Lake Minnetonka Magazine Article

For children living in the Lake Minnetonka area, attending school primarily means freedom to learn. For children trying to survive in the Kenyan slum of Kibera, located in the city of Nairobi, a chance at an education also means freedom from abject hunger and thirst and the high chance of sexual assault. In light of that contrast, a local couple is raising awareness and money for a scholarship program to take Kiberan children away from the slums and into boarding schools to set them on the road to freedom.

Growing up in Denmark, siblings Ulrich and Connie Nielsen had what Ulrich calls the essentials—a home, health care and education. Those were a given, and any charitable work that was done in their country was extended outward. Ulrich recalls organizing food trucks and spending time in Poland and other European countries to aid those in need. “That’s what I grew up with,” he says of serving others.

Now Ulrich and his wife, Lynn Younglove, who live in Watertown, continue charitable outreach through the Road to Freedom scholarship program, which offers scholarships to children from the poorest sections of Kibera. The program was started five years ago by Connie, an actress, who first recognized the need to educate Kiberan children during the 2010 filming of the Danish film Lost in Africa.

During a break from filming, the actress visited the Kibera Hamlets after-school program. Many of the children were orphans or were living with extended family, with little or no knowledge of the whereabouts of their parents. Despite their familial situations, which were compounded by a crushing lack of nutrition and clean drinking water, Connie discovered the children still had a strong appetite for learning. One girl had lost her parents a short time before arriving in Kibera to live with relatives. “She looked undernourished, in shock and afraid, and yet she was able to whisper that she wanted to go to school,” Road to Freedom’s website says.

Connie was also inspired to create the Human Needs Project to build a town center in Kibera. “Out of that,” says Ulrich, “we saw there were a lot of young girls who didn’t get to go to school.” In fact, only 8 percent of girls in Kibera receive an education. “It’s a huge problem that these potential contributors [to society] don’t get to go to school at all,” Ulrich says. “First, it’s about getting kids away from the slum and getting an education at the same time… When you see firsthand how people live and measure it up with how we live, it’s impossible not to help.”

While the nonprofit organization is based in California, Ulrich and Younglove hope local residents will be inspired to donate to the program. Younglove, who grew up in Minnetonka, has organized fundraising events, including an all-day scrapbooking party that raised money to pay for the students’ uniforms and a portrait session for grandmothers, mothers and their children that included professional makeup and hair stylists.

Her efforts, plus the efforts of others, have raised more $250,000 to send 17 students to Laiser Hill Academy, a Kenyan boarding school, for $3,000 annually, says Kirsten Jackson, the program’s executive director. Scholarship funds tend to the students’ tuition, materials, books, clothing and transportation. In addition, they receive three meals a day, access to clean water and medical care, and freedom from the threat of sexual assault.

Connie Nielsen wants to remind potential donors of the ripple effect the program can produce. “If you invest in someone’s education, they will do what they need to do for themselves and for their community,” she says. Perhaps more importantly, she explains that Road to Freedom doesn’t focus on top academic performers, as it also welcomes children with learning difficulties. Says Connie, “It’s about the dignity of every human life.”

Donation information is available at roadtofreedom; check the website for local fundraising events. Checks may be sent to:
Road to Freedom Scholarships
1550G Tiburon Blvd. #702
Tiburon, CA, 94920


"One chance, one goal!"

Thank you to all of our supporters for making a difference in the world - in these children's lives!  They are growing and thriving and YOU, THE DONOR, made this happen!  Your donations have directly impacted the kids of Kibera.

Since our Global Giving fundraiser in March, one of our students, Yema, has graduated Suma Cum Laude from Dominican University in San Francisco, CA. He was also chosen as the undergraduate commencement speaker - his rousing speech accompanied by the cheers of all his friends and supporters - 'Yema Baby' being called out from all over the crowd.  Yema grew up in the slum of Kibera in Kenya, And when RFS met with him it was clear he had great potential. As with most students growing up in slums, RFS has learned that it is hard to study when you are hungry. And it is hard to pick up from a year or two out of school when it is time for your other siblings to be accorded a year of school - with only enough money for some in the family to attend school every year. As a result, Yema had middle to low grades in high school - but his dream of achieving a life of his own choosing through higher education was intact and strong.  Once he entered our program and was given an opportunity to learn, he excelled in college and became the first foreign student ambassador at the University, and was elected as the student Vice President.

