Young to young: An exemplary American youth changing the lives of kenyan children

By: Niamh McDonnell


As a Kenyan charitable organization, Hilde Back Education Fund has allowed for connections throughout the world.  Creating these educational opportunities in Kenya has helped to form global networks between sponsors and recipients.  Sam Finkel, a high school senior from Rockville, Maryland, is one of HBEF’s most inspirational donors. He’s been sponsoring two students through their secondary education from the time he was 12 years old. As the son of a physician, and court appointed special advocate (CASA) for children, Sam has grown up with the same values based in educational work: empowering kids in every way one can.  Last week, Sam sat down to chat with us about how he first began to get involved with HBEF and the impact it’s left on him. The work that he’s put into sponsoring HBEF students has helped to create two more leaders of the future; the fact that he himself is a student makes that work even more meaningful. Sam exemplifies the change one can bring about in the world, even from a young age. He’s a shining example of what we can expect from the generations of the future.  It’s never too early to be making a difference in the world, big or small. Having accomplished so much already, it’s clear that Sam aims to make a big impact on the world; we’re excited to see where the future takes him, because we know it’s going to be bright.

HBEF:  You’re a senior in high school, but you’ve been a Hilde Back donor for quite some time.  Tell us a bit about how you first discovered HBEF, and what inspired you to donate your money for students in Kenya?


Sam:  “It all started in December 2012; I was 12 years old at the time.  My mom came to my family and said ‘You guys need to see this HBO Documentary.’  It was called A Small Act. [The film focused on] Hilde’s story as a Holocaust survivor, and her sending small amounts of money to a program which she knew was for education. She didn’t really know who she was helping— but that was Chris, who went on to become very successful.  He attended Harvard, and now works for the UN. [Seeing that journey] was the start of it for me. At that time, I was also preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. My synagogue, Temple Emanuel, requires each student to conduct a meaningful service project during their Bar or Bat Mitzvah year.  [I’ve always found] education to be really important, and I wanted to do something that was significant to me. I also wanted to do something that could impact someone close to my age. So when I saw the documentary, and I had my Bar Mitzvah project, it all came together. Last Fall, I had the privilege of meeting Chris and his local family, who live near us in Gaithersburg, Maryland.  He was working in Washington, D.C. at the time and joined myself and my family for the breaking of our fast. When we observe the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, we fast for 24 hours. Then, we break the fast with a dairy meal. It was a really special meeting, and we had an awesome time. Chris brought me a cool shirt from Kenya too.

HBEF: Chris mentioned that you’ve been sponsoring multiple students? Do you know them or keep in touch with them?


Sam: Yes. I started sponsoring one student named Samuel Sila; he was the first student.  I had actually only planned to sponsor one student. I had to raise money, and I did so through making speeches at my school, and fundraising sermons at my synagogue.  I contacted the filmmakers of A Small Act to show it at my synagogue as well.  After viewing the movie at that same event, I skyped with Chris, who was in Ethiopia at the time.  I moderated questions about school in Kenya and the Hilde Back Education Fund. So I had begun with Samuel in mind, but I [ended up] raising over $4000, which allowed me to sponsor John Waweru as well.  Through social media I’m able to contact them on Facebook. Samuel is currently studying at Pwani University-Kilifi, and wants to pursue a degree in Arts Education. John recently finished his final exam of the 4 year secondary school sponsorship.  He did extremely well— only 17% of students scored with an A or A- grade, and he was one of them. He’s now planning on attending Nairobi University for a Bachelor's Degree in Real Estate.   When they were still in High School, I used to get reports and letters from them each month and I would write back. t was really cool to not just be sending this money, but to be keeping in touch with John and Samuel and really seeing their progress.  That was really rewarding for me.

HBEF: You’ve just been accepted to Tulane, which is amazing! Congratulations.  What do you plan on doing in the future? Is it related to non-profit work?


Sam: I definitely think so.  I got into the Honors Program at Tulane, but my major is undecided so I’m not exactly sure.  I’m leaning towards a pre-med track, and potentially helping health and medicine in underdeveloped countries such as Kenya.  I definitely plan to stay involved with the Hilde Back Education Fund, and possibly go to Kenya this summer to work with Chris.   

HBEF: What does education mean to you as a sponsor of HBEF who is a student themselves?


Sam: As a student I’ve always loved education, specifically teaching.  In class, I really enjoy the feeling of helping kids who maybe don’t understand the material in the moment.  Being able to help them, and see that look on their face when they understand the material is really inspiring to me.  In school I do a lot of education-related activities. As the president of the National Honor Society, I get to interact with students, and talk to underclassmen about their struggles, whether it’s academically or socially. I’ve always been really interested in education, but HBEF really inspired me, and further motivated me to help other kids my age.

HBEF: What has HBEF meant to you over the years; what impact has it had on you as such a young sponsor?


Sam: As a student here in the U.S., I think a lot of kids take education for granted; they don’t really think about it.  With Chris, I know his motto is ‘Education is a Human Right,’ and that’s something I really agree with. In Kenya, it’s obviously not guaranteed that kids get an education.  I think Hilde Back Education Fund, has really made me think about how grateful and blessed I am to be able to have an education without having to really worry about it.

HBEF: As someone who has been doing inspirational work from such a young age, what’s your response to those who don’t believe young people can really be taken seriously?


Sam: That’s a tough question. I would say that obviously it isn’t true.  Whatever you want to put your mind to, if there’s something you want to accomplish, you’ve got to block out the people who don’t believe in you.  You have to continue your own journey, as Chris did— he was given the chance to do something with his education through Hilde. He was extremely successful, and he was my age.  So it’s a matter of trying to do your own thing and not worry about what others think.


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