Refirement Story: Meryll Brownlee

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The story of Meryll Brownlee is an example of what can be achieved if someone takes the time to try and make a difference in the lives of others.Meryll trained as a psychologist at Wits University and worked in psychology for a few years. After a short stint in the insurance industry,Meryll settled down to have children. While at home with her children Meryll started an after-school care centre in the Hillbrow Berea area of Johannesburg, to cater for the ‘latch-key’ children who came home from school every day to empty houses.

After her son was diagnosed with ADHD Meryllknew that she needed to stay at home with him to help him through school. During this time she started working from home on various child centred projects, including an HIV aids orphan feeding scheme. She also became aware that many young girls missed school as they needed to take care of their younger orphaned siblings. In response to this need Meryll set up houses with a Gogo who was alone and needed love and a number of orphaned children that she could take care of. Meryll applied for grants for the children and so the orphans had a home and an adult to take care of them, and the grandmother had an income and a reason to live.

When her younger child was due to go to high school Meryll was challenged by the state of the public school system, and could not afford private schooling, so she decided to home-school her daughter. Word quickly spread and Meryll was soon teaching a number of children from her home. Realising that the SA government matric certificate is not recognised anywhere in the world outside of South Africa, she registered as a centre with the UK Cambridge Curriculum as an alternative to the SA matric qualification.

Soon children and adults from all over SA and outside the country were calling her wanting classes. In this way Skype schooling was birthed to cater for students wanting an alternative to the SA public education system. She currently has students completing their IGCSEs and AS levels as well as the SA private school board (IEB) matric qualification.

Merylls previous work with HIV Aids orphans had made her realise that the underprivileged children of Africa have no hope of ever escaping poverty without an education. Education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty in Africa. In response to this Meryl started the Self-Tutor Africa Foundation in 2009 to start education Centres in South Africa and Africa to provide underprivileged children with a quality education so that they can become productive members of society, providing for their own families and children, instead of relying on hand-outs.

Meryll currently runs 3 centres in SA and another 3 in Uganda, and is hoping to open one in Zambia and another in Angola during this year. Most of these centres are situated at local churches as they are some of the only places that have electricity and can support an Internet connection. Each centre caters for 50 children but the need is much greater than the centres capacity. Each centre has a set of computers that the learners use to access the curriculum online. There is also a facilitator to help the children in their subjects and keep control of the classroom during lessons. The entire syllabus is available online and is registered with the Department of Education. There are also live tutoring sessions online to help children where they are struggling and to give students all the support they need to succeed.

The centres currently teach the US GED education standard, giving the students an internationally recognised qualification that students can use as an entrance to university. The centres up in other African countries also provide childcare for young single moms who want to return to school and a nutritious meal daily for each learner. The centres cater for high school students only as most countries have compulsory free education until grade 8, but after this the students have to pay for it and so they are not able to continue into the higher grades and go on to get a tertiary qualification.

The centres are currently funded by individuals wanting to sponsor a child through school or big businesses who can fund the running of a whole centre and its set up costs. The whole aim of the Foundation is to help break the cycle of poverty by giving these children a means to live a dignified productive life where they can provide for their own families.

Meryll currently splits her time between physically teaching online maths and extra maths lessons and setting up new centres. The logistics of running and managing the existing centres while trying to secure funding for new centres and set them up in Africa means that Meryll is constantly travelling and working. Her main challenges are trying to find a balance between work and home life. Dealing with the unlimited need in her work environment often leads to her home and personal life suffering. She describes her family as very tolerant of what she does as they each have a passion to help others less fortunate than themselves,and understand her passion for what she does.

She is also constantly challenged by a lack of finances for the Foundation. Funding for education projects does not offer companies the great advertising opportunities that sponsoring things like sporting events does, and so it is often not funded well. Also, education is a long term goal that takes many years to see results. Businesses often want to see and report on results immediately leaving education and poverty alleviation low on the list of projects that businesses want to fund.

Having worked with underprivileged children for so long, Meryll has a special ability to see a need, define its cause, and find solutions to the problem using her networking and communication skills. She has always believed that education is the solution to most of the problems facing the African continent, especially when trying to help people out of poverty into a better quality of life.

“The African continent is almost forgotten in terms of education. Everyone is always sending aid money when there is a disaster but the real way to solve the problem is to educate the population. The faster we can educate the children of Africa, the faster we can get them out of poverty,” explains Meryll.

Meryll encourages all those who are retired or who are preparing for retirement to get involved where they can in educating the children of South Africa and this continent. “Helping the next generation is so rewarding as you are giving back into your country and continent. There is so much more to do then sitting around in your older years waiting to die. Rather see the opportunity you have to make a difference in the lives of the next generation,” says Meryll.

From her experience as an entrepreneur, business owner, social entrepreneur and educator Meryll says that “if you can do what you love because you are financially secure – do it. If you need to earn money, spend time working out how to get paid for what you love doing, even if you just start on a part-time basis. Over time it will grow….”

Anyone wishing to sponsor a child through school or a business leader interested in funding a centre in Africa should contact Meryll for more details.Meryll is also in need of online tutors to help teach subjects to the students at the centres online. Tutors will need to complete an online training course before being able to teach. Contact Lynda Smith at Refirement Network for Meryll’s contact details.