Thursday, March 19, 2015

Interview with Atti Worku- How A Former Model Built A Dream School In Ethiopia

Atti Worku, a former computer geek-turned-Miss Universe contestant who graduated cum
laude from Columbia University with a BA in sustainable development, had a dream to help children in her native Ethiopia.

A decade ago Seeds of Africa was merely an idea Worku had to create an educational program in Adama, Ethiopia, and ultimately build what she now calls the Dream School, a school meeting international educational standards for Ethiopian students.

Seeds of Africa Foundation is a community enhancement and development program that seeks to create a sustainable and independent Africa through education, stability and mentoring for gifted, underprivileged youth, so that they may become leaders of change in their continent.

Worku planted the seeds for her dream school back in 2005 by initially starting her organization. By 2008 the program and school was up and running.

The program, which is located in Ethiopia, has its headquartered in New York City, Worku’s home since 2005.

Today, the organization has a school with more than 50 students along with community-based programs for their families, including adult literacy classes, career development counseling, and even a micro-finance program to help women start small businesses.
It has been successful in fundraising, especially in gaining support from the U.S. philanthropic community – including a $1 million grant from the George Soros family, a major philanthropic American family.

AFKInsider had a chat with Worku on what the school is all about and how the program has grown over the years.

Atti ESAFKInsider: How does Seeds of Africa works?

Atti Worku: The mission of the Seeds of Africa Foundation is to educate, motivate and cultivate underprivileged children, young adults and communities through education and community development programs. We achieve our mission through a framework of innovative curriculum and support that exceeds the basic needs of a child and her/his family.

Our approach incorporates working with teachers, families, students and the local community to find local and long-term solutions to fight poverty. Our vision is to create a self-sustaining model for education and community development that can be replicated in other communities in Ethiopia and Africa.

Also, Seeds of Africa champions two major programs. First, Seeding Education offers world-class quality education to children, free of charge. In addition students receive school meals, uniforms, school supplies, and medical support. Second, Seeds immerses itself in the needs of the Adama community through our Sowing Community Program. Through Sowing Community, Seeds works with families to increase their household income and improve their quality of life through adult literacy courses, health education services and access to financial credit.

AFKInsider: Why did you launch the company?

Atti Worku: I launched Seeds of Africa because I believe education is the key tool that communities can use to fight chronic poverty. To achieve this, we  need programs that focus on providing world-class education to children and prepare them to compete in the global market.

AFKInsider: What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?

Atti Worku: My biggest challenge was getting the courage to launch our first program after starting the organization in 2005. It took me three years to build the courage and the only way I was able to overcome this challenge was by starting to tell my idea to anyone who would listen, from friends to colleagues and that helped me recruit our first group of volunteer staff members who were incredibly instrumental in starting our pilot programs.
AFKInsider:  Why was an organization like Seeds of Africa necessary?

Atti Worku: Organizations like Seeds who focus on improving the quality of education and working with the family as a unit are necessary because without such efforts, it will be difficult, if not impossible to fight chronic poverty. In order for children to succeed and communities to come out of poverty, they need targeted programs that look at the family as a unit and provide the necessary interventions that lead to success. These include providing high quality education to children and supplementing the educational programs through family interventions that remove most barriers to success such as lack of healthcare, nutrition, and family income.

AFKInsider: Since you are headquartered in the U.S. do you get a lot of support from Americans?

Atti Worku: Yes we do, we get financial support as we do most of our fundraising in the US. We also receive support in the form of volunteers, interns, and generally people who are contributing their skills to support our programs.

AFKInsider: Does Ethiopia support your effort?

Atti Worku: Yes, we receive support from Ethiopia in terms of facilitating legal and other details for our programs.

AFKInsider: Switching gears from education, how did you get involved with beauty pageants?

Atti Worku: It was almost accidental. I was in college in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and started modeling around the same time. Then I was recruited to do a Miss Addis Ababa Pageant. After that, I competed in two pageants before becoming Miss Ethiopia in 2005. I never thought I would compete in beauty pageants, but I understood the tremendous prestige and opportunity that came out of winning a pageant that could help me launch an educational program that I have always been interested in.

AFKInsider: What was your experience like as a Miss Universe contestant?

Atti Worku: It was an interesting learning experience about how to be present in a group of over 80 women and still have your own identity. I have learned a lot from this experience, and saw some of the most beautiful places in Thailand. At the same time, it was a very stressful experience as you could imagine.

AFKInsider: What are your goals for 2015 for Seeds of Africa?

Atti Worku:
Our main goal for this year is to break ground and start construction on the Dream School. The Dream School will be an Ethiopian academy that meets the highest international standards, preparing our students to succeed in high school, college, and beyond. It will house Seeding Education and Sowing Community programs for 600 students between Pre-K and 12th grade.

AFKInsider: What are your long-term goals?

Atti Worku: Our long-term goals are to expand Seeds of Africa’s work into other communities than Adama, Ethiopia. We plan to do this in the next five years.