By Sister Diane Zigo, CSJ | Special to the Catholic Sun

In 2011, after an unflagging fund-raising campaign supported by many in Central N.Y., South Sudanese former “Lost Boy” and Le Moyne College alumnus Gabriel Bol Deng realized his dream of building a primary school in his home village of Ariang.

Five hundred youngsters began receiving a formal education in a school zealously constructed by the men and women of the community. Several wells were also drilled to provide safe drinking water to six surrounding villages, significantly reducing the water-borne diseases that plagued the region.

Seven years later, Ariang Primary School remains a source of hope and security. Despite the pressing challenges facing this vulnerable nation, the school continues to grow and to expand its mission of holistic empowerment of the community.

I recently spoke with Liz Deng, Gabriel’s wife, who serves as the Executive Director of the HOPE for Ariang Foundation established by Gabriel in 2006.

The Dengs and their children have relocated to Nairobi, Kenya. Gabriel is currently an Executive Administrative Assistant in the Office of the President of South Sudan, “wearing 1,000 different hats each day,” according to Liz, but he continues to engage in ongoing fund-raising to ensure the success of the school.

Liz manages many of the organizational aspects of HOPE.

The student population has grown from 500 to 1,300, with almost equal numbers of boys and girls, and a staff of 21 dedicated teachers.

Liz attributes this growth to the direct support of HOPE. “In order to access quality education,” Liz explains, “children need certain basic materials and tools to be successful. This year, HOPE distributed 675 uniforms, 650 pairs of shoes, over 1,000 school supplies, 5 bicycles for teachers living at a distance, sports equipment, and math sets.” Students receive a daily lunch through the World Food Program.

The Dengs have also established an Educators Empowerment Program in partnership with Dignitas, an educational non-profit.

Six Ariang teachers have completed two training summits which included lesson planning skills, active learning strategies, and assessment techniques. Liz, an experienced educator, also regularly visits Ariang to coach teachers, provide professional observations and feedback, and support reflective practice.

Liz notes with pride, “Since the beginning of the program, we have seen tremendous growth in these teachers, and their classrooms are engaging students in significantly new ways. It’s a joy to watch a classroom of as many as 400 children totally absorbed in their instruction!”

A new Scholars Empowerment Program now assists qualified students in pursuing secondary education. Secondary school in South Sudan costs $200-400 per year, impossible for most families.

Although many Ariang students begin secondary school, paying their fees through manual labor or the sale of a family cow, many must discontinue their studies due to finances. Girls face even greater obstacles within a culture that prioritizes early marriage and child-bearing. Secondary schools are also distant from the village, so students must commute or board.  HOPE’s scholarship support helps students attend local or private day schools and private boarding schools for girls.

Liz recognizes that news coming from South Sudan is often discouraging, but she adds, “What the news doesn’t show is that South Sudanese citizens continue to hold onto hope in the midst of suffering, injustice, and extreme poverty. A new governmental power sharing agreement was signed last summer, and things are currently more stable and peaceful. When I talk to community elders, they tell me about the hope they have that their children will be educated, something they didn’t get an opportunity to have.”

More information about the achievements and vision of HOPE can be found at the HOPE for Ariang website, hopeforariang.org. Contributions to support this work (payable to HOPE for Ariang Foundation) may be made via the website or by mail to: HOPE for Ariang Foundation, P.O. Box 15327, Syracuse, N.Y. 13215. Gabriel plans to visit the U.S. in the spring for fund-raising engagements and may be contacted through the website to explore booking opportunities.

Sister Diane Zigo, CSJ, a faculty member in the Education Department at Le Moyne College.