Igniting A Passion for Empowerment

Dec 28, 2017 · 7 min read

by Maggie Butler and Lisa Wheeler

Lisa Wheeler and Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program in 2008.

In the spirit of Tostan’s celebration of torch passing across generations this season, new Tostan supporter Maggie Butler and longtime donor Lisa Wheeler share how they got to know Tostan and why they are so inspired by its potential. Lisa introduced Maggie to Tostan earlier this year.


I’d like to thank you for taking the time to chat with me about Tostan, your experience and your family’s passions. I immediately purchased all of the books you recommended, including Molly’s story (However Long the Night: Molly Melching’s Journey to Help Millions of African Women and Girls by Aimee Molloy), began researching the Skoll Foundation and ignited a personal mission to learn as much as possible (I’m still undertaking that last part)!

I hope you don’t mind if I speak freely — I understand we barely know each other and have never met in person, but I’m desperate for someone to understand the thoughts I’ve had since reading Molly’s story and embarking on my social entrepreneur research. If anyone understands, I think it would be you and the Tostan community.

Molly’s story struck such a chord with me. I think because I relate on a personal level (always seeking the different) but also on a philanthropic level (having a need for education and sustainability). As I’m discovering my place in this world outside of university, I’ve struggled with how to best give my time and money but one thing has become certain — There is nothing more powerful, nor more humbling, than education and basic human rights. In the US, I would often struggle with the idea of backing certain organizations. Not because they weren’t worthy causes, they most definitely were. But how could I support that particular cause, when humans across the globe didn’t have access to the fundamentals of life like food / shelter / water, education and empowerment (which really translates to their own voice)?

Maggie Butler

Then you add the sustainability aspect of Tostan to Molly’s story, which is something I believe is often lacking in nonprofit endeavors, and I was hooked! In the book, when Molly learns what Tostan means, I promise you I got goosebumps. This book, this idea that this type of social entrepreneurship existed was a breakthrough for me: I’ve learned of a woman willing to do the hard work — not just by donating money — but through empowering others to start and own their movement!

Thank you for reaching out and igniting this passion in me!


Maggie Butler

Our Family’s Shared Passion

by Lisa Wheeler

Lisa visited Tostan communities in Senegal several years ago with her husband and then 15 year-old daughter. The experience transformed the family’s perception of how to make a difference in the world.

In 2008 our family took a vacation to Senegal for some fun and sun. While enjoying a bit of a respite by the pool, the opportunity came up for a tour outside of Dakar came up. We jumped at it.

We were taken to see some villages and were were struck by the poverty, the destitution, and the children at home from school — some of them young girls with their own infants. Later we went to visit a primary school and sat in on a class. The children’s attitude and performance were impressive and afterwards the teacher talked to us about how the school needed funding for equipment, books, and food. Remembering the villages we had just seen we thought that we could do our part by supporting this school, because as we hear all the time, education is the most surefire way to be lifted out of poverty, right??

We sent funds to the teacher every three months and in return he sent us reports with photos of how our money was being used. New kitchen for the school, new books, building upgrades, etc. We were feeling pretty good about ourselves.

The next year, through a mutual friend we met Molly Melching the founder of Tostan, a Senegalese based human rights NGO. He had told us that is we ever wanted to have a real understanding of Senegal we had to get to know Molly, so we invited her for dinner, and it turned out to be a meal that changed the course of our lives.

Molly told us about how she had made her way to Senegal many years before and how she had seen the efforts and funds of aid organizations and well meaning individuals disenfranchise the very people they wanted to help. She described how she had lived both in Dakar as well as in a village for years and developed a deep understanding of their lives and traditions. Tostan was founded on these experiences. Molly felt that human rights and community empowerment education were the key, and hearing this turned our heads completely. We had to go and see for ourselves.

Isabelle and Mark Wheeler, Molly Melching and Zoe Williams

Molly, being very Molly, so open and welcoming, invited us to come and spend Christmas with her and her daughter Zoë and then to go visit some Tostan villages on our own. We found ourselves in Dakar again just a year and a half after our first trip, but this was to be a very different one.

We had remained in contact with the teacher from our first visit and the school was to be our first stop before seeing Molly. We were excited at the thought of seeing the changes there and had brought a laptop computer to him as a present. Our arrival was a disappointing shock as none of what we’d been told was true and it was clear the teacher had pocketed the money for himself. We were disheartened and even a bit angry and although we knew that our intentions had been good, we realized the this wasn’t the right way to help.

Isabelle and Lisa Wheeler with Tostan trainers in Senegal

What Molly had told us at dinner began to echo in our heads — the right way to help was to assist people to be invested in their own empowerment, not to give things or money.

So after spending a wonderful Christmas with Molly, Mark, Isabelle and I set off to southeast Senegal with our driver, Gaie. It was a real journey on so many levels, both as an experience as well as emotionally. We visited a couple of Tostan centers where we talked with the facilitators about how the programs worked as spending time in a couple of villages. Everywhere we were met with dancing and singing and such outpourings of joy and welcome.

Everywhere we visited — in one case the entire village which was gathered under the shade of a huge tree — from the chief and the Imam to the littlest girls and boys, wanted to tell us about how Tostan’s educational program had changed their lives, both individually and in the community. It was overwhelming and so beautiful, so organic and real. All of a sudden, the discouragement from our previous attempt to “do good” evaporated and we understood how to more effectively involve ourselves.

Since then, we three have all been involved spreading the word, supporting in every way we can, and in the case of Isabelle, working directly for Tostan. We learned on that trip that yes, of course, school education is very important, but what is more crucial is an education which opens people’s minds to their own potential. Without that, the former is less effective.

This is why Tostan speaks to us as a family, and as we look at this world with all its inequities we see how simple the solution can be. When people recognize their own human rights and those of the people around them — especially those of women and girls — then they can work together to bring about sustainable change and positive development to their communities and to the global community.

For the past year we have been producing a film in collaboration with BYkids (a documentary film-making non profit) which follows a young girl in the village of Keur Simbara. Ndeye Fatou tells the story of the changes that came to her village through Tostan and how her future and the future of all the kids of Keur Simbara and beyond have been forever changed for the better. The film will be shown nationwide on PBS in the Fall of 2018 and in schools all over the US.

To see Lisa’s husband Mark’s description of the experience from earlier this year, check out Holding Dignity Paramount.

Tostan Stories

Tostan is an international non-profit working since 1991 to empower communities to fulfill their own visions of sustainable development, based in human rights. These are the stories of communities moving forward with agency, not aid.


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Tostan empowers communities to realize their own sustainable development and wellbeing, and drive social transformation based on respect for human rights

Tostan Stories

Tostan is an international non-profit working since 1991 to empower communities to fulfill their own visions of sustainable development, based in human rights. These are the stories of communities moving forward with agency, not aid.

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