Community - January 3, 2007

Retired M-A math teacher Margo McAuliffe learns new math of fundraising

Menlo Park woman helps build a school in Kenya

by David Boyce

(Correction: The article implies that Ms. McAuliffe met Father Daniel Kiriti when he visited the Peninsula. In fact, she didn't meet him here; she learned about him from a friend, and e-mailed him several times about teaching math in Africa, and he encouraged her to fly to Nairobi. She met him for the first time in the Nairobi airport.)

It can be a puzzle, what to do when a dream long deferred turns out not to be what you anticipated.

Consider the ambition of retired Menlo-Atherton High School trigonometry teacher and Menlo Park resident Margo McAuliffe.

"Throughout my life, for years, I'd come out of a daydream and realize that I'd been thinking of teaching girls in Africa," she told the Almanac recently.

In September 2005, after making some preliminary arrangements, she packed for Kenya's equatorial climate and headed for the airport.

"I just kind of did it," she says. "I was 69 at the time. I got on the airplane and they closed the door and I said, 'My God, what have I done?'"

But shortly after she arrived, she says, she realized that teaching math in Kenya was not in the cards for her. The teachers she met "were very good," she says. "If I were to come there and teach, I would be taking away a Kenyan teacher's job." Besides, she says, there was a greater need: fundraising.

Back in 2004, when she retired from M-A, Ms. McAuliffe discussed her teaching plans with Father Daniel Kiriti, a Kenyan priest who visits the area occasionally and says Mass for her Palo Alto-based church group, the Thomas Merton Center for Catholic Spiritual Development. Father Kiriti welcomed her desire to teach math, she says.

At the time, he was in the first phase of separating a coed Kenyan high school into boys and girls schools and was developing plans for a new girls high school in Naivasha, a town of 350,000 located 65 miles north of the capital, Nairobi.

Father Kiriti needed help raising money for the school, and Ms. McAuliffe volunteered to help him raise it. "It was only after I got started that I realized that (the $300,000 project) didn't have any money," she says. "I'm the only fundraiser for the school."

In the last 14 months, she says, she's collected about $100,000 from friends and members of her church as well as other churches. Asked what fundraising has done to her routines, she was lighthearted: "What has it done? Taken over my life."

On a recent trip to Beaverton, Oregon, with Father Kiriti, she arranged for him to say Mass a couple of times at St. Cecilia Church and give five homilies over five Masses. That effort alone raised $10,400, Ms. McAuliffe says.

"I've always hated asking people for money," she adds. "It's been a real stretch for me. This is so much work, and to just one school."

She has had occasional thoughts of setting up a foundation, but that would have to come later, she says. "Right now, I just want to make sure I get one school built."

Teaching in Kenya

As fundraiser-in-chief for the new school, Ms. McAuliffe is busy here in the United States, but she does manage to teach both boys and girls when she's in Kenya — about once a year. While in Naivasha, she says, she splits her time between tutoring and team-teaching.

She walks to school, about 2 miles uphill, and makes the journey twice a day. During the day, students stay put while teachers move from room to room, and classes are supposed to start at 8:10 a.m.

She says she has tried appealing to the students' sense of approaching adulthood in hopes of inculcating promptness and responsibility. Some students arrive in the afternoon, some casually miss whole days, she says.

To engage students, Ms. McAuliffe says she has been using the Socratic method: She presents a question and allows the children to reflect and propose answers.

Participation of girls with boys in the room was a particular concern, and a primary reason behind Father Kiriti's decision to split up the school. In her coed classes, "by the end of two weeks, the girls were speaking up just like the boys were," she says.

Breaking bread

As a homemaker, Ms. McAuliffe knows her way around an oven, but her skills were tested in Kenya one day when she taught a group of six prostitutes to bake bread. Life Bloom, a group that helps commercial sex workers, planned the day.

The class took place in the home of a female prison guard at least a mile's walk away, which they hiked loaded down with ingredients, she says. Along the dusty way, she says, playing children would try to shake her hand, asking "How are you?" in their high-pitched voices.

Her classroom was a living room about 10 feet by 10 feet and jammed with furniture, a portable oven with a broken adjustment knob, and a couple of coffee tables to use as kneading surfaces, she says.

After moving some furniture outside, she got started, teaching her students about yeast and kneading and punching down risen dough, all amid salty teasing and chit chat, some of it in Swahili. "We had lots of good laughs," she says.

The women were very grateful, and not least because Ms. McAuliffe sat and ate with them, she says.


• For more information, send an e-mail to To donate to the school fund, make checks out to the Thomas Merton Center, which underwrites all administrative costs, and send to the center at P.O. Box 60061, Palo Alto, CA 94306. Put "Kiriti Fund, Girls School" in the memo line.


Posted by Inge Leonardos, a resident of another community
on Dec 11, 2007 at 10:30 am

I have known Margo for many years. What a wonderful spot for her. Her energy, knowledge & caring could not be given to a better cause. We know so little about life in Africa, it is helpful to learn about these kind of projects and the people involved. Thank you Margo et al.

Posted by Calestor Kizito, a resident of another community
on Sep 20, 2009 at 3:54 pm

I love you Margo. Thanx alot and God bless u

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