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Alumna’s startup brings educational opportunities to at-risk youth in Zambia

11/01/15 - BOSTON, MA. - Anna Butler, SSH'14, Founder of Modzi a nonprofit based in Zambia that works with orphaned and vulnerable youths, poses for a portrait outside the Curry Student Center at Northeastern University on Monday Nov. 2, 2015. The organization mentors children from impoverished backgrounds and facilitate their access to education. Staff Photo: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Anna Butler wasn’t ready to leave Zambia.

It was August 2013, and Northeastern’s Human Services Dialogue of Civilizations program was wrapping up. As part of her program, Butler was conducting a capacity building project with the Fountain of Hope Association, a refuge for orphaned and vulnerable youth in Zambia. Her work involved outreach visits to the streets to help rehabilitate homeless youth and children in need.

When the Dialogue program ended, Butler felt her work wasn’t finished. She remained in Zambia through much of the fall in what ultimately became a self-developed international co-op. She said that experience led her to found Modzi, a nonprofit that fills a gap she identified with marginalized children’s needs.

“I loved the hands-on experience, and I could feel the impact I was making,” Butler, now a Northeastern alumna, said of her work on the Dialogue. “The longer I was there, the more I realized the importance of removing a child from vulnerable situations.”

She added: “I wondered how we could not only rehabilitate a child but reintegrate that child into society, ultimately helping them to become a change-maker in their community. I saw a need, and though some of these children were being helped, I could see there was so much more potential.”

Butler, SSH’14, is founder and president of Modzi, a word that means “one” in Chinyanja, one of more than 70 languages spoken in Zambia. The organization secures funding to support a child’s entire secondary education, and collaborates with community organizations to provide youth with a range of individualized services such as private tutoring and mentoring.

Butler said Modzi, which currently supports 10 students’ education, partners with local schools and other community-based organizations to build a sustainable support system that collectively provides vulnerable youth the resources they need to succeed. “It’s a more holistic approach than just providing money for these children’s school fees,” she explained.

When Modzi students are re-integrated into formalized education their literacy levels are often lower than the majority of their class. In this photo, Anna Butler works with students to increase reading comprehension and boost academic confidence. Photo courtesy of Anna Butler

When Modzi students are re-integrated into formalized education their literacy levels are often lower than the majority of their class. In this photo, Anna Butler works with students to increase reading comprehension and boost academic confidence. Photo courtesy of Anna Butler

Earlier this semester Butler participated in an Employer-in-Residence program on campus, and in January Modzi will welcome its first cohort of co-op students in Zambia. One of them is Shelbe Van Winkle, SSH’18.

Butler and Van Winkle first met in the summer of 2015 on another Zambia Dialogue program—Van Winkle was a student, and Butler’s Modzi was one of the service learning sites where students on the Dialogue were doing fieldwork. They kept in touch afterward and when the opportunity to co-op with Modzi came about, Van Winkle didn’t hesitate. She saw the co-op as an opportunity to pursue her interest in education in a developing country and get a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of a budding nonprofit. She’ll be helping Modzi strengthen their community partnerships and will be working directly with their students to identify schools that best fit their needs.

Van Winkle, a combined major in international affairs and cultural anthropology, said she’s excited for the opportunity to see firsthand how a non-governmental organization operates, particularly one focused on supporting educational opportunities in developing nations.

“This will be my first time working behind the scenes (at a nonprofit) and understanding how it develops, how it grows, and how it gets involved in other aspects of the community,