We are so proud of the young man Yema has become, as he has made the most of this opportunity and not only made his dreams come true by excelling in his education, but also, is an inspiration to the other RFS students and to us all!

"No matter where you are from, your dreams are valid".  - Yema

Fifteen RFS students are attending a beautiful boarding school in Kenya where, with your donations, they receive medical care, a bed, three meals a day, clean water, safety from violence and rape, and an education.  With your help, we are now about to purchase new uniforms for each of the children.

You can help us to continue our mission to educate and empower children living in extreme poverty by not only continuing to donate to help us continue our progress, but also by spreading the word; please "like" us on facebook, sign up for our newsletter, forward this email to your friends and family to let them know what cause you are supporting.

To read the article about Yema and see the NBC local video, click here.

Mother's Day Portrait Session May 2015

On May 2nd 2015 we held a Mother's Day Portrait Session fundraising event at Orbit Studios in Minneapolis.  We are happy to announce we raised $8,000 together!  More than 32 families, Mom's, Grandma's and children came to capture generations in one family portrait to support Road to Freedom Scholarships.  Orbit Studios generously donated the space and more than 25 women donated their time and showed up to work the event, making it run as smoothly as only a large group of producers can do!  We had 6 hair and make-up artists, 5 photographers, 3 digital tech's, and a babysitter for the children to help kids craft and create Mother's Day cards. 

Laura Bonicelli and Laurie's Touch catering donated glitter cupcakes, and Cub Foods, Coborn's of Delano and Jimmy John's donated food for the crew and mimosa's for the mom's!  Mom's were pampered and it all came together to capture a lot of memories!  Women raising money for the kids of Kibera! 

We wish to thank Michelle Allen of Michelle Allen Photography  for all of her dedication to make this event a success!  We are also grateful to all of the women who donated their time to work the event and create a special day for the families that came to have a photo session.  A big thank you to all of you who came for a portrait session and helped support the RFS kids!  This will hopefully become an annual event!


Connie Nielsen's interview with Parade Magazine about RFS!


Last week, we celebrated the opening of Connie Nielsen’s new movie, All Relative. Connie took so much introspective time to answer my questions that I must include her complete answers to every item. So in our first two-part segment for Mind Your Body, enjoy more from Connie now.

I’m so respectful of her generosity and philanthropy. Thanksgiving seems like a perfect time to share the wisdom and grace of her additional thoughts with you and I hope you find them as meaningful as I did. Maybe she’ll inspire you to help others this holiday season and in the coming year…

First, what can All Relative teach us about relationships we have at “a certain age”? The dating game seems to get harder as we get older, doesn’t it?
The dating game: Hmmm. Actually, I am European. We don’t date. We fall in love or not. At this age I guess I am better at guessing if someone is a dud, though. Whomever I don’t ‘click’ with when on a potentially romantic journey is usually awesome enough to become my new best friend. I am happy to be spared the frogs of my youth.

Would you make a good attorney, as in The Good Wife?
My assistant, Kirsten, says: Yes! And now that I think of it, an ex once called me ‘the lawyer’ because during arguments I become very methodical in my selection of proof!

Tell us about the Human Needs Project and the Road to Freedom Scholarship. Why is this so important to you? How are you measuring accomplishments there?
In 2010 I went to Nairobi, Kenya to shoot a movie called Lost in Africa. On a movie set you get to know people kinda’ well, and half the cast and crew on this film lived in a giant slum called Kibera. Kiberia is the largest urban slum in Africa.

On Sundays I would tour Kibera with my security detail, and I got to see the houses and know about the lives of my fellow crew members. While walking through the most desperate form of poverty I had ever seen, I encountered wonderful, funny kids, and met up with many young, smart people.

