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Originally published Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 12:11 AM

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Garfield freshman's charity begins at school

Jessica Markowitz runs a charity that sends 22 poor girls in Rwanda to school. She has raised nearly $40,000, taken several trips to rural villages there, formed a partnership with a local girls school and worked this past summer teaching Rwandan kids to read in English. She is only 14 years old.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Richard's Rwanda:

www.richardsrwanda.org/

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Jessica Markowitz runs a charity that sends 22 poor girls in Rwanda to school. She has raised nearly $40,000, taken several trips to rural villages there, formed a partnership with a local girls school and worked this past summer teaching Rwandan kids to read in English.

The amazing part is that Markowitz is only 14.

In sixth grade she learned about Rwandan children who had lost their parents to genocide and war and could not afford school.

She felt compelled to help, so she organized some classmates at Seattle Girls School, and they pooled money to support girls in Rwanda, who can attend a year of school for as little as $40.

Three years later, they are still going strong. On Nov. 5, the Garfield High School freshman will receive the 2009 World of Children Founders Award at UNICEF in New York. The award honors people around the world who are creating innovative programs for children in need. With the $15,000 prize, Markowitz plans to help build a library in Rwanda focused on girls.

Her charity, called IMPUWE — the Rwandan word for compassion — is expanding to chapters in five more Seattle high schools. Markowitz says the name also stands for "inspire and motivate powerful, undiscovered women with education."

She originally called the project Richard's Rwanda, after Richard Kananga, a Rwandan aid worker who stayed with her family in Seattle during a U.S. visit and told her about the plight of girls whose parents had died.

With some help from her parents, she started her own youth group focused on charity. Youth Venture, a national organization that encourages young people to solve social problems through entrepreneurship, gave her $1,000 in seed money, and later she won a $10,000 social-change award from retailer Best Buy. Markowitz got about $8,000 at her bat mitzvah and donated it to the project.

Her group is planning to use the funds to continue helping the girls get through high school, expand to help even more girls, build a library and supply it with books.

Perspective on life

Markowitz had some exposure to the continent at a young age — her father is from South Africa and her mother's nonprofit, Youth Ambassadors, does some work there.

But seeing her own life in perspective made the biggest impression, said her mother, Lori Markowitz.

"She said, 'Wow, Mom, I can wake up every day and have breakfast and go to school, and you drive me in a car,' " Lori Markowitz said. "She's just a normal girl who understands, because she's living in this country, she has the ability to go out and make a difference."

Jessica Markowitz says the effort has benefited her and her classmates as much as it has the girls overseas.

"It's definitely going both ways," she said. "It's not just helping girls in Rwanda as a little charity movement, but it's making a difference in the U.S. by teaching us how to give back."

Markowitz looks every inch the typical American girl, grinning in her denim shorts, baseball hat and T-shirt in photos as she hugs Rwandan girls in blue cotton dresses. But when she talks, she reflects wisdom beyond her years.

"One of the biggest things we have to realize is how privileged we are," she said. "Going and seeing the difference of how much we have compared to people in impoverished countries gives you the importance of valuing things. Many kids in the U.S. don't have that realization. Once they do, they want to help out."

Eye-opening visit

Rwanda, a small country in central Africa, is still emerging from the effects of a devastating conflict in 1994, when as many as 1 million people in 100 days were slaughtered in a genocide aimed at wiping out ethnic Tutsis. Most of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and thousands of orphans remain.

Hearing about the genocide hit home for Markowitz, even as a young girl. Her great-uncle survived Auschwitz and told her stories about losing his family during the Holocaust.

"Genocide is a terrible thing to me," she said. "It was kind of hard to take that in. But over the years I have seen how Rwanda is trying to recover so that kind of thing never happens again."

Visiting local families in the rural village was especially eye-opening. "The homes are mud huts, no electricity, no Internet," she said. "A blanket or two on a hard floor with maybe a pot to cook with and a little hole in the floor for the bathroom. Americans could not imagine living that way."

As she rode the public buses, "all these people would look at me like, wow, there is a little white girl in our country. People were just confused and surprised. Then they went along with it and liked to talk with me."

In Kigali, the capital, Markowitz visited a boarding school for girls called FAWE (Forum for African Women Educationalist), and made a friend there. That friendship led to girls from FAWE starting their own chapter of Richard's Rwanda and working with Markowitz on a mentoring program for impoverished girls in Nyamata, a rural part of Rwanda.

"All girls in the boarding school are mentors and big sisters to the ones we are helping in rural villages," she said. "Many of these girls are getting an access to education, they're thinking really big and going to good colleges, even though they're coming from a developing country. They take the education very far in life."

Keeping it going

Last year she met two Rwandan women who came to Seattle to intern at RealNetworks after graduating from a technical college in their home country. Both women are now on the board of the girls' charity.

"What motivates me is the importance of education, the importance of women and the leadership they have in their communities," she said. "When you combine education and women together, it's a great mix."

With the 15 original members of Richard's Rwanda going off to different high schools, they decided to keep their project going by creating chapters at Garfield, Roosevelt, Lakeside, Seattle Prep, Ballard and The Center School. The girls are holding bake sales to raise money for a trip to Rwanda.

Even among young kids with endless distractions, "a really nice thing happens when we tell people what we're doing," she said. "They say, 'I never knew we could do something like that.' They jump in."

The Rwandan girls have started planning how to build a library or learning center tailored to girls' education, housing many books by female authors "to show there are women in all sorts of jobs," Markowitz said. Given a choice, many parents would send sons to school over daughters, but that's starting to change.

"I just think it's really crazy at this age how much you can make a difference," she said. "I guess what's really changed me is just being thankful for everything and never forgetting or giving up, no matter hard it gets sometimes."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

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