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Educate Tomorrow's First Olympic Athlete to Run in Rio
by Virginia Emmons-McNaught

Mariama circa 2001.


Educate Tomorrow is widely known in Florida and the United States for assisting young people who have been affected by abuse, abandonment, neglect and homelessness. We work to assist them in making their way into and through college and onto economic stability in order to break the cycle of poverty. Yet many of our supporters would be interested to discover that Educate Tomorrow was founded more broadly to help disadvantaged and marginalized people gain access to education and health care, something that the co-founders, my sisters, the Emmons' sisters, value as the key to breaking the cycle of poverty for all people. 


Our first work together began when we started a school in Niger, West Africa, in one of the most impoverished villages, in one of the least developed countries in the world where I, the youngest of the sisters, was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I am proud to tell the story here of how Educate Tomorrow is not only responsible for over 100 college graduates in the US but how we can now add one Olympic athlete to our long list of truly impressive young people we have had the honor of calling our Educate Tomorrow family.


I, Virginia Emmons McNaught, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, West Africa from 2000-2002. Mariama Mamoudzou Ittatou lived in the straw hut next to mine in the remote village of Kabey Fo, Niger, locally referred to as the place of the "Bellahs" (slaves). Her family and a few other families that make up the tiny village were released from slavery just a few years before Mariama was born in 1997.  When I arrived I found a community doing the best they could to create a new life out of barren land and limited resources. There was no road to Kabey Fo, no electricity or clean water, no school or health care. Kabey Fo, means one tree, but by the time I got there there was not even one. To add to the harsh conditions the average person in Niger makes less than $1 a day, and this village had far less opportunity than the average Nigerien. Niger's literacy rate for girls between the ages 13-24 is at 23%, that means almost 80% of the girls who live in Niger do not know how to read or write. 36% of the girls are married by 15, while almost 80% of them are married by 18 and with little to no available birth control are mothers shortly thereafter, with even more limited health care for themselves and their children. 


At barely 5 years old Mariama was curious about me and I was curious about her.  She spent many days leafing through my books and photos, teaching me the local language that she was also learning and following me on my runs out of the village as I trained for a marathon. Mariama had the patience to show me how to live in the desert.  It was when I saw her curiosity for learning that I realized the best long term plan for the community would be to help them establish a school and health clinic.  I called on the support of my sisters; Lucy Spoerk, Melanie Damian, Mary Dhanji and Melissa McCarthy in the US and they raised the money that would start the villages first elementary school, where Mariama would be enrolled in the first class in 2000 (this school is now the best performing school in the region).  When I returned to the US from Niger, we started Educate Tomorrow, in part, to continue to support the school and follow Mariama and the other students that became my family while I was there.  Most every time a person is moved to do something impactful it is because they have a 'critical experience', an experience that moves them to do more.  Mariama has always been that for me and my sisters, as she grew, we grew with her and she excelled in middle and high school eventually moving to the capital city of Niamey to continue her studies and make the Niger national track team. We cheered her on from afar last year when she spent 2 weeks in China representing the Niger national team at an international track and field games. We were blown away recently when she announced that she had qualified for the 2016 Olympic games in Rio for the women's 400 meter as a 19 year old. She will race on Saturday as one of the fastest women in the world. We could not be prouder. 


My husband, Brett McNaught, CEO of Educate Tomorrow who also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger where he and I met me stated, "When you give people opportunity, it allows them to give their best to the world, this is an example of how we need to do more to give people equity and access to more opportunities." When Brett and I were back in Niger and newly engaged to be married in 2008 the village elders insisted on a traditional wedding ceremony for us and Mariama's father played the role of Brett's father and gave him away in marriage. 


For under $20,000 a year Educate Tomorrow provides the youth of Kabey Fo and adults access to education, health care and economic opportunity. Many of the funds for the Educate Tomorrow Niger program are raised outside of Miami. Big supporters of the program are Myra Nelson and Chuck Aruta, Virginia Harper & Tom Foulger, Devon & Steve Esrick, the Emmons' sisters, the TCP Global network and our friends from Peace Corps Niger. Since 2002 we have continued to support her education and about 170 other youth from Kabey Fo, Niger, as well as, access to basic health care to the entire village and surrounding villages of Kabey Fo on an annual basis.   


While we can not take credit for any of Mariamas athletic ability and hard work, though, I still am on the record board for the 400m x 4 relay (her same distance) at Greendale High School (ah hem) and she did inquisitively follow me on a few trail runs through the desert and stretch with me in the shade... what we do know for certain is that if I had not served in her village, and we had not provided her access to education and health care, encouraged her, convinced her and her parents to not get married young, showed her that women can do and be more than what her tradition indicated, she would not have ever attended school to begin with, nor high school where she would be introduced to track.  Mariama will be competing for Niger in the 400m this week as an Olympian in Rio.  From a little hut in Niger, where her parents and family still live, in extreme heat (125 degrees+) and harsh elements to Rio for the Olympics... we are proud to say we have served our country and hers and we can say we all had some part in helping her to become hope and inspiration for not only her country but ours.

   

You Can Support Mariama, Here is How...

Please friend Mariama Mamoudou Ittatou (her links here) on Facebook@MariamaMamoumou on Twitter and let her know you are supporting her. If you are inspired to support Mariama or other young people like her you can always make a donation. It was just last year she asked for a pair of running shoes, and athletic gear and not just for herself but for the whole Niger team (which we still need). We are also seeking connections to possible athletic scholarships in the US or elsewhere so that she may pursue her maximum potential in academics and athletics. https://www.olympic.org/mariama-mamoudou-ittatou

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