That’s what a girl, probably 14-years old, said to a group of women visiting her school from Colorado–”I believe in change”–as a way of explaining what motivated her to continue her schooling despite obstacles that to most of us would prove insurmountable. As a part of The Trampled Rose Program, she was eligible for financial support (for housing, food, uniforms, school supplies, menstrual support, and health care) and her community participated in an awareness campaign that reinforced the importance of education for girls and their rights as individuals. Without that assistance, she would never have been able to attend school. Poverty, distance and misunderstanding often stand in the way of education for rural girls in Ethiopia.

I went to Ethiopia to see for myself how The Trampled Rose was helping girls. My intent was to bring hope and encouragement to girls who were struggling to succeed against impossible odds. Becky Kiser, founder and Executive Director of the program, often says that “All we can do is move a few of the rocks out of their path, the rest is up to them.” And that’s what the program does, and that’s all it takes to launch girls on a path of learning that inevitably leads to more fulfilling lives for them, their families and their communities.

We began in Addis Ababa on October 22, 2014–a team of volunteers from the U.S. and Germany planning to visit several rural schools in the countryside. I’d never been to Africa before and I thought I was well prepared for what I would see, but I wasn’t. Even in the largest city, the lifestyle for most is demanding. The air is polluted, the streets are rough, traffic is snarled and chaotic, public transportation and facilities are undependable, utilities (like electricity and running water) are sporadic. The poor are everywhere–beggars suffering from age, infirmity (polio is still rampant), mental illness–living on the streets.

Despite what would seem the most dire of circumstances, the people are generally pleasant, positive and friendly. There are indications everywhere of a culture in transition–construction of new roads and buildings, children in uniforms on their way to school, small businesses along every street. The federal government has legislated away several huge issues–the damage done by early marriage (obstetric fistula, early childbirth, lack of educational opportunity), the practice of female circumscision, and even the threat of trafficking of girls to other countries. Numerous NGOs are present from North American and European countries addressing a variety of issues. Progress is evident.

As we were preparing for this trip, Becky often reiterated that her goal for the visit was that the girls would feel loved by us, and know that we cared about their well-being and success. At the time I thought that a rather flimsy objective–what possible impact could a few white ladies have on the overall perspective of Ethiopian schoolgirls. Again I was wrong. In the first village in the Midda Worromo Region, 200 girls were expected on a Saturday morning. Over 500 showed up, all eager to see us and participate in the various “workshops” we had prepared for them. Some of us did simple dance/exercise routines, others had art projects (zentangle) and bracelet making. Two Rotarians in the group conducted a business ethics exercise and created a 4-way knot necklace to accompany it. We were all overwhelmed by the turnout and the enthusiasm and quickly modified our sessions to accommodate more girls.

A day later at another school in the town of Almem Ketima, 300 girls were expected. When our bus rolled through the gates of the school, we were greeted by over 1,200 smiling faces. Becky had warned us that we needed to be flexible about all our plans, and this day truly proved that point. Our team rose to the occasion by beginning with a whole-group activity demonstrating a simple dance and then having them show us traditional Ethiopian dance. We managed to abbreviate all our offerings so that we could work and play with more of the girls if only briefly. Some of these girls had walked 6 hours or more to be present on this Sunday morning. For a variety of reasons, we were almost 4 hours late in arriving, and following the program some faced another 6-hour walk to get home. That kind of commitment is rarely seen in our own privileged population and one of the many factors that left me with such admiration for these girls.

On another day in Ankover we visited a school where we met with some of the girls and their parents. These mothers and fathers had taken time away from the vital activities of farming to come to school with their daughters and tell us how very much they appreciate The Trampled Rose Program and its assistance. They want their daughters to have a chance to attend University. One mother, a widow with seven children, has already managed to educate two of her children (an engineer and a teacher) and is working to see that the others also receive the education she never had.

At our last school visit, a young woman volunteered to show us the housing she rents so that she can stay in the village and attend school. (The Trampled Rose Program funds housing for any student who has to walk more than 1 1/2 hours each way to school.) She took us to an adobe-covered building with four doors. Each door led to a small room, one of which was her home. The floor was dirt. Her bed was a pallet in the corner with a couple of articles of clothing on it. She had one electric light dangling from a cord in the ceiling, a box of school books, a basket with her food supply (injera–the bread that is eaten at every meal). Outside there was a water faucet, but no toilet facilities were in evidence. There was no heat source. Any of us would have cried to imagine our children living in such austere circumstances. She showed us her room with pride, and on the wall was a coloring book page she had completed on Becky’s last visit. Below the brightly-colored Disney princess she had written, “I love you, BEKY”

These girls manage to study chemistry, biology and philosphy in English, while wearing the same uniform every day of the year, living in a cold, dark hut, walking for miles each day to get to and from school and existing on stale bread. They have dreams of being doctors, engineers, police officers and teachers. They love Disney princess pictures and adored the pretty earrings we gave them (made by one of our team members who was unable to accompany us). I came home from Ethiopia at first overwhelmed by all I had seen, but as I continue to process the experience I feel transformed by the power of the human spirit, and the courage, dignity and determination of young women with dreams. I went to Africa to bring hope and love, but I returned as the recipient of the very commodities I sought to convey.

Mahatma Gandhi is said to have said “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Ethiopian girls are living that challenge every day. Our challenge is to continue moving a few of those rocks out of their path so they can do the rest.