Montana State University

"Just One Person" empowering girls in Kenya

September 14, 2009 -- Anne Pettinger, MSU News Service


Annette Lilly Russ, left, in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Annette Lilly Russ.   High-Res Available

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A Montana State University alumna who grew up in southwest Montana has devoted her retirement to helping girls in Kenya.

Annette Lilly Russ, who graduated from MSU in 1979 and 1985 and is the daughter of famous fly-fisherman Bud Lilly, has established a program in Kenya that empowers and enables girls to become economically independent and vital to the economy.

"Just One Person" is the only program targeting girls in western Kenya that combines computer technology, health education, leadership, problem solving and decision-making in a structured social setting, Russ said. Further, the program has been designed, developed and implemented by local community leaders.

Russ's idea for the organization was a long time in the making, starting with the fact that she is a person who values education, she said. She grew up in Bozeman and West Yellowstone, where her dad's fly-fishing business was based, and graduated from Bozeman High School in 1972. Russ started her college career at the University of Montana, then left and began a family. Eventually, she returned to college, at MSU, as a non-traditional student and earned bachelor degrees in business and education.

"I had a very, very good college experience at MSU," she said. "I was good friends with some of the professors and had a really close class. I worked hard but I have really good memories about it."

Russ, who moved to Chico, Calif., about 21 years ago, retired from her work as a certified public accountant in 2003 and then went on safari to Botswana in 2005. In 2006, she volunteered for about four months in western Kenya, working with a micro finance program.

Micro finance provides financial services to low-income clients, including people who have no credit, Russ explained.

Most of Russ's clients in western Kenya were women, many of whom were widows struggling to provide for their families. They would receive $100 unsecured loans, and as each loan was repaid, the women, who mostly worked as vendors, were able to borrow more.

"Micro finance gives women an opportunity to generate income," Russ said. "It's a solution."

Buoyed by her experience in Kenya, but concerned that the women weren't receiving business training when they received loans, Russ decided to start "Just One Person."

The organization works with secondary schoolgirls, selecting five girls from each of five different schools. The 25 girls, ranging in age from 13 to 19, attend semiannual trainings throughout their four years of school, with topics ranging from birth control, unsafe abortion and HIV to relationship development, computer training and female role models.

The girls then go back to their own schools and organize condensed training seminars for their peers.

Parents of the girls are also invited to attend business trainings, which helps them realize the value of the program immediately, Russ said.

"It's a wide-ranging program," she said. "It's really ambitious."

It's also a huge time commitment for Russ, who travels to Kenya twice a year for about six weeks at a time. In addition, she said her fundraising work is the equivalent of a full-time job when she's in the United States.

The time is worth it for Russ, who is convinced of the importance of the work.

"It is a very good program," she said. "In rural Kenya, girls do not know about opportunities. The biggest benefit of this program to them is opening up opportunities and exposing them to the world."

To learn more about "Just One Person," visit http://www.Just1person.org.

www.Just1person.org