Ken Neal- A Christmas Story

24 Dec, 2006

Ken Neal- A Christmas Story

Somewhere in rural Egypt, a little girl is dreaming of becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a leader of her country, the best hope for peace in the Middle East.


Or, more likely, one of her children, educated because she is educated, will do some of those things for her. She might be in one of the 14 one-room schools built by Tulsans through Springboard — Educating the Future.


Springboard is the fund-raising vehicle with which Apache Corp., an oil and gas exploration company with a regional office in Tulsa, has quietly pushed the program. By Dec. 31, less than two years after it was started, Springboard will have funded and constructed 200 Girl Friendly schools in rural Egypt through private contributions totaling $3 million.


Kathy Neal, an attorney and the wife of Rob Johnston, an Apache executive who formerly led the Tulsa operations of Apache, is a board member of Springboard.


Springboard originated with Apache executives living in Egypt. They learned of a program by the Egyptian National Council for Childhood and Motherhood to build schools for girls, saw the potential, and recommended it to Raymond Plank. A widely respected name in the oil industry, Plank founded Apache and is chairman of its board of directors.


The Girl Friendly school program is revolutionary in Egypt because girls traditionally are not sent to school. The concept behind the schools: "If you educate a woman, you educate a family.


Egypt is a beautiful country and in many ways the cradle of mankind, its organized government reaching back at least 5,000 years. Today it is grindingly poor, but it is the moderate voice of the Middle East.


Springboard is contagious; the European Union has committed to build an additional 200 schools.


Most of the schools constructed by Springboard are in a lush area on the west of the Nile River south of Cairo. Farming there today is much like it was in Roman times when it was the “breadbasket" of the world.


Springboard schools are a three-way project. A hamlet that wants a school must provide a site. Usually a prosperous male villager donates a site from his farmland. That, said Neal, not only shows generosity but determination to overcome the cultural tradition that keeps women uneducated.


A one-room school built to a standardized Springboard design costs $15,000. The Egyptian Ministry of Education provides teachers, furniture and supplies.


Individuals and organizations in Tulsa paying for schools include physicians Perry and Nancy Inhofe; Bob and Jill Thomas, best known for their work in United Way and the fight against Alzheimer's disease; Shelly Dalrymple, an attorney, and Mike and Sally Young and Matt and Tellia Watson of Apache office.


Former Tulsans are Neal and Johnston, Tim and Julie Danklef, Dallas; Tom and Maria Maher and Debbie and Jay Hightower, Cairo.

Employees of the central regional office of Apache and the exploration office here also funded schools. The University of Tulsa Women's Law Caucus financed a school by selling more than 800 handbags made from material woven by women in Cairo.


Abby Johnston, daughter of Neal and Johnston, took photos of the Egyptian girls and fashioned a 2006 calendar. Sales of the calendar raised $19,000 for the schools.


Neal visited "her school" and others recently.


How are they doing?


"I took them some children's books in Arabic and hands shot up, wanting to read them to me. Some of these girls started school in July, others in October, and they are reading already," she said.


"Some of the government schools have uniforms so the girls in our school wanted uniforms. The villagers managed to raise the $3 (10 Egyptian pounds) needed for material and their mothers made them uniforms."


Girls in these hamlets are poor.


"When they started school they were ragged, but now their faces are clean, their hair combed and they are proud of their uniforms. The changes in just a year are amazing," Neal said.


The girls are curious about the outside world. They want to learn about the U.S. When they learned that Neal lives in Buenos Aires, they located it on a globe and asked what it is like.


"I told them it is a big city like Cairo, but then I realized that none of them has been there, even though they live a few miles outside the city.


"But these girls have dreams - big dreams. They talk of being doctors, lawyers and teachers. They tell you how much they love to learn. They tell you how much they love their teachers. They want to learn to speak English."


Neal was on a tight schedule and could not stay with her girls as long as they wanted.


"They had lots of questions but the most heart breaking of all was, 'Can you spend the rest of the day with us?'"


As you probably have guessed by now, Kathy Neal and Julie Danklef are my daughters and Abby Johnston is my granddaughter.


The spirit of Christmas is there in the arid and dusty setting of Egypt. There is a move toward peace on earth.


The girls of Egypt have little concept of Christmas. Indeed, they are Muslims.


Maybe that's why this is a genuine Christmas story of giving. It certainly made my Christmas.


Happy Holidays!

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