Pictured above: Jim McKeown and volunteer Luvuyo Ngxiki with some children in Rhamoposa Village, a township on the periphery of Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
by John Torsiello
Things were rosy for Jim McKeown ’04 shortly after graduating Fairfield University with a degree in engineering. After adding a BSc degree from the Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, he was soon a fast-riser working at Morgan Stanley’s headquarters in New York City as an analyst supporting the firm’s Structured Products Group and Proprietary Trading Group. He moved to the research desk as a strategist for a year, and was the lead analyst on over $36 billion of securitizations before moving to the research desk as a strategist for a year. The pay was good, living in New York was cool, he had made good friends, and his future in the business was secure. Yet something was missing.
“I never intended to join Wall Street,” McKeown said from his present post at the Masinyusane Development Organization in Port Elizabeth, an east coast city in South Africa. “I had planned to volunteer in Nicaragua and join the war on global poverty immediately out of college. However, those plans fell through around the time of my graduation. Without money or plans, I sent my resume around and stumbled into a fantastic opportunity at Morgan Stanley.”
While he loved his time at Morgan Stanley, he had always intended to leave after a couple years to follow his dream of contributing in whatever way possible to the “cause” — working to make a difference in the lives of those who need assistance.
“The stock market’s downturn had absolutely nothing to do with me quitting,” he reflected. “In fact, I was somewhat reluctant to leave given how historic the events unfolding were.”
McKeown helped found Masinyusane three years ago as an education-focused non-profit organization working in the slums surrounding Port Elizabeth, and now serves as the organization’s executive director. The group employs approximately 20 staff members and has over 100 active volunteers.
Left: In 2011, Piwe Pitsha was the top female learner in the township and won a full scholarship to study education at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. Top right: Masinyusane installs running water to schools. Bottom right: South Africa is home to the world’s largest population of children, orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS.
The word “Masinyusane” is isiXhosa — one of the official languages of South Africa, spoken by about 18 percent of the population — for “let us raise each other up.” It is a grass-roots non-profit inspired by the social teachings of the Catholic Church that provides people with counseling, training, and financial assistance. Its primary focus, however, is on education, and particularly on improving the standard of education for the young people living in the townships, providing them with what they need — tutoring, even calculators — so that they can go on to further education.
“The general strategy is to provide opportunities for the youth here to grow, develop, get a good education, and lead meaningful lives in which they’re empowered to not only break out of the cycle of poverty that traps them, but to uplift their families, friends, and communities,” McKeown said.
Masinyusane’s biggest effort involves uplifting one of the city’s poorest and worst-performing schools, honing a model of interventions that have impact and are effective. The group intends to roll out the program at other public schools across the slums of the city.
The task is daunting. The city has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS, estimated to be over 25 percent of population aged 15 to 49. Many children are orphans, with 68 percent having lost one or both parents, almost all due to AIDS.
Said McKeown, “It’s impossible to appreciate the pain and suffering caused by the pandemic. One-fifth of our kids live in tin or wooden shacks. All are extremely impoverished. Only 10 percent of parents have graduated high school, none have attended university, and schools are completely dysfunctional.”
“I love every day out here and have never once regretted leaving Wall Street. It’s ironic, because I went from earning a ridiculous
salary, relatively speaking, to being totally broke,” he said.
“I don’t get paid, I live in the slums, yet I feel far richer here than I ever did in the States. The reason is our kids. I love and believe in them very much. I’ve been fortunate to play a role in many of their lives by providing those opportunities I mentioned above, and have seen them grow and succeed to degrees I don’t think many of them dreamed possible a few years ago.”
His life’s work isn’t without regrets of the familial kind.
“The hardest thing is the knowledge that my family, especially my mother, suffers because I chose to be so far from home. I don’t mind making personal sacrifices. But I often wonder if it’s fair to put my family through the stress that I do.”
He recalls his days at Fairfield with fondness and says the school was crucial in his formative years as a young adult.
“My fondest memories of Fairfield are without a doubt the friendships I made. Outside of that, I will always appreciate the emphasis the school places on the arts. Despite studying engineering, I loved my religious classes with Dr. [Hugh] Humphrey,” a professor of religious studies, “and my philosophy classes — though Kant was a nightmare — with professors such as Dr. [Curt] Naser,” an associate professor of philosophy. I also loved my classical literature class. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our football coach, Kevin Kiesel. I vividly recall many of his speeches on sacrifice, hard work, and giving yourself to a higher cause.”
He quipped, “I’ll never forget the days of sitting on the roof of my house at the beach and reflecting on what I should do with my life. My friends and I had many powerful conversations about the meaning and purpose of life that no doubt helped give me the courage to embark on the path I’m on today.”
McKeown keeps in contact with friends made at Fairfield, such as Rishawd Watson ’04, who launched a program similar to Masinyusane, called The Rise and Shine Sports Academy, in the inner city of Chicago. Watson, incidentally, was the all-time leading rusher in the history of Fairfield football.
He added, “suffice it to say my network of friends and family from Fairfield have helped make our success here possible.”
McKeown welcomes volunteers to Masinyusane. If that isn’t possible, he advises a visit to the website, www.Masinyusane.org.
“A majority of our sponsorship comes from friends and family back home, and a little money goes a very long way out here. I ensure that all money goes directly to providing opportunities for some of the world’s poorest children.”
South Africa may be a long way physically from that beach house that Mckeown lived in during his senior year at Fairfield. But not so far at all from where he was at Fairfield spiritually.
Last year, Masinyusane provided 60 free school uniforms to impoverished primary school learners. Less than 15% of the primary school children pictured above are expected to graduate high school given current trends.
EMPOWERING SOUTH AFRICANS
Masinyusane supports a number of health and educational programs in the townships of Port Elizabeth. Here are just a few listed on their web site.
A partnership with Lwandlekazi High School to implement Lwandlekazi 100%, a holistic program to raise the graduation rate of students. In 2008, Lwandlekazi was Port Elizabeth’s worst performing school, with a pass-rate of 16%. After only 18 months of intervention, the pass-rate has tripled to 51%.
With daily classes, home visits, food parcels to needy families, teacher workshops, renovated classrooms, and many other programs, Masinyusane ensures that Lwandlekazi becomes an outstanding institution of learning and success.
The non-profit works to identify top learners from township schools and ensure they have every opportunity possible to attend university and further their studies. This includes career guidance, college admission and financial assistance, distribution of study guides and stationery, home visits, and mentorship.
Masinyusane employees Youth Leaders to serve as tutors in school while undergoing their own personal development courses. With unemployment among 18-25 year olds over 80% in the townships, the program offers an invaluable opportunity for youth to earn an income, give back to the community, and grow and develop themselves. To date, thousands of learners have benefited from these evening and weekend tutoring sessions offered.
There is a critical lack of opportunities for learners to engage in productive after-school activities. For this reason, Masinyusae has launched clubs for debating, chess, karate, drama, and dance as well as soccer, netball, and cricket sports teams. These provide learners with opportunities to discover their talents, learn new skills, and build their confidence.
Masinyusane has piloted a program with a bakery and craft group. Groups have received loans, consulting, training, and office space. They will soon be launching additional programs, such as carpentry and glass making. They have rolled out a second craft group in which 20 unemployed parents of learners have been trained and provided the opportunity to generate income for their families.
Masinyusane remains an HIV/AIDS friendly organization and reaches out to all of those affected. The group provides rent-free office space to St. Francis Hospice, an organization that offers free services to community members living with HIV/AIDS.