By Steve Nakata, Division of Student Affairs

PULLMAN, Wash. – The Panhellenic Council at Washington State University will help build a school in Malawi during spring break. It is the largest philanthropy project in the organization’s history.

The Panhellenic Council is the governing body for the campus’ 14 National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) sorority chapters.

In partnership with the national nonprofit organizations Circle of Sisterhood and BuildOn, the Panhellenic Council has pledged to raise up to $47,000 for the school and plans to send about 15 of its members to Malawi in March to construct a portion of the school’s foundation.

The idea for building the school surfaced in January when the Council searched for a good project to support. Members discussed doing something similar to a mission trip when Megan Harre, assistant director for the Center for Fraternity and Sorority Life, noted that the council’s existing philanthropy, the Circle of Sisterhood, has a well-established school build program called Ambassador Trek.

“There are such passionate and caring women on the Council, and I knew this kind of project would be right up their ally,” Harre said.

Panhellenic President Anna McLeod said the idea of building a school in an impoverished country resonated with the entire sorority community, and they immediately set out to make it happen.

“This is a great opportunity for our community to come together towards a common goal and accomplish something that’s much bigger than ourselves,” said McLeod. “I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true.”

Helping on a global scale

Circle of Sisterhood used its own money to fund its first school-build in 2013. It recruited a team of volunteers drawing from sororities around the nation. Sue Kraft Fussel, grants team lead for the organization, said the experience was life changing for those women, who began to tell their story when they got home.

Today Circle of Sisterhood coordinates five to six school-builds a year and expects to complete its twenty-second project by the end of this year. Schools have been built in Malawi, Senegal, Haiti, Nepal and Nicaragua. Now sororities and other groups across the country are asking Circle of Sisterhood how they can get involved.

“What we are doing as an organization is leading a humanitarian effort on a global scale that complements very well what sororities are already doing domestically,” Kraft Fussel said. “It transcends all of our (Greek) letters and helps to unify the community.”

Extreme poverty

McLeod and Toop chose to build a school in the African country of Malawi in part because the weather there is more suitable for outdoor projects in March, when they plan to visit. Demri Toop, Panhellenic vice president for scholarship and service, said they also chose Malawi because of its extreme poverty and limited opportunities for girls to be educated.

Statistics compiled by Circle of Sisterhood and BuildOn reveal 53 percent of Malawi’s population, with a median age of 17, live below the poverty line. The country ranks ninth in the world for cases of HIV/AIDS, and people there generally don’t live past their early 50’s.

The sobering statistics remind Toop that she and her sorority sisters live a privileged life in many ways and are very fortunate to have the opportunity to earn a college education. “This project is a good way to use our privilege of being educated women in a very privileged society to help make a difference for girls who don’t have the same opportunities as us.”

Malawi children in front of thatched roof building.
The school that WSU’s Panhellenic Council will help build will provide children with a place to learn protected from the outside elements.

Not a vacation

The nonprofit organizations have made it clear to the Council that the volunteers who make the trip to Malawi will not be going on a vacation. Each person will be expected to work up to four hours a day digging the school’s foundation, mixing cement, making bricks, clearing land, sifting sand, carrying rocks, cutting rebar and leveling the interior floor of the school.

The school will measure about 1,350 square-feet and consist of two classrooms. Once the women complete the building’s foundation, BuildOn will work with the local community to complete construction. It typically takes about 14 weeks.

It will not be all work and no play, however. The program factors in a lot of opportunities for the women to immerse themselves in Malawi culture. Each of them will live with a host family, eat local dishes and attend educational workshops organized by the villagers.

The homes are typically small with dirt floors and earthen, brick or wood walls. There is no electricity or running water. McLeod and Toop have been told they are likely to sleep on a cot, hammock, mat or bed. There will probably be chickens, cats and dogs walking freely in and out of the house.

The workshops could consist of activities with the village leaders, the midwife, the schoolteacher or a visit to the local market, listening to local music or attending a community event.

“Being able to meet the people you are impacting is an important part of the process,” said Toop. “Seeing the young girls there and knowing they are the ones you worked so hard raising money for, will be awesome.”

Fundraising in high gear

Before raising the school, Panhellenic members must first raise the funds to build it. The cost to build one school is no small amount for busy college students to collect. Also, each person making the trip will pay an additional $900 to cover their travel, insurance and other expenses.

Panhellenic members have created a number of fundraisers to cover the cost of the school’s construction. Last spring they partnered with a local business to bring a food truck to Ruby Street Park and later sold pizza slices on campus. A couple of other fundraisers are planned for this month including selling cupcakes to commemorate Circle of Sisterhood’s birthday and Halloween-grams to celebrate International Day of Girls. They are also making plans to host a basketball tournament later in the fall. Fundraising has gone well, and they expect to reach and exceed the pledged amount by the end of December.

Harre has never seen anything like it. “Even though not everyone will be able to go to Malawi, they have all rallied around each other and have been so giving of their time and energy,” she said. “I’m really proud of them.”

Harre shared the Panhellenic Council from the University of Washington also decided to build a school, and the councils from both institutions are now in a friendly competition to see who can raise more money for their school project.