While talking to them, I realized—with a knot in my stomach—that these bright women and men were condemned to never escape the garbage and feces-strewn alleyways of Kibera. I realized that the mud huts and the rusting corrugated iron roofs of this sprawling settlement in the middle of Nairobi’s modern metropolis would entomb them and the world would never even know it. I read that one in five babies there dies before the age of 5, and that broke my heart. I saw that access to all the normal services we take for granted every day here was not granted to my friends. People who could do anything would be unable to overcome the colossal difficulties stacked against ever making a decent living. Stigma is one of them, but lack of adequate training and professional skills is another.

That sounds heart-wrenching. There you were, living a wonderful, fulfilling and ‘privileged’ life compared to your co-workers, and yet you must have felt so helpless. But you’re not one to stand by. Tell us what you did next.
I was approached by the elders of one of the villages in Kibera who inquired if I would build a well for them. I accepted the challenge and went on a fact-finding mission, discovering the very short life spans of wells—and most other development projects. I also discovered it’s necessary to help people without feeling pity, and to do so by believing in their potential and by providing the training and access to services they need to create the lives they want.

Together with my partner, David Warner, I set about creating an environmentally and financially sustainable solution. We built a clean-technology, autonomous building that provides all water and sanitation services, energy, high speed Internet, education and access to information. It also has the world’s best cappuccino—La Marzocco donated a machine and barista training to our center!

You certainly took action, Connie, and a lot of it. What else is behind your motivation for and success with the project?
Our concept at the Human Needs Project also includes important relationships with scientists and academic institutions. For example at UC Berkeley, I am so proud that we collaborate with Professor Daniel M. Kammen. I am so proud of all our collaborators—what a list. Among his achievements, he is founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL), co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment, and Director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center.

We also work with Procter & Gamble that donated their time, know-how and business skills to our business plan, as well as funds and a modern laundry for the residents of Kibera. Our amazing partners in all branches of academe, design and technology continue to contribute to our center.

What are your plans now?
The next two years are about impact measurement, and creating even more ways to connect people through our platform. We’ll do it, for example ,with widgets for the website and events so people can interact from across the world and meet with the coders, artists, musicians and entrepreneurs living in the slum. Next up, we will tally up our mistakes, correct them, and scale up to slums around the world.

Now, about your Road to Freedom Scholarship: You call it part of HNP’s community investment:
I started Road to Freedom Scholarships when I met a group of little girls in an after-school program in Kibera. From the oldest at age 17 to the youngest at age 3 they all were desperate to go to school. I was puzzled again. Kenya actually has a great education system, which is free up to a certain point in a child’s life. But many children living in marginalized communities cannot hope to go beyond primary school, and even when it’s free, they have expenses such as uniforms and examination fees that make education impossible for the poorest.

I took a deep breath and promised the children I would grant their biggest wish. Not one of them had eaten since the day before, yet each declared that going to boarding school was in fact their greatest wish. So there it was.

You seized the opportunity, but it was a big one. How difficult was this to accomplish?
Boarding school turned out to be more difficult than I expected. Even though I was willing to pay full tuition, many schools would not take ‘my’ kids. The stigma of the slum stood in the way of their being accepted, so it took some work. But finally we found a top-performing boarding school in Nairobi. There I know the girls are safe from the dangers of the slum: sexual violence, malnourishment and stunted growth, waterborne illnesses and early marriage. At RFS we don’t choose kids on the basis of testing or grades.

One of our boys, Yema, was a 25-year-old youth in the slum, an extra on the movie, but he was desperate to get an education. He had mediocre grades in high school, but it is hard, after all, to be a good student in the slum: No one studies well when hungry.

And what did you do for him?
I lobbied my friends and the president of Dominican University of California, an amazing private college here in NorCal, stepped in and offered a four-year, full tuition for Yema. Almost four years later, Yema has fully repaid the favor: He has scored straight A’s in all subjects during every one of his six semesters and is on his way to his fourth Presidential Award (no pressure, Yema!). It is clear to me that Dominican feels he was worth their investment: He is the first foreign student to be appointed as a student ambassador, he plays on the club soccer team and is student body vice president. There is no doubt that for kids from places like his, when given an opportunity, they will not let it pass them by.

Thank you, Connie. Remarkable.

By Stephanie Stephens of PARADE MAGAZINE November 25th, 2014