How two Loyola grads are working to empower students in Kenya
The Fleischer Foundation works to empower children from the Mukuru Kwa Njenga Slum in Nairobi, Kenya, through education and mentorship
Stephen Fleischer has always taken the phrase “men and women for others” to heart.
Upon graduation from Loyola University Maryland in 2014 with bachelor’s degrees in finance and philosophy, he wanted to do a year of service before entering law school. He knew he had found his calling after being connected with the Marianists of East Africa.
“I packed my bags after graduation and traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, by myself to live with a group of African clergy and to work with the poor alongside of them,” he says.
“I was the only American, the only white guy, and let me be clear: There was no volunteer program. I had no supervisor, schedule, reflections, or required meetings.”
Fleischer, who was born and raised in New York City, ended up working as a primary school teacher at a Marianist school in the Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum of Kenya. There, he had a heart-breaking conversation with a female student that stirred him to action.
“Toward the end of the school year, in December 2014, one of my 8th grade students walked into my office to talk to me,” he explains. “She thanked me for teaching her and said she had learned a lot. Then she said ‘Goodbye forever then, Mr. Fleischer.’”
After asking her what she meant, Fleischer learned that due to her family’s level of poverty, she was leaving school to marry a 70-year-old man in Somalia.
“I couldn’t let that happen,” he says. “I intervened in the situation, and [the girl] is now in 11th grade at a local school in Nairobi. I sponsored her personally.”
The evolution of an idea
The idea for the Fleischer Foundation was born. Less than a year after returning to the United States for law school, Fleischer started the nonprofit, which sponsors Kenyan students and pays 100 percent of their secondary school fees.
“One of the key problems in Kenya, in my view, is access to education,” Fleischer notes.
“The Kenyan government subsidizes primary school fully, but they only sponsor secondary school in part. As such, high school can cost roughly $1,000 per year. For a family from the slums of Nairobi, that is just an impossible figure.”
At the end of 8th grade, Kenyan students are required to take a national exam to determine which high schools they will be admitted to. The Fleischer Foundation accepts applications from students who do better than a 300/500 on the exam; then, a selection committee reviews applications and conducts interviews and home visits to determine who will be sponsored.
Since October 2016, the foundation has sponsored 10 students, with plans to take on more students each year.
Fleischer, of course, doesn’t do it alone. While he serves as the nonprofit’s president, he also works with a team of Kenya-based teachers and staff members, as well as a U.S.-based board of trustees.
One of those board members is Edwin Ortiz, ’14, a friend and fellow Loyola graduate who serves as board secretary and assists with fund-raising efforts in the Baltimore area.
“I have always felt a true passion to serve where I am needed,” says Ortiz, a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Colombia and Puerto Rico. “When Stephen approached me about his idea, I realized that I could support him in something that would make a true impact in the world.”
Living out Loyola’s Jesuit values
Both young men credit Loyola’s Jesuit values and education for pushing them to give back to the world.
“[The Jesuit concept of] magis got us thinking about ‘the more.’ How much more can we do to serve? How much farther can we push ourselves out of our comfort zone?” explains Fleischer. “I don’t think I would have done a year of post-graduation service in Kenya if it was not for the impact of Loyola.”
Ortiz echoes his sentiment. “I feel that seeking the magis and doing things in honor of God has been rooted in me since my first day [of high school at Jesuit school] St. Peter’s Prep in New Jersey. I hold these values close to my heart in every decision I make,” he says.
“Everything we do is for the people of Kenya—men, women, and children who require the opportunity to be educated in order to have a lasting effect on their lives. Each value I have been taught reminds me that only through education can we support others and lift them up.”
During their time at Loyola, Fleischer and Ortiz were both involved in the campus community, particularly in faith-based organizations and social justice issues. Fleischer was a four-year senator for the Student Government Association, as well as the service coordinator for Habitat for Humanity. He also served as Father Rossi’s assistant for 10 p.m. Mass in Hopkins Court.
Meanwhile, Ortiz, who studied theology at Loyola, held a three-year internship with the Campus Ministry office. He also served as sophomore class president, and was involved in Spring Break Outreach and the Evergreens. Both name Center for Community Service and Justice co-founder Rev. Timothy Brown, S.J., as an inspiration and mentor during their college careers.
And both men tested their business development and operations chops with Clean Guys Laundry, a start-up student-laundry service founded by two Loyola alumni. Fleischer and Ortiz spearheaded the business together during their senior years.
Their jam-packed schedules didn’t slow down upon graduation in 2014. Ortiz entered a two-year service program in Baltimore and received his master’s from Notre Dame of Maryland University; he now works as a religion teacher and campus minister at Calvert Hall College High School in Baltimore.
Meanwhile, Fleischer is in his final year of law school at Loyola University Chicago. After he graduates and passes the bar exam, he plans to move to Kenya full-time to pursue his next project: building a high school.
On the horizon
While the project is in its early stages, Fleischer and his team have already found a five-acre plot of land about 30 minutes outside Nairobi, as well as hired a headmaster.
“The idea of the school is to work in conjunction with the sponsorship program that we have already created,” Fleischer explains.
“Instead of sending the students we select from the slums to other high schools in Nairobi, we can direct them to our high school. There we can ensure that the education meets proper standards, and give these students a better staging point to begin their university lives. We also plan to explore the idea of sending students to university in the United States.”
The school is on track to open in January 2020, and class sizes will be limited to roughly 15 students—modeled after Fleischer’s own high school alma mater, The Browning School in New York City, which has provided support to the project.
Fleischer and his team plan to construct a small volunteer house on the same property, designed to host volunteers from other countries who wish to do a year abroad and give back to communities in need.
Ortiz plans to continue offering support stateside. “I hope to develop a program where I can bring students on a trip to Kenya where their service in the classroom can lead to an opportunity to see the work we have started,” he says.
Both men encourage other Loyola students and alumni to consider a year of service.
“We are used to following a certain routine,” notes Fleischer. “From a young age, we understand that we need to go to elementary school, then high school, then university, and then apply for jobs. Breaking the pattern is not only OK—often times, is incredibly rewarding. Coming to Kenya for my year of service was terrifying. But it was also, by far, the most rewarding decision I had made up to that point.”
Ortiz agrees. “To every student hoping to serve others in their lives, I hope you remember that you may not always see the results of every action or step you take to improve the life of someone else. That, as a result, is why we serve. We are men and women for others and we must always remember it.”
Learn more about the Fleischer Foundation, including ways to support their work.