through the phone, and apps and little video clips. We’ve done a really good job with the progress of education. Again, we are making sure people have what they need from education to meals, to urgently needed necessities both here in the Bay Area and back in Ivory Coast and we’ve even touched Guinea as well. We need your help to be able to keep going, to be able to provide these things to children and families that are in need.
You can read this article in our Summer 2020 issue