Nosipho: where promise, perseverance, and dignity meet

Nosipho Photo.jpg
Nosipho Award.jpg

I no longer say I have a dream. I say I have a plan.

In November 2010, Martha T. Cummings, UP Executive Director, traveled to Motherwell Township, South Africa, to visit her friend, Ndumi Tutani, a masterful educator. At one point in the visit, Ndumi singled out Grade 9 student Nosipho (pictured left in 2018) as "someone special," so Martha spoke with Nosipho and encouraged her to work hard and get in touch when she had finished Grade 12 and passed the matric, the requirement for studying at university. Nosipho said, "I promise I will. I promise." Before Martha left, she photographed Ms. Tutani with Nosipho, asked for Nosipho's address, and told her she would send her the photo as a reminder of her "promise." And that was that, right? No.

Three years later, Martha went to her mailbox in the USA one day to find a letter with a return address she did not recognize. It was from Nosipho, who had written to tell Martha that she had worked hard, had taken the matric, and believed she had passed - but she would send her results when they arrived. Days later a second letter appeared with her matric certificate inside. Nosipho was heading to university to study Accounting.

Nosipho soon applied to and was accepted into our Uphuhliso program, which - thanks to her loyal sponsor - has provided her with scores of supplies to assist her at university: anything from pens and paper to a laptop. Each time, without fail, Nosipho was gracious and grateful and assured us that, although the field of Accounting was difficult, she would pass. It turns out, though, that she has not merely passed. In fact, in a recent phone call with UP, Nosipho revealed that the Head of Taxation at University of Fort Hare (Nelson Mandela's alma mater) recently honored her for earning Top Marks in Taxation 3 (left).

During that same phone call, Nosipho also discussed a portion of her Uphuhliso application that read, "When you return from university, what will you do to give back to learners in your high school?" In June 2018, Nosipho visited her old school to meet with Grade 12 learners. "While their university applications had been completed, they did not have any knowledge about how to fund their studies further. So I volunteered myself to help them on anything that they will need."

At the very end of our recent talk, Nosipho said, "I no longer say I have a dream. I say I have a plan." Ahh. Those words warm UP our heart. If you would like to be a part of these efforts and amazing outcomes, please click here to let us know.

Volunteer Karen Cotter keeps it UP from a distance


Universal Promise calls on scores of supporters, both in South Africa and in the United States, to carry out the mission of education for all in Nomathamsanqa, South Africa. At this very moment, staff on two continents are all abuzz collaborating on a kitchen renovation for 750 students as well as the designing, furnishing, and purchasing of materials for four unprecedented spaces in the brand new Academic Centre: a library, science lab, arts studio, and music & dance space.

On top of that, as the infrastructure renovations wind down at Vusumzi Primary School (after a crazily fruitful seven years that brought an impressive range of improvements, from a state-of-the-art computer laboratory to clean water), the professional development focus is ramping UP.

Educator and student mastery of the Internet, hands-on lessons plans, and differentiated learning are taking center stage in the VPS evolution, and we are devoted to supporting the educators and learners 100% as they take on these increasingly creative and rewarding methods. So, to whom did we turn for support as this exciting movement unfolds? Career educator and administrator Karen Cotter!

Karen traveled with UP in March 2017 as a triple threat: an Uphuhliso sponsor, a crafter, and a professional development expert. Based on her impact in 2017, we thought Karen would have a wealth of knowledge, and we were right. In short order, Karen created a VPS Google Sites domain, which highlighted an immediately applicable collection of interactive classroom activities and teacher-support websites. VPS educators have already begun to utilize the site to move outside the classroom to explore the nuances of soil and the qualities of water. Those online resources will only expand in August 2018, as UP volunteers work with VPS educators to add to the VPS Google Site Karen created. In the name of sustainability, that is, in fact, UP's and Karen's wish: that the educators take control of the site and put their thumbprint all over it.

UP offers its sincere thanks to Karen for immediately saying "YES" to our plea and to going beyond the call of duty. Karen has clearly kept the South Africans in her heart, and we are grateful for her ongoing volunteerism, even from thousands of miles away. Now we will turn to her for an Ilizwe Empowerment crafting project. That is the beauty (and danger) of being a triple threat, dear Karen.

Ani Ayvazian-Hancock understands that service never pauses


Ani Ayvazian-Hancock (pictured left with her proud mother) is a junior at St. George's School and was part of the group that volunteered with UP in South Africa in March 2018. While in South Africa, Ani saw for herself that the UP mission of education for all is thriving. All our programs, which respect the local culture by honoring home-based and school-based empowerment, resonated with Ani. This compassionate, determined, young woman inherently and instantly understood the power of sustainability. At the same time, Ani also understood something equally significant: out of respect for those who welcomed us into their world of ubuntu, we must continue to connect with our South African friends long after our return home.

