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Making a difference in Malawi, one wooden desk at a time

I started the KIND Fund when MSNBC launched The Last Word in 2010 because I wanted the show to be more than just talk.
KIND Fund 2017
KIND Fund 2017

I started the KIND Fund when MSNBC launched The Last Word in 2010 because I wanted the show to be more than just talk.  I wanted to do something good, something important that I could not do without the show.   I decided to bring the story of life in African schools to my audience and offer MSNBC viewers a chance to help.

On my first trip to Malawi in 2010, I was on my own.  I shot video of kids sitting on the floor in elementary schools.  I didn’t see a single desk in any of the schools I visited. There were no desks for sale anywhere, no school supplies stores.  In the capital city of Lilongwe, I found a hardware store where the owner, Moshin Mussa, had built one school desk with an attached bench in the hope that a school might someday order some desks.  In just 48 hours, Moshin was able to hire a crew of carpenters and welders and make 30 desks, enough for one classroom.  I paid for those desks with the cash in my pocket.  When Moshin delivered those desks to a nearby school, it was like Christmas morning for the kids who had never seen desks.

Those kids don’t have any toys. Most of them don’t have shoes. Many of them have only one outfit that they wear every day.  They have no possessions. But they immediately took possession of those desks as soon as the truck arrived to deliver them. Moshin sent several men with the truck to unload the desks and carry them into the classroom, but the kids grabbed each of the desks as they were lowered off the truck and carried them into their classrooms themselves. The kids arranged the desks in perfectly aligned rows and then took their places at those desks in the exact spot where each of them had been sitting on the floor. They spontaneously burst into group songs which is how everyone in Malawi expresses sudden, collective happiness.

The desks gave the teacher a clear line of sight of all of her students for the first time. And it gave the students a real surface on which to write. No more putting their papers on the back of the student in front of them or on the dirty floor while trying to write smoothly. For the students, the classroom instantly became more comfortable, more fun, and a more serious place of learning.

When I told this story to The Last Word audience, I expected some of them would share my impulse to help. That meant I had to set up a system that could accept any generosity the audience might show for Kids In Need of Desks. I created a partnership between MSNBC and UNICEF because UNICEF has a very strong presence in Malawi and could supervise desk production and delivery on a daily basis. UNICEF already had a system ready to handle contributions. I was hoping that we might raise enough money to deliver desks to the rest of the classrooms at that first school where we provided desks for that first classroom. Our audience did much more than that. In the first year of the KIND Fund, The Last Word audience contributed $2,413,999.  As of today, they have contributed $14,435,469.

In 2012, we expanded the KIND Fund to include scholarships for girls to attend high school. Like most African countries, public elementary school is free but high school is not free. Girls have a much more difficult struggle attending high school and staying in high school. When a family can afford only one tuition, they are likely to send a son to high school instead of a daughter. The high school graduation rate for boys is double the graduation rate for girls.  I’ve met some truly remarkable girls in Malawi who have ambitions to be nurses, teachers, doctors, journalists and lawyers who would not be in school today without the support of the KIND Fund.

The desks we have already delivered to schools in Malawi will be used by a million students, but most students in Malawi still have no desks. We have a long way to go.

Thousands of Last Word viewers repeatedly contribute desks and tuition every year in the names of people on their holiday gift lists. The KIND Fund has become a holiday season tradition for Last Word viewers thanks to the generous commitment of the MSNBC audience.