Malawian Ernesto Shakazulu is off to college thanks to the support of a couple recent Penn Charter grads.

by Paula M. Riley

Certain acts of kindness can change a life, others can change a country, but only a few can do both.

Recent Penn Charter graduates, Marisa Shepard and Erika Krum, raised $16,800 in their senior project and accomplished both. Because of their dedication and creative fundraising, the two friends raised enough funds to send Ernesto Shakazulu, an orphan from Malawi, to college in the United States – his first step to becoming a neurosurgeon.

A small African country of 16 million people, Malawi has 1.9 physicians for every 100,000 people and just one neurosurgeon who spends half his time in England. Shakazulu plans to be the first neurosurgeon dedicated 100 percent to Malawi.

“Shakazulu’s story was so unlike what we were used to that it struck us deeply,” Shepard said. “By helping Shakazulu reach his dreams, we knew we could help all of Malawi.”

She and Krum heard about Shakazulu from Bruce Main, an inspirational speaker and president of Urban Promise Ministries in Camden, NJ. Each spring, Main visits seniors at Penn Charter before they embark upon their senior project; he challenges the students to use the projects to pursue passions and examine priorities.

As he does each year, Main wove engaging stories of the individuals served by Urban Promise Ministries. Dedicated to equipping children and teens with skills needed for academic achievement, life management, spiritual growth and leadership, Urban Promise Ministries touches the lives of hundreds of impoverished children in Camden, Trenton, Wilmington, Toronto, Vancouver, Uganda, Honduras and Malawi.

Shakazulu’s parents were victims of the Malawi AIDS epidemic, and so Shakazulu was on his own. He slept under buses and robbed people to survive until Urban Promise found him when he was 9 years old. He changed his life, worked hard and was accepted in the pre-med program at Azusa Pacific University in California. The school gave him a partial scholarship but he needed $15,000 more.

As Shepard and Krum listened to Main’s story of Shakazulu, their hearts ached for the boy, who, like them, dreamed of attending college and starting a career. Shepard had recently been accepted at the University of Michigan and Krum was awaiting an answer from Colgate University, where she will attend this fall. They felt incredibly connected to Shakazulu’s college dreams,

“Why had he gotten so far only to have to stop pursuing his dreams”? Shepard asked herself as Main told Shakazulu’s story.

With tears streaming down her face, Shepard walked up to Main after his talk and told him that she and Krum were going to help Shakazulu go to college. The pair had already begun their senior projects – they planned two fundraising events but had yet to find the right charity.

“That was their ‘ah-ha’ moment,” said Pam Shannon, director of Senior Comprehensive Program. “They knew they found what they wanted to do when they heard about Shakazulu.”

At Penn Charter, Krum explained, she was taught that everyone should have the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. Helping Shakazulu attend college was fulfilling the lessons she and Shepard had learned in school.

Shannon admits she initially thought their plans of raising $15,000 were a bit ambitious, but said they were diligent, passionate and never lost focus, adding, “They defied the odds.”

Over the next two months, the seniors planned the parties and pursued donations from local restaurants, salons and businesses.

“Some people were so touched by Shakazulu’s story – they were so generous,” Krum explained. Before long, Shepard said, they had the fundraising down to a science and loved telling people about Shakazulu’s plight.

The pair had hoped 400 would attend the high school dance party, when only 160 kids came and only $1200 was raised, Krum and Marissa knew they had to work harder on the cocktail party.

They created raffle baskets and secured many auction items, including vacation stays, sporting tickets and memorabilia. The duo secured food and drink donations and held the party in a private home. Main attended the party and told the guests more about Shakazulu and Urban Promises. It was a huge success and the total raised was $16,800.

“To raise over $15,000 in just two months for anyone is very impressive,” Main said “And to do so in the waning days of their senior year is amazing. I am so moved by their commitment.”

Krum and Shepard are happy with their success but focusing on what comes next.

“We are already looking for juniors to take this as their senior project next year so Shakazulu can stay in school,” Krum explained.

While the girls were celebrating their graduation, Main went to Malawi and secured Shakazulu’s visa and finalized travel arrangements and other preparations. Shakazulu arrives in California on Aug. 27 to begin his pursuit of becoming a neurosurgeon.

“I am so incredibly grateful,” Main said. “These girls have changed a life – what a legacy that is.”