While in South Africa, Ani taught the Ilizwe EmPOWERment crafters how to knit. Within one hour, Ani and all of Ilizwe, including Nothemba, Linduxolo, Nombulelo, and Ntombinzanele, pictured above, were casting on like pros and enlarging the scarves stitch-by-stitch. Two days later, with the scarves completed, Ani taught the group how to cast off, and, because of Ani, Ilizwe crafters had learned yet another skill that will lead them to financial independence. But that was not enough for Ani.

Upon her return to the USA, Ani immediately proposed to the St. George's community that she spend her afternoons knitting products to sell to her teachers and fellow students, with the profits to return to Ilizwe. Then she got to work. Hour-after-hour and day-after-day, Ani demonstrated through her actions and her time that she had not forgotten. Then, on May 18th, Ani presented the fruits of her labors at a school gathering (left), at which she shared memories of her experiences in South Africa and displayed her beautiful creations - colorful and numerous scarves and hats - which sold out in one hour. Ani, in turn, donated the entirety of the proceeds and the unused yarn to the Ilizwe EmPOWERment initiative. 

UP is repeatedly heartened by the compassion and foresight of those who are determined to forge a more connected and empathetic world. All of that takes time, however, and perseverance, and Ani exhibited both those qualities in South Africa and back on American soil. Ani, on behalf of the Ilizwe members, UP expresses its heartfelt gratitude to you for your devotion to the crafters, their families, and their pursuit of the opportunities that lead to justice, civility, and hope. 

South African newspaper recognizes UP promise and loyalty


On March 8, 2018, hundreds of Nomathamsanqa residents gathered to open the brand new Universal Promise Academic Centre at Vusumzi Primary School. The idea for the new facility was born after UP founder Martha T. Cummings had a fortuitous encounter with head waiter Moses Mzolisi Nqontsha in 2008. Ten years later, after scores of other UP-funded improvements to VPS, the building was completed and has taken its place as the "talk of the township." The center will house a school library, a science laboratory, a music classroom, an arts studio, and a main, central, open-air space that will accommodate dining, after-school tutoring, meetings, and performing arts.

At the handover ceremony, Universal Promise announced the naming of the central hall after Nqontsha. As Cummings said, "All discussion surrounding the transformation of Vusumzi Primary School must start with Mr. Moses Mzolisi Nqontsha," who accompanied her in 2008 to the heart of Nomathamsanqa. At the time, "Vusumzi School was a glaring reflection of the aftermath of apartheid, and Moses’ shame that day was apparent, yet he remained dignified.

"Despite all the years of waiting, the unrealized promises, the systemic subordination that still affects too many children’s pursuit of fairness, Moses was hopeful. He remained a man who wanted one thing: to free himself and others from the aftershock of apartheid so that his children would earn the kind of education that would allow them to expect better and to demand more."

The Port Elizabeth Herald picked up on the story and arrived to capture the rare relationship between Nqontsha and Cummings and the fulfillment of a promise to students, educators, and residents of Nomathamsanqa. Cummings said of the ceremonial opening, "Sometimes you just know you’re living an epic moment when you’re in the midst of it. Today was one of those days."

Mr. Nqontsha wrote, "Thank you for making me so happy. It was the greatest time ever in my life. I will never forget this. Ever." Universal Promise will remain forever grateful to Moses Nqontsha for agreeing to accompany us that fateful day. You just never know what will come of saying yes.

St. George's School stands UP for education for all


In March of 2018, 15 students and two educators from St. George's School (SGS) in Newport, RI, as well as two Universal Promise volunteers, landed in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, before heading north to Nomathamsanqa, Addo, to visit our favorite school: Vusumzi Primary.

The VPS community, once again, welcomed Universal Promise and its volunteers with kindness, professionalism, humor, and gratitude. As a result, the SGS students instantly and seamlessly immersed themselves in the experience, from their welcome by a host of traditional Xhosa dancers to their heartfelt concern for all VPS learners to their impact on their tutees to their emotional attendance at the handover ceremony of the Universal Promise Academic Centre

Prior to our arrival, each VPS educator had graciously agreed to co-teach with an SGS student and to share strategies, improve the teacher-to-student ratio, keep an eye out for particularly advanced or struggling students, and make note of any learners who were attending school without proper uniforms, so that we may intervene on their behalf. In addition, the SGS students were responsible for developing an after-school tutoring program and for collaborating with Ilizwe EmPOWERment crafters to design and make over 500 bracelets with the red, black, and white SGS color scheme and a wooden SGS shield and 500 Molly's Dollies. (Join the Molly's Dollies Posse today!)

At the end of the trip, SGS volunteers left Nomathamsanqa with full but heavy hearts - knowing full well that they were saying goodbye, at least for a time, to the most warm, welcoming, talented, and beautiful human beings they had ever met. 

