Seven-year-old Eugenie practices double-digit addition in her first-grade class last month. Money has been especially tight for her family since her father died, making it even more difficult to pay tuition for her and her two older brothers. Vanesa Paolella photo

On a recent Monday morning, the first-grade class at my local elementary school was hard at work practicing double-digit addition on their individual chalkboards.

One of the students was Eugenie, a round-faced 7-year-old girl with tightly woven braids and hands covered in green chalk dust. Since her father passed away, Eugenie’s mom has been caring for her and her six older siblings on her own.

It would be a difficult situation in the best of circumstances, but Eugenie’s family owns just a few small rice fields. As a result, her family must buy most of their food, an expensive proposition.

It also means that covering Eugenie’s school tuition is much more challenging. In rural Madagascar, the bulk of school tuition is paid not in money, but in rice. Families with ample rice fields pay a little over the equivalent of $1 plus 120 cans of unprocessed rice to send their children to elementary school each year.

But for families like Eugenie’s who must buy the rice, the cost exceeds $9. That’s half of what my host dad, a security guard, makes in a month (that is, of course, if he actually got paid). Easy for me. For some families that cost is crippling.

In spite of the steep fee, Eugenie’s mother worked hard to raise the money because she wants her daughter to be educated and successful. However, saving money for her tuition next year, in addition to her two middle school-aged brothers, has been a major burden.


Eugenie is one of hundreds of children in my area who will be eligible for a new scholarship program beginning this year after I helped facilitate a connection with Anjiro Initiative, a California-based nonprofit that aims to make education more accessible for Malagasy children.

To be frank, it’s an opportunity straight out of my dreams. Before I learned about Anjiro Initiative, I spent countless hours in church and elsewhere thinking about how to create such a program in my community after finishing my Peace Corps service.

Then I learned that returned Peace Corps volunteer Clifford Duong had already formed a nonprofit organization to do exactly that and was looking to expand his program to serve other schools in Madagascar.

Ten-year-old Leboto, right, poses for a photo with another boy in my village during the Tuesday market. Neither boy attends school. Vanessa Paolella photo

You can be sure I jumped on that opportunity faster than a plate of DaVinci’s garlic knots.

There are a lot of problems with our school system in the U.S., but paying tuition isn’t one of them. We’re fortunate to have a system where all children are able to attend school regardless of their family’s ability to pay.

The same can’t be said of Madagascar. Whether public or private, students must pay a fee to attend. And while $9 may sound ridiculously cheap to an American, it’s more than many families can afford to pay.


Take my friend Sarobidy’s youngest brother, Fidiavana. At 7 years old, he still hasn’t started school. Their family simply can’t afford the tuition.

The parents of more than a dozen elementary students attend an informational session at the local elementary school in April to learn about the new scholarship program. Vanessa Paolella photo

Then there’s Faly, an 18-year-old dog lover who never learned how to read or write. He attended school for just one year, but his family didn’t have enough money for him to continue on to second grade.

There’s also the eternal enigma of my 10-year-old neighbor, Leboto. I don’t know much of his story, only that the family he lives with isn’t his own. Rather than send him to school, the family next door has him earn his keep by washing dishes, preparing meals, and assisting with their bike repair business.

I’m not involved with selecting students for the scholarship; ultimately, Anjiro Initiative will be the one to decide. But when I think about the potential impact of this program, these are the kids I think about. The Fidiavanas, the Falys and the Lebotos, kids I see every day. It gives me hope that one day they’ll be the exception rather than the norm.

To be sure, dozens of students graduate from high school here every year. A few even go onto university. But most stop attending school at the elementary or middle school level, like my friend Sarobidy. She left school after fifth grade.

Many never even get that far. Roughly 20% of students who enter my local elementary school drop out before finishing fifth grade, according to the school’s principal; others never attend at all.


I can think of few initiatives that would have a greater, more immediate impact on my community than this one. Not only will it keep kids in school, offering better opportunities later in life, but it’ll also help families save money.

In their first year here, Anjiro Initiative plans to partner with a single elementary school. But eventually, I hope to see it expand to include all 11 schools in my community, giving every child in need the opportunity to receive an education.

Last month, the second-grade class at the local elementary school was busy practicing writing and reading when I stepped in to observe. Class sizes are large here, and it’s common for a teacher to have 50 or more students in a class. Vanessa Paolella photo

Since the start of this column in December, I’ve been overwhelmed by the response from friends, family and readers. Many have asked how they can support me and my work here in Madagascar.

Finally I can say, this is it.

Anjiro Initiative has set a goal of raising $5,000 for my community this summer. It would be enough to cover multiple years of schooling for more than 50 students, at least half of whom will be girls, according to Anjiro Initiative’s selection criteria.

I hope you’ll consider pitching in to help make this program a success. While neither I nor Peace Corps is affiliated with Anjiro Initiative, it would mean the world to me to reach that $5,000 goal.


Seven-year-old Fidiavana, left, stands with two of his cousins in the fields behind his home. While most kids start school at 5, Fidiavana has yet to begin elementary school because his family can’t afford to pay tuition. Vanessa Paolella photo

For some, like my friend Faly, who never learned to read or write, a program like this could have made all the difference. And for kids like Eugenie and Fidiavana, it still very well may.

Donations can be made online to GoFundMe or by a check made payable to Anjiro Initiative. The nonprofit’s mailing address is: Anjiro Initiative, 4101 Dublin Boulevard, Suite F, Box 505, Dublin, CA 94568, USA. Please indicate that the donation is for Andrainjato.

Thank you for helping to make this program a success.

A reader asked:

How do you handle the desire you must have to give away all your own resources to these good, impoverished (in our culture) people around you? — Anonymous in Buckfield

I try to find a balance when it comes to helping people directly. Do it too much, and expectation develops. One of the most challenging things for volunteers here is navigating requests for money, food or other goods. Generally, when people ask me for things, I refuse. Remember when I wrote about selling fruit in Ambalavao? That afternoon, Sarobidy’s friend asked me for money to buy rice for dinner, her infant daughter in hand, because the fruit was selling so poorly. I stumbled through an awkward refusal with my standard response: “My organization doesn’t allow me to give people money.” It would cost me nearly nothing to buy her dinner. And yet, I can’t do it. I’m only here for two years, and as much as I want to be a resource for people, it needs to be for information, not money. It never ends with just one request. That’s not to say that I don’t help people directly. I just reserve it for a small group of trusted people.


Have a question? Send it to or by snail mail to the Sun Journal at 64 Lisbon St., Suite 201, Lewiston, ME 04240.

On a personal note:

Have I ever mentioned how much I love the Sun Journal? Since my laptop died by power surge in January, I’ve done most everything on my phone, including writing these columns. So I was thrilled last week to finally get my hands on a laptop after months of coordination. When my colleagues at the Sun Journal learned about my laptop’s untimely demise, they went to see whether the Maine Trust for Local News had an old one to spare – and they did. The laptop was sent to a hotel in D.C., put in the luggage of a Peace Corps Madagascar staff member, then sent south to me last week. It’s old, it’s clunky but I couldn’t be more thankful to the folks in Lewiston who thought nothing of sending a laptop to rural Madagascar. Seriously, who does that?

Vanessa Paolella is a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar, as well as a former award-winning staff writer for the Sun Journal and a Bates College graduate. The views expressed in this column are hers alone and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government, the Peace Corps, or the Madagascar government.

The local elementary school on May 7. The school serves students from kindergarten to fifth grade and has seven working classrooms. The classrooms to the left were destroyed by a cyclone in 2021. Three new classrooms, not shown, were built as replacements. Vanessa Paolella photo

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