Imagine a place where children are encouraged to beg and steal. Try and feel the tension in a setting where the government kidnaps those who it sees as a threat, and they are never to be heard from again by their loved ones. Imagine a place where extreme hunger, disease, illiteracy, and homelessness are the norm, and you can begin to imagine what used to be Togo. This is a reality that Ayele Amavigan knew all too well.
Ayele was born to a mother who never attended school a day in her life. Ayele herself didn’t start school until she was a pre-teen, and even this was against the wishes of many family and community members. Despite this, she eventually made it to a national university after passing her high school baccalaureate exam on the first try (this is no small feat in many francophone African countries) and became extremely politically active during her time at the University of Lome. The country was in a political uproar in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and she was an active and outspoken student leader during a time when the government didn’t appreciate those who were too critical of its policies. One year after she gave birth to her only son in 1992, she received word that her name had shown up on a list of political dissidents, and in the middle of the night, she packed up what she could carry and fled with her one year old son to neighboring Benin. Four years later, they moved to the United States with her son.
Determined to provide a living for her and her son as well as for her extended family back home who so desperately needed financial assistance, Ayele took on a variety of jobs while attending what was then the Community College of Southern Nevada. At one point, she held three part time jobs while taking classes to work towards an Associate’s Degree in Sociology. After transferring to UNLV, she obtained her bachelor’s degree and later completed a master’s degree in social work in one year. She had achieved the American dream, and had even bought a home in the Las Vegas suburb of Spring Valley. But she refused to accept personal achievement as an end in itself.
Ayele used the personal connections she had made as a standout student at UNLV to enroll in and complete a one year certification program in nonprofit management, then sought out the expertise of her colleagues and professors to start Hidden Talent Foundation in 2007, a non profit organization dedicated to ensuring that every child in Togo and Benin is given the chance to attend school like she was, so that they can unlock their hidden talents as well. In our first year of operation, Hidden Talent Foundation provided 50 kids with essential school supplies and tuition. In our second year, we had 100 kids enrolled in our programs. To date, Hidden Talent Foundation has helped over 300 underprivileged students in Togo and Benin to enroll in, stay in, and succeed in school through providing tuition assistance, academic tutoring, transportation assistance, meal stipends, and other services that allow children to take full advantage of a primary and secondary school education.
She believes that one of the biggest impacts Hidden Talent Foundation has had, however, is not immediately evident. “When we go to the village [where she was raised] and hand out the supplies, you can see the excitement in everyone’s eyes. They are surprised because not many people come back after they leave, and no one comes back to do something for the community. The kids are so much in awe and so excited by the supplies that we have increased retention and succession rates in two of the schools we sponsor. We’re really making an impact.”
In 2013, Ayele finished her doctoral program and earned her EdD. For someone who was born in a village in Togo, this is quite an accomplishment. However, what makes this story all the more significant is that it illustrates that solutions to the complex problems faced by Togo and countries like it need to be generated by the people who are most effected by the problems, because they know best what needs to be changed. The role of Hidden Talent Foundation and other outside agents should be to facilitate this solution-making process.