Bill Noble signed up for a two-year commitment. Two decades later, at 44, the former Peace Corps volunteer is still giving back to the nation he once served.
While passion for global service motivated him to volunteer abroad, friendship led to a lifelong connection to the African nation of Lesotho. Through letter writing and phone calls, Noble stayed in touch with David Kiwanuka, headmaster of the school where he had worked.
In 2009, Kiwanuka shared stories with Noble about a school he had established for students who are turned away from a high-achieving magnet school. A year later, Noble and his wife, Nan, 41, decided to travel to a city near Mafeteng, Lesotho, and reconnect with the headmaster. He was able to take a sabbatical from his job as a professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington.
The Queen Anne residents admired Kiwanuka’s dedication to teaching. However, after spending time at his school, they were both disturbed by the poor conditions.
“The students were working out of dilapidated, temporary buildings made of metal stapled together,” Bill said. “It seemed like they needed some money.”
Inspired by the students’ commitment to education, the couple knew they wanted to make a change. A few years later, they found a solution.
Loans for global good
After doing some research, the couple decided to launch a loan program.
“We’re not in a position to just give money. This seemed like a really doable way to help,” Nan said.
With some advice from accountants and attorneys, they created a three-part plan with a goal to build eight classrooms and a hall by June. Each phase costs about $50,000, for a total sum of $159,000; they are just entering phase two.
“It’s a lot of money,” Nan said. “But it’s not an amount that we cannot conceive of.”
Miles Yanick, a Seattle attorney who helped the couple with the legal logistics, explained that the project is a hybrid between investment and charity work. The loans carry a low interest rate, and the investor gets to contribute to a social cause.
However, he clarified that like any investment, there is a degree of uncertainty involved.
“People will only get repaid if the school makes money,” the attorney said. “There’s always that chance of risk.”
The success of Hope English Medium High School (HEMHS) depends on student enrollment. Public education stops after elementary school in Lesotho, and school fees, along with miners’ salaries, will help repay the loans.
HEMHS is more accessible and affordable than most schools. It is located where most of the students’ families live, and it is not a boarding school. Still, Noble said many children are unable to pay for school.
Despite the school’s growing enrollment from about 60 to 500 since 2209, there is no guarantee it will continue.
However, the Nobles feel confident the investment risk is worth the potential reward. They said it’s not a matter of “if” the loans will be returned; it’s a matter of when the students will start to learn in a better place.
“The school will be successful,” Bill affirmed. “Those [loan] fees will be paid.”
If all goes as planned, nine years from now every investor will be repaid with an interest rate of 0.84 percent. The timing plays a key role for the Nobles, who want their money back before their two kids, Scout, 7, and Jack, 9, start college.
“We understand that, like us, investors want to make an impact on different social causes at different times in their lives,” Nan said.
The Nobles are not the only ones trying to make a meaningful difference with loans.
Seattle Waldorf School is using a similar model to raise $3 million for a building expansion. Tracy Bennett, the school head of administration, said this strategy allows families to contribute and get something in return.
“It’s a win-win situation,” Bennett said.
Goal in sight
While the scope of the Nobles’ project is long-term, the couple said the finite goal makes it more tangible. They add that photographs of the construction progress and project updates are motivating.
“It’s going to take some time, but it’s worth it,” Nan said.
They are passionate and excited, yet realistic. Both agree that setting reasonable expectations is essential to the project’s success.
“There’s a standard and not much in the way of resources. Almost all construction is cinder block with steel reinforcement,” Bill said.
Nan added, “Their school buildings are never going to look like ours. I could come up with the grand plans, but the director has longer-term ideas.”
Today, the school is functional. But the Nobles explained that, with Lesotho’s high elevation and mountainous surroundings, it is an inadequate learning environment.
“The sooner we get them out of those metal shacks, the better,” Nan said.
Since the construction takes place in Africa and most investors live in the Seattle area, trust plays a large role in the project. Noble explained that headmaster Kiwanuka bridges the gap.
“It’s a challenge because we do not have the time to oversee the project, and you cannot just send money to a random person,” Bill said. “But I trust David, and that makes all the difference.”
With emotional connections and experience in the area, the couple explained that they see significant need in Lesotho. Between widespread poverty, a lack of basic infrastructure and a growing HIV epidemic, Lesotho is a highly at-risk population, especially for children.
However, Bill referred to education as the “social vaccine” and a way to address all of the problems at once.
“We see education as something we can do something about, and it moves everything else in the right direction,” he said.
Ultimately, the couple agreed that after seeing the need for change, in combination with their personal ties to Lesotho, taking action was no longer an option.
As Nan put it, “We asked ourselves, how could we not take this step?”
Next month, the couple will visit the school to see the construction in person. They plan to take pictures and film the groundwork not only to communicate progress to investors but also gain additional support.
Fund-raising is top priority. About $100,000 is still needed, and the Nobles explain that sometimes the most difficult part is getting the word out.
The Nobles hope that their commitment to service will inspire their children to be “global citizens.” On a recent afternoon at their home, as Scout and Jack played with an iPad, they showed little surprise at their parents’ new project.
With a wide grin ,Nan said, “They’re just like, yeah, Mom and Dad are starting another project. No big deal.”
To get involved with the Hope School Lesotho Project visit www.facebook.com/HopeHighSchoolLesotho. To learn more about the school, visit www.hope-highschool.org.
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