Profiles of Changemakers: Patty Gilbert and Bay Roberts, Co-Founders, One School at a Time


Nancy Henderson
Contributing Editor

Fueled by nothing more than a shared interest in helping others and a curiosity to visit a country they’d never seen, in 2005 Patty Gilbert and Bay Roberts flew to Uganda to meet Juliet, a 5-year-old orphan sponsored by their own kids’ school in Boulder, Colorado. The women, who barely knew each other at the time, arrived at The Rock Foundation School in the slums of Kampala, naïve and eager to see how they might provide aid to more children at Juliet’s school. What they found was a dangerous, frightening neighborhood flooded with desperate refugees and a learning environment that shook them to the core.

“I’ve been in Third World countries, but I had never seen the level of poverty that we saw at this school,” says Roberts. “There were 500 kids. There was one book. They had no potable running water. There was no playground equipment. Some of the classrooms that they were learning in were basically wooden boxes that had been kind of converted into a classroom setting.”

Roberts and Gilbert spent two weeks in Kampala, participating in activities with the students, building relationships, and trying to understand the classroom dynamics. At the end of their stay, they asked the headmaster to gather the 15 or so teachers for a group meeting, where another stark reality emerged: Each year, when the school ran out of money to pay the teachers, they quit and a new crop was hired for the next year, depriving the kids of a consistent education. None of the current instructors had worked at the school for more than a few months. “I can’t see how anyone could’ve walked around that school and not wanted to do something,” Gilbert recalls.

Back at home, the women launched One School at a Time as a way to partner with impoverished Ugandan educational facilities, starting with the one they had visited. But, they admit, running a non-profit organization in a country they knew nothing about led to a lot of mistakes early on. On one trip to Africa, for example, Gilbert excitedly delivered an enormous suitcase crammed with picture books and beautiful posters for the children to enjoy. On returning to the school a few months later, she discovered the unused gifts stored in a closet so they wouldn’t get dirty. “Unless you know how the culture works, this is a mistake that is so easy to make,” Gilbert points out. “They don’t read for leisure. For a kid to sit down, or an adult to sit down and read a book to a kid, does not happen, because they’re just trying to survive their day. They’re out looking for food or lugging water or sweeping their hut. I never brought another book after that.”

Another eye-opener came when the founders attempted to help more private schools like the Rock Foundation. Many owners, they learned, simply use donations as an excuse to raise student fees, rendering them unable to pay. So Gilbert and Roberts started working with public schools in rural areas, away from the unstable urban slums of Kampala and in communities where residents were motivated to take pride in their children’s accomplishments.

But the most significant turning point, the women say, came when they hired a local project manager named Hussein to manage the schools and train educators how to use more humanitarian teaching techniques, such as small groups, and non-violent communication instead of caning, the traditional discipline for unruly students. “Caning is a part of the culture,” says Roberts. “This is what happens at home. This is what happens at school. Without an alternative for those teachers, they have no way to know how to manage the classroom.”

To date, One School at a Time has helped 2,500 children in six schools, all within walking distance of each other in the Mubende district about a two-hour drive west of Kampala. The students, who receive not just a solid education, but meals, safe water and sanitary pads, are now graduating against great odds. Kukanga, the third partner school, has become the flagship facility, with parents volunteering to dig for sand and collect rocks to build classrooms and sharing ideas about how to grow food rather than looking to outside NGOs for temporary help. The greatest achievement at Kukanga, however, may be the community rainwater collection system Gilbert and Roberts installed nine years ago, not just because it reduces the risk of disease from contamination, but because it allows female students to remain in the classroom instead of gathering water for their families and missing school. In the past, the girls had to trudge with their jerry jugs to a swamp shared by cows, snakes and leeches 45 minutes away. Many were raped on the way. “That to me is a very heartfelt success,” says Gilbert. “If I can prevent a bunch of girls from being raped, that’s a big deal to me.”

For this reason and others, Roberts and Gilbert provide extra assistance to the female students, especially after puberty. “In that culture, boys are already honored,” says Gilbert. “If you could only send one child in your family to school, it’s going to be a boy.” Girls in Uganda often drop out of school when they start menstruating, simply because they have no sanitary way of dealing with it. In some cases, their fathers sell them to pay for household expenses. Without an education, most of the young women become pregnant and give up their dreams and career aspirations. Even a seemingly simple barrier, such as the inability to pay for a school uniform, can prove deadly when a girl agrees to sleep with an older man, who is likely to be carrying the HIV virus, in exchange for the money she needs for supplies.

Not every school is a good match for One School at a Time, and those chosen for the program must be willing to contribute in their own ways. Each is required to complete a 5-year plan, a source of great pride in a land where residents struggle just to get through the day. In the early stages, Gilbert and Roberts generally focus on basic needs such as building infrastructure, from water wells and latrines to classrooms and teachers’ quarters. As the years pass, the focus shifts more to academics and job training.

Roberts and Gilbert have learned to cast aside their assumptions. “Patty and I don’t know what it’s like to live on less than a dollar a day, in a mud hut as a farmer,” says Roberts. “So we do not go into schools and say, ‘Oh, I see your kids don’t have shoes. We’re going to give them shoes’ or ‘Oh, they don’t have laptops. We’re going to give them laptops.’”

Likewise, they steer clear of offering handouts. “We try really hard not to ever go in and give something,” says Gilbert. “They have to be highly invested. Otherwise, it will not be successful. If they want something, they have to be giving a lot. They have to be doing more work than we do. Okay, so we give them $75 worth of farming tools, but they have to find the seeds and do whatever else needs to be done to make that gardening program work.”

In what has become an annual tradition, fifth-graders at Mesa Elementary School in Boulder come up with their own practical ideas and raise funds to help their less fortunate counterparts in Uganda. Roberts and Gilbert return to Mesa the following year to share with the students how their efforts paid off. “The kids are really feeling that they truly made a difference,” says Roberts, “because we’re showing them that they did.”

In the future, the partners hope to support four more schools and become a model for the Ugandan Department of Education on how to empower students, boost their performance, and build sustainable communities without spending a lot of money. They are currently trying to raise $45,000 for their newest Ugandan school, Mirembe Kawesa, where kids have no access to onsite water or latrines and sit outside in the absence of classrooms.

“I think the beauty of doing this work is just the sense of being able to really make a difference in an area where things are so profoundly difficult,” says Roberts, who ended up adopting Juliet, the little girl they met in Kampala on their first visit. “It brings me so much happiness in my own life to do that, the feeling of being lucky enough to be able to make some difference, somehow, for other people.”

“It’s changed me,” Gilbert adds. “It’s just really enlightened me. All the myths and all the things I thought were true are not true. By being there, you learn a lot of fascinating things about people who are poor that you used to not believe, like how amazingly motivated they can be and how amazingly creative when they’re given the chance or a little bit of hope.”

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Nancy Henderson is an award-winning author and national freelancer who often writes about people who are making a difference through their work. She is the author of Sewing Hope, a biography of Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe (Dust Jacket Press) and Able! How One Company’s Extraordinary Workforce Changed the Way We Look at Disability Today (BenBella Books) and has written for Parade, Smithsonian and many other publications.