Universal Promise had high expectations for this volunteer adventure, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the SGS students and chaperones met and then exceeded those expectations. We are grateful to SGS for having reached out to UP for a potential partnership and then worked with us to bring this trip to fruition. We know the experience is etched in the minds and hearts of students and educators on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. 

Above all, we feel fortunate to have bridged a gap between students in South Africa and those who hail from a boarding school in Rhode Island (but who represented China, South Korea, and the United States). Such cross-cultural exposure lays the groundwork for a world that is less concerned with borders and differences than with global responsibility and similarities. We feel honored to have played a role in encouraging young people to get hooked by a life of service - a life of understanding the challenges that others face and the benefits that others inherit by virtue of their accidental place of birth, skin color, or gender. After what we witnessed this past March, we feel even more confident that the future will inspire and broaden the kind of inclusivity and compassion that thrives in the South Africans we serve.


Alyssa Kohler and the power of a promise

 Alyssa with her South African fans

Alyssa with her South African fans

 Alyssa distributing some snacks in Nomathamsanqa

Alyssa distributing some snacks in Nomathamsanqa

Alyssa Kohler made a promise in June of 2017: one that would ultimately have a profound impact on thousands of South Africans. Promises, though, are easy to make but far more difficult to fulfill, unless you're Alyssa; then, we learned, it is just a matter of time.

While traveling with a UP volunteer group in Nomathamsanqa, South Africa, Alyssa, alongside local medical personnel, traveled door-to-door in an underserved neighborhood to conduct baseline health examinations, do screenings, counsel, and gather data about residents' health challenges. The participants were grateful and open-hearted as UP became familiar with the breadth of the issues: from diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and TB to dehydration and lack of healthy food.

Alyssa, who plans on a future in medicine, understood that a two-week volunteer trip does not make for permanent change, so when the volunteers discussed a way to maintain the momentum inspired by the healthcare initiative, Alyssa was all over it. The vision was to create a pamphlet that contained vital information about health, such as the importance of check-ups and medicine compliance, what constitutes a healthy diet, disease prevention, symptoms, and treatment, the ramifications of drug and alcohol abuse, personal safety, and stress management. The pamphlet would also contain emergency numbers.

Great idea. Easier said than done. Unless you're Alyssa.

In the midst of a demanding senior year in high school, Alyssa pecked away at this massive project. She did research, consulted, designed, and revised. Once a first full draft was born, UP sent it off to South African medical personnel for their invaluable feedback, which was readily incorporated.

UP then secured the services of Siyabulela Rabie, UP's first university graduate. Siya was born and raised in Nomathamsanqa and received his honors degree in Social Work at Nelson Mandela University. He agreed to translate the document from English to Xhosa so that UP, in the spirit of education for all, could make the pamphlet available to every single citizen in Nomathamsanqa via schools and clinics. Overnight, the impact spread from one small neighborhood to an entire community. THAT is sustainability.  

That meant, though, that we had some serious money to raise to fund the printing, but Alyssa knew that. Already, she had brought in $450 via her school's National Honor Society and organized another fundraiser to secure more donations. Alyssa will get it done. We are not worried.

We at Universal Promise believe that a promise has energy and inspires hope, but only if it is fulfilled. We value those who understand that as well as those who do not stop until the promise has been realized. Thank you, Alyssa, for being such as person. No worries about sustainability. You did it...



Yes, we're doing it right! Education. Education. Education.

Thank you for allowing Mayibuye to share in this special project. Words can’t explain the impact that it will have in our communities. I’m humbled to be part of these historic changes that Universal Promise is bringing to our people. Thank you.
— Charlie Josephs

Today is always one of the best days of the year: the day we deliver literally thousands of school supplies to talented and determined students in Nomathamsanqa.

Mr. Charlie Josephs, Executive Director of Mayibuye Ndlovu Development Trust (MNDT), the local South African organization with which Universal Promise partners, oversaw today the distribution of supplies to our 54 Uphuhliso scholars. Uphuhliso, which recognizes South African learners for their academic and behavioral successes and then supports them with all the school supplies they will need throughout the year, remains the only program of its kind in this entire region.

Our home- and school-based approach has been validated in recent TED talks and in documentaries that examine and critique the workings of nonprofit organizations around the world. The UP emphasis on education underscores our belief that school-based giving encourages independence, confidence, and a just, civil, and hopeful society. It is hard to argue with the unparalleled benefits of education. 

Representing Universal Promise and overseeing the distribution this year, Mr. Josephs wrote, "What a pleasant way of starting the new year by “giving” to the needy and to see the joy and appreciation on the children's faces, THANKS TO UP. It was nice seeing the familiar faces and to meet the new learners. The learners were at the school by 10:00, and the Tanda Bantu Stores delivery arrived at 11:15. Principal Vuyani Sampies and School Coordinator Nokuzola Somya welcomed the learners, and MNDT representatives Zitobele Sesman (trustee) and Mariska Toring (administrative clerk) also shared in the exciting occasion of the handover."

