(Brooks Newmark at Umbano Primary School in Rwanda, a school that was built by Brooks' organization, A Partner in Education.)
When Brooks Newmark embarked on the very first Project Umubano trip to Kigali, Rwanda in 2007, he could never have anticipated the positive impact the journey would have on the next decade of his life.
The initial trip was organised by the Conservative party and brought together forty-three uniquely-qualified volunteers, each with their own specialties and experiences to share. All aimed to do what they could to share their professional expertise with their Rwandan hosts and increase access to the skills and resources needed to cultivate positive growth in the Kigali community.
Over the span of a few short days, the trip planted the first seeds of international partnerships in fields ranging from education to health to the private sector. Within the next few years, the number of volunteers burgeoned from a few dozen to well over a hundred, and the programme’s impact grew accordingly. Within five years, the group had refurbished a local school, began a youth football coaching programme, and launched a rural health clinic that would provide quality healthcare services to those who lacked easy access to medical care.
For Brooks, there was little more engaging than sparking positive change and seeing the good that Umubano project created firsthand; as one volunteer put it in a retrospective article on the project: “It is an experience that keeps people coming back every year to do more. I know for many of the old hands, there’s a sense of home when they arrive in Kigali.”
But for Brooks Newmark, nothing was so impactful as the school.
As a member of the first cohort of Umubano volunteers, Newmark had a hand in refurbishing the Girubuntu primary school for local children. The project was initially launched as a way to provide a better educational experience for eager young students — Newmark, however, had a more complex dream in mind. Inspired by the programme's work in Kigari, Brooks Newmark connected with fellow philanthropist Kitty Llewellyn; together, the two launched A Partner in Education, a charity dedicated to implementing high-quality education initiatives in Rwanda.
The pair's vision was ambitious. For Newmark and Llewellyn, it wasn't enough to merely polish a school; they wanted to create an educational space that could serve as a model of excellence, one that would both provide high-quality, inclusive education to children and offer supportive training environment for teachers. After years of work, Newmark and Llewellyn officially opened Girubuntu Primary School's doors to eager students, parents, and teachers. Rwandan president Paul Kagame attended the opening ceremony in 2011 and remarked that Girubuntu Primary School was not just an academic institution, but "a symbol of something much bigger — the strong relationship that exists between the people and the government of Rwanda and those of the UK."
Accomplishment aside, APIE was not ready to rest on its laurels. Newmark knew that the school could not support all of the students who wanted to attend, and so insisted on expanding the premises enough to accommodate all interested students comfortably. Once construction concluded in 2013, Girubuntu reopened as the Umubano Primary School — just in time to welcome a new class of 115 students and 13 teachers.
Over the next few years, the school grew into its potential as a model for academic excellence. Working hand-in-hand with APIE, administrators at Umubano Primary School developed an advanced teacher training strategy and forged partnerships with local, national, and international players who could provide expertise and practical support to local teachers. By 2016, the school had established a scholarship programme which would provide financial assistance to up to 30 children who might not otherwise be able to afford their education.
By 2016, the school had 242 enrolled pupils and had been formally recognised by the government as an exemplary educational centre; a year later, APIE had begun construction on a community centre to serve as a central hub for ICT, sports, and the arts. Looking ahead, APIE hopes that the school will become so self-sufficient as to enable APIE to scale back into the role of a supportive partner rather than that of a directing force.
Brooks Newmark remains on the Board of Trustees for APIE to this day and he has little doubt that APIE’s potential to enact positive change in Rwanda will continue to grow.
Growing up is hard enough when you don't need to worry about finding a place to shelter for the night. For young people without a stable home to fall back on for support and security, the experiences that other youths take for granted can seem painfully out of reach; without a permanent address, attending school becomes problematic - obtaining a job, nearly impossible. Fulfilling basic needs for food, clothing, and places to weather the night can be stressful enough as to drive young people into making risky choices in the slim hopes of finding warmth and sustenance.
Understanding the Problem
The issue we face today is significant. According to Centrepoint's Youth Homeless Database, well over 86,000 young people approach their local council for housing aid every year. Youth homelessness is a real and present problem in the UK today - and right now, we don't have the structures we need in place to resolve it.
Youth leave their homes for a myriad of reasons. Some move to escape domestic abuse or familial breakdown, while others hope that independence will help them break out of poverty or gain a better handle on their mental health conditions. Unfortunately, however, sleeping rough usually only worsens these concerns and leads to a decline in a person's psychological and physical health. A young person on the streets has no support system to help them deal with the constant dangers of street life, and no way to alleviate the anxiety that comes part and parcel with sleeping rough.
Moreover, most youth-centred policies in the UK operate on the assumption that young people will receive some financial support from their parents or guardians. As such, there is limited public programming for those under the age of twenty-five; even the national living wage is out of reach for those under the age cap. The current minimum wage for those between the ages of 21 and 24 comes to £7.38. For those under 18, this rate drops to £4.20; apprentices earn a mere £3.70 every hour. These rates aren't nearly enough to cover the monthly cost of rent, bills, and food. Ironically, the young people who strike out on their own to find a better, safer life have fewer resources and assistance options than the guardians they left might have had in their position.
Creating Holistic Solutions
Young people need stability. It isn't enough to place them back in their parents' homes, because shelter alone doesn't guarantee stability - odds are, the child will only run away again. Our aid programmes need to approach the issue of environment head-on by providing families with access to counselling services, offering parents avenues to better their housing or employment options, providing emergency accommodations as needed, and otherwise ensuring that all young people have the means to continue their studies and work with whatever support they might need. Ultimately, our end goal shouldn’t be to force the child back home if the environment isn't healthy, but to create a supportive network that provides them with the guidance and security they need to build a positive future. Resolving the issue is more than a little complex, but it can, ultimately, be done.
Right now, many communities only have reactive policies; that is, policies that can help youth after they have already experienced homelessness. Ideally, prevention strategies would be bridge reactivity and proactivity by empowering social workers to not only help young people find secure housing and prevent recurring homelessness but also identify and intervene in at-risk cases before an individual ever begins sleeping rough. If we can find a way to merge the holistic, long-term solutions described above with in-community aid for at-risk youth, we may stand a chance of battling back the youth homelessness epidemic in the UK.