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Trust In Education founder gives talk in Bigfork about work in Afghanistan

by TAYLOR INMAN
Bigfork Eagle | July 13, 2022 12:00 AM

A nonprofit whose mission is to provide better education and quality of life for children and families in Afghanistan will be discussing updates about their work in Bigfork on Monday. Trust In Education Founder Budd MacKenzie and his team have been working around Kabul for the past 18 years, staying steady in their mission as the volatile political landscape of the country remains a constant battle.

Trust In Education, or TIE, started after MacKenzie was inspired by the story of another Montanan making a change in the region. He said he read an article about Greg Mortenson’s work building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan and was struck by a quote that said “he fights terror with books.” MacKenzie, who is based in the Bay Area but also has a home in Montana, decided to raise money for another school Mortenson was building in Afghanistan. He ended up raising $60,000 and visited the school once it was finished. It was then that he saw firsthand the living conditions for some people in Afghanistan.

“I also knew at that point about the United States’ involvement in the region, and those who know the history behind our involvement, know that the conditions that exist in Afghanistan are largely due to us. So, those proved to be two life altering events for me, I came back home, started winding down my law practice and spending more and more time helping children and families in Afghanistan— and it became a full-time pursuit,” MacKenzie said.

TIE officially began in 2003 and for nearly 20 years MacKenzie’s team has made huge strides to help bring education, gender equality and improved living conditions to those they serve near Kabul. Their team of 18 has built two schools (one just for girls), built two bridges, created a girl’s soccer program, built soccer fields and a playground, planted 22,000 fruit trees and created sponsorship opportunities for street children and struggling families— among many other initiatives. MacKenzie said they asked what locals needed and started working to help.

“I taught them how to say ‘wishlist.’ I would go to different villages, and I'd say, ‘what do you need?’ And they would tell me and I'd say, ‘put it on the wish list.’ That's the one thing about aid that I realized, if you want to know what they need, just ask them. It's real simple. Don't just go in there with your preconceived notions about what you're going to do, which is why we ended up with 22,000, fruit trees, building irrigation systems and wells,” MacKenzie said.

TIE has taken on many different projects, but education remains their primary focus. MacKenzie said he believes education is “the solution to almost everything,” getting children to break the cycle of generational poverty and raising girls to think for themselves. One thing that concerns him the most, MacKenzie says, is the Taliban’s laws barring girls from getting an education past the 6th grade. The Taliban took control of the country again in August of last year, prompting a mass exodus and implementation of harsh religious rule. Life for women in Afghanistan has historically been oppressive, even before the Taliban took over. But after August of last year, MacKenzie wasn’t sure if TIE’s work would continue— luckily for them, he said it’s only just begun.

TIE has created eight “computer libraries,” computer labs loaded with educational programs and information free for students to use. Over two years they translated 1,000 Khan Academy Math videos from English to Dari and have started creating flash drives loaded with educational content. MacKenzie said they don’t just focus on STEM, but music, art and history as well.

The eighth library is set to open this month, but MacKenzie said the seven other libraries serve around 720 girls a day for six days a week, with an absentee rate of 2%. He said he is excited about the potential of their flash drive program.

“Our libraries are starting to become the place for those girls to learn beyond the sixth grade. I have two men working for me as program directors, and one of them is putting together tapes that will take somebody from the first through the sixth grade, then through the sixth grade and up through high school, then we have tapes that they can watch and study for the college exam … But I'm very excited about that. Because, in theory if we really have what he says we have, a girl doesn't need to go to school at all,” MacKenzie said.

Of course, MacKenzie said if given the chance most girls would want to attend school. But their flash drive courses could carry them into a college education. He said despite their efforts to continue educating girls, they thankfully haven’t gotten any trouble from Taliban officials.

The latest of TIE’s efforts include their family sponsorships. It’s based off of a program they created sponsoring street children— kids who are forced to work on the streets to help provide income for their families. They have 153 students enrolled in that program— which for $50 a month, gives them access to an education and gets them off the streets. Now, they’ve extended that program to include families.

“I started to hear that they were selling their daughters to allow the other members of the family to survive, or even worse, they were letting their newborns starve to death so that the other members could survive … So, I started a program where these families are chosen and they get $100 a month for a year. No promise for anything more, but these families are living on the bottom rungs of the ladder,” MacKenzie said.

He said it doesn’t do much for people to get a temporary boost in income, but the sustained money from the sponsorship program allows people to potentially lift themselves out of poverty. He said he’s learned it’s very difficult for people there to make a decent living, perhaps making $1-2 a day house cleaning, for example. The $100 a month covers living expenses and the cost of food. It is particularly hard for single women to earn an income in Afghanistan, so many of the families chosen are widows and their children. MacKenzie spoke of one family in need: Mahmouda and her four children. She is a widow and doesn’t have the resources to take care of one of her daughters, who is eight-years-old and suffers from “mental problems.” Their family is one of many who could benefit from TIE’s sponsorship program.

MacKenzie plans to talk about more families in need of sponsorship at the Bigfork Community United Methodist Church on July 18, starting at 7 p.m. He said he also plans to discuss more of TIE’s initiatives, the current political climate in Afghanistan and how United States involvement led to many of the problems that the country suffers from today. He will give another talk to the Kalispell Rotary Club at the Hilton Garden Inn on July 21 starting at noon.

Learn more about TIE on their website trustineducation.org.