In April 2011, Melissa’s global impact partner, Zoe Ryan, watched an Inside Africa documentary on CNN about young ballet dancers who dreamed of life beyond the Kenyan slums. It featured award-winning dance instructor Michael (Mike) Wamaya. Mike believes ballet is more than learning dance moves, it’s as much mental as it is physical. He believes it keeps people focused. It prepares them mentally and it trains them how to breathe and have body postures. With Mike’s tutoring and mentorship, he has provided a safe space for children to grow, develop their skills and access opportunities. He combines the teaching of dance skills with social skills, with many other teachers commenting that his ballet classes have also had a positive effect on students’ wider academic work.
After seeing the Inside Africa documentary, Zoe would contact Mike and send him money to pay for the high school education of 10 Kenyan girls. Mike Wamaya went on to found Project Elimu later in June 2017, located in Kibera – the largest slum in Africa. Project Elimu is a non-profit organization that ensures access to quality education for every child living in informal settlements and beyond, through extracurricular activities. They work with children living in informal settlements where we have set up weekly after-school clubs to engage children in different extracurricular activities, including ballet classes.
Mike won the Global Teacher Prize in 2017 for this outstanding work. Two years after its founding, in July 2019, Melissa teamed up with Zoe and designer/contractor, Raquel Albrect, to help finance the re-building of Project Elimu. Melissa funded the purchasing of new televisions, a projector, a new refrigerator and food supplies. Her primary role was to teach separate sexual health classes for boys and girls in primary schools in the slum. For example, when Melissa visited Nairobi, she was shocked that the cost of sanitary products was similar to those in the United States, yet the average wage in the slum is about $1 per day. Melissa interviewed the girls and found out they were using rags, mattress stuffing, and scraps of fabric, but they were not very effective due to skin irritation and most experienced leakage anyway. Although disturbing, it is no surprise that 1 in 10 young women sell sex to pay for quality sanitary pads. So, in November 2019, Project Elimu launched the “Smile Bank Program” in which the young girls of Kibera can earn points for sanitary pads by volunteering and doing good acts in the community.
When she wasn’t engaged in these activities, Melissa was sewing curtains with The Power Women’s group, going through the slums to find materials for use and anything else required by the project team. In March 2019 Project Elimu raised money and distributed food throughout the slum in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it doesn’t stop here for Mike, Zoe, or Melissa. This has sparked another exciting project known as the 21st Century Education in Kibera. Stay tuned! Ultimately, Mike’s encouragement of pride and self-awareness amongst his young students helped turn around dropout rates and teenage pregnancy rates for those attending his ballet classes.
“I teach because I believe that all children should have the opportunity of discovering their strengths. By allowing children the opportunity to learn, discover and develop themselves and their talents, we can change their perception of self-worth and they could become anything they want to be.” – Michael Wamaya, founder of Project Elimu