UP loved seeing the word "giving" in quotation marks. A handout? No. Empowerment? Yes.

Mr. Josephs continued, "Before the handover Zitobele Sesman addressed them and reminded them that they should show their appreciation and work hard this year. The principal also encouraged them to work from the first day and that they should speak to the teachers or principal if they need any assistance.

"The current learners were very happy and are excited to progress to the next grade. Thank you for allowing Mayibuye to share in this special project. Words can’t explain the impact that it will have in our communities. I’m humbled to be part of this historic changes that Universal Promise is bringing to our people. Thank you."

If you're interested in joining all the UP sponsors in this movement of intellectual and economic freedom, please contact us for more information. Education for all, and no stopping until that is a reality.

UP's school- and home-based models validated in TED Talk


We have made unprecedented progress this year (including the completion of a long-held goal of funding, building, and furnishing an academic centre to serve nearly 1,000 students), all of which was fueled by our donors' record-breaking generosity. We are humbled by their compassion and well aware that we could not accomplish anything without the UP family’s broad, loyal support. 

Our donors know UP enhances each gift's power by taking a strategic approach to reach as many learners as possible. We build programs that respect cultural norms, ensure sustainability, and guarantee that our impact will endure much longer than any individual. Such an emphasis allows our reach to multiply as students attend university, start businesses, and lead communities. Our education-based programs ignite widespread, systemic change through education for all.

UP knows, however, that, to do that, families must be involved. As such, we support only school- and home-based interventions, rather than "orphanages, safe homes, or children's centers." 

Our approach was recently underscored by Tara Winkler, co-founder and managing director of the Cambodian Children's Trust. Winkler "helps vulnerable children escape poverty and be cared for within their families." In a TED Talk entitled, "Why we need to end the era of orphanages," the episode notes read, "Could it be wrong to help children in need by starting an orphanage? In this eye-opening talk about the bad consequences of good intentions, Tara Winkler speaks out against the spread of orphanages in developing countries, caused in part by foreign donors, and details the harm done to children when they are separated from their families and left to grow up in institutions."

Every day, UP sees the ripple effect of investing in students in their own homes. Anelisa, for instance, who is part of our Uphuhliso Program, earned a new school uniform, school shoes, a backpack, writing utensils, notebooks, a protractor, a ruler, a solar calculator, an English dictionary, and a host of other supplies, academic support, and mentoring. With UP’s intervention, she is emboldened to excel in school and draw on the strength of other Uphuhliso scholars at her secondary school.

Because Anelisa remains at home and UP covers her educational expenses, her six siblings are positively affected. Her mother may turn her financial attention to other matters, such as purchasing a dining room table, providing food, buying fuel for heating, and sending the younger ones to creche (aka nursery school) to set the foundation for a strong education. Anelisa's siblings are watching, and they are eager to follow in her Uphuhliso footsteps. Above all, Anelisa is free to do all she does under the watchful eye of her mother, which plays out in much the same way in scores of South African homes: motivated learners moving up the educational ladder while being raised by a mother, a father, a granny, or an auntie, and surrounded by siblings.

And Anelisa is not alone. Anovuyo gathered Uphuhliso neighbors for math lessons during school vacation. Luvuyo took a taxi to get UP tutoring for June exams. Monde inspired numerous family members to apply for our Uphuhliso Program. Sibahle's grades and confidence are improving each quarter. Liyema earned a second chance at entry into Uphuhliso because his mother and sister underscore the importance of education. There is no substitute for family, and South Africans honor that with every breath. UP is proud of its record of respecting South African culture and dreams, and we are grateful to our sponsors for validating our approach through their generosity.

It's All Good, for sure!

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 4.00.09 PM.png

As we look back on 2017 and the realization of our dream of funding and building the brand new Universal Promise Academic Centre in Addo, South Africa, we are grateful to every person who contributed to this effort. We had donations that ranged from $1 to $25,000, and many of the gifts came from those who have given year after year to support our mission of education for all.

It's All Good Resale of Brunswick, Maine, its consignors, and its customers epitomize that loyal, ongoing giving spirit. The It's All Good owners, employees, and patrons gave to Universal Promise repeatedly by contributing to our online fundraising challenges, purchasing handcrafted flowers for our water initiative, donating consignment earnings, participating in a fashion show with IAG styles, and much more. We are grateful to everyone associated with It's All Good for not only embracing the model of recycle, reuse, and repurpose on a local scale, but also for giving on an international scale: smashing through borders to bring opportunity to thousands of children. Thank you on behalf of all those we serve in South Africa. It really is all good.