To say that Yeah Samake is living his dream is not entirely accurate.
What has happened in his life, he says, "is way beyond anything I could imagine. I had no dream."
Samake grew up in Ouelessebougou, Mali. "I have known the pain of going to bed on an empty stomach, shivering from the fever of malaria and walking barefoot in the Sahara Desert. Yet, unlike a large majority of children who grow under these same circumstances, I was given the exceptional opportunity to go to school in my own village."
He was one of the lucky ones in that he was able to get an education and went on to get a bachelor's degree in English as a second language in his home country. But his family was of very modest means. "If you had sent me a visa to come to the United States, I still could not have come. I could not have afforded it."
But Samake came to the attention of a family in Colorado, who sponsored him, enabling him to come to the United States to further his education. He received a master's degree in public policy at Brigham Young University. "They took a chance on me. They invested in me. And I'm so grateful. It has changed my life. And now I can help other people in my country."
Samake is currently working as the executive director of the Daily Dose Foundation, a nonprofit organization established to provide better access to education for children around the world. The foundation is an offshoot of Daily Dose Learning Systems Inc., a Utah-based provider of job-specific English programs for the workplace, founded by Adrian Escalante, who was born in Argentina.
When he founded his company, Escalante wanted to add a charitable organization, but his business plans called for it to be launched in 2007. Then he met Samake. "I thought, why wait for two more years to start the foundation? There are people now who need help." He hired Samake on the spot.
The foundation launched its first project in Guatemala in December 2004 and now is working on a project with the village of Tentou in Mali.
Former NBA star Soumaila Samake (no relation to Yeah) heard of the foundation and asked it to help his village. Soumaila did not even get a high school degree. He was fortunate in that he learned basketball, but he realizes that not many people will be so lucky. "He now wants to build schools for the children back home," says Yeah Samake.
In Tentou, children must walk 12 miles a day in order to go to school. The nearest school is in a village three miles away. The children walk there in the morning, then have to go home for lunch and return to school in the afternoon.
"All that walking not only impedes their school performance, it also cuts into the time they can help their families," says Samake. "And many families are reluctant to send their girls that far, so there is a big disparity in the education of girls and boys."
This spring, Samake led a delegation, which included two educators and an architect, to Tentou to assess the needs and see how the foundation might help. "We met with the elders; we met with the young men's organization and the young women's organization; we met with students and teachers. Consistently, the same issue arose: 'We need classrooms in our community,' they all told us."
But, says Samake, Daily Dose Foundation did not want to just give them a handout. "We had to find out what they could provide. They said they would provide the land and the labor. The national government would provide the teachers. We just needed to provide the materials."
The foundation decided that it did not want to build a school of concrete cinder blocks, which are traditional in Mali but which also must be imported. "We are going to send them a machine that will make pressed adobe bricks. After they make the bricks they need, then we can take the machine to other villages. Now we are hoping to raise money to provide materials for the roof and windows."
The need is great in Samake's country, says Escalante. Consider that the literacy rate is about 26 percent on average, and even lower in Samake's village, where it is about 15 percent. Consider that out of about 15,000 villages, less than 7,000 have schools. Consider that out of a population of 11 million, only 1,000 have college degrees. Consider that 450 children out of every 1,000 don't survive childhood.
"We are so fortunate to have Yeah," says Escalante. "He has beaten the odds all around. And he truly understands the value of education."
The Daily Dose Foundation has several campaigns going to provide help to Mali and other countries. One, called Share the Surplus, encourages school districts and companies that have older computer equipment to donate it.
"We recently had a call from Emery School District. For three years, they have been trying to get rid of old computers, but no one would take them. The computers were finally going to the landfill, when the district heard about us. Things that are outdated to you are valuable in other countries. All we have to do is find a way to get them there."
Samake went through his school career "without touching a keyboard. Think how it will change lives of a 13- or 14-year-old who can touch a keyboard," he says. "They are simple things, but they mean so much."
Another program, called Adopt-a-School, encourages schools and classrooms to share pencils, books, rulers and other supplies with classrooms in Mali.
"We are also looking for students who might be willing to clean and check computers and get them ready to ship," says Escalante. "We're looking for people who might be willing to skip a lunch and send us the money. The $5 they would spend for lunch will feed Mali students for five days."
Later this year, Daily Dose is hoping to put together another expedition of volunteers to go and help make bricks. "That gives people a chance not only to help, but also to learn about themselves," says Samake.
Eventually, Samake wants to go back to Mali to help his people. "My wife is finishing her education at BYU, and then we will go back."
Escalante wouldn't be surprised if someday Samake runs for president of Mali. "I know he will be involved in government."
But Samake believes it all starts with education. "It is hard to promote democracy if people can't read or write. It is hard to meet the challenges of a global world, if all you can do is survive. I have experienced personally what education can do, the power it can give one individual."
And Samake now has a dream. "I believe that if people are given a chance, they can make a difference."
Anyone interested in finding out more or helping with Daily Dose Foundation projects can call 801-957-5442 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.