My mother Sharyn was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on July 17, 2013 – and although she only lived seven weeks following that, she made the most of her final days as she continued to tutor her students from her bed. She was a teacher heart and soul.

She had always talked about her dream to build a school in a developing country, where girls in particular would benefit from education. Until reading her will, I didn’t know that she fully intended to have us help make her dream a reality. Having lost her own mother at a young age, my mother knew how important it would be for those closest to her to have focus and purpose after her passing.

The details of how or exactly where the school would be built were left up to me, so I began exploring options. As an entrepreneur who spent a large chunk of my life abroad, I considered managing this massive undertaking on my own. Due to the criteria my mum set out in her will, I quickly realized that the logistics of building a school in an area of the developing world where I had no connections was an impossibility.

So I began to research and sift through what felt like countless charitable organizations to find one that was a perfect match. Enter imagine1day. After coming up with a shortlist, we engaged three organizations to provide us with proposals. From the start, Executive Director Sapna Dayal and her team understood my mum’s story and actively listened to help me develop a highly personalized plan that would carry out my mother’s final wish. My mother was very clear about two things – that the school be in an area where the educational opportunities would benefit girls and that there be a focus on literacy.

imagine1day chose Gobele, a village of just under 2,000 people, located in the district of Meda Welabu in southern Ethiopia. We learned that girls’ education in the district is limited by economic factors, distance, and traditional gender roles.

After travelling the Danakil Depression, seven of us – family and friends – headed back to Addis where we met Sapna, her crew, and my brother Mike, who had just flown in from Toronto for the inauguration on October 21. We soon began our two day journey to my mum’s school, spending time at one of imagine1day’s other schools along the way. Our welcome from the communities in both of the schools’ villages was overwhelmingly warm and emotional. Hundreds and hundreds of smiling children and adults came out to show us what our contributions meant to them.

Months before our journey, we stamped hundreds of books my mother had collected over 30 years of teaching with the message “To teach is to touch the future; the gift of reading from Sharyn Mandel”. We organized them by grade, reading level and subject, and shipped them to imagine1day to distribute. Seeing these well-loved books—books that once sat on the shelves of my mother’s tutoring room—in their new homes in Ethiopia, was powerful.

On the day of the inauguration, as we rounded the corner to the grounds of my mum’s school, we could hear the entire community singing, “Welcome, welcome, how are you? Welcome, welcome, we love you!” In that instant, all of the hard work and planning we had invested for months on paper finally became real. From the moment we arrived, until the moment the entire community danced us out, we were treated like royalty. We, and the imagine1day crew, were ceremoniously dressed in traditional garb and paraded individually before a wildly cheering crowd, and presented with regional delicacies.

Over the course of the day, we heard the community elders explain just what the construction of the school meant for their village. We heard from a young mother in Grade 4 with a baby strapped to her back tell us how inspired she was by my mother’s story and read us a poem that she hoped would inspire other married women with children to return to school. After the formal speeches, we toured the original school building (which consisted of several small classrooms made of mud, wood and straw) and the vastly improved new classrooms, faculty office, and latrines that imagine1day had built. We heard from teachers and students who shared their curriculum and future dreams of becoming doctors, teachers, engineers, and police officers.

So much has been accomplished at Gobele Sharyn Primary School (that’s the official name!), but as we learned, there is still a lot to do. The adults of the community have been inspired by their children to educate themselves, and as awareness for education grows in Gobele, so too will the need for capacity-building. We now have our next project: fundraising plans to meet the evolving needs of the school we all see as ours now, and a new family in the community of Gobele.

Author Bio:
Gabriel Mandel is a Toronto-based globetrotter who is always looking around the corner for his next adventure, even if the adrenaline-pumping destinations he chose drove his mother crazy. Before his experience with imagine1day, he’d never been to Ethiopia, but hopes to return as often as possible to visit the school his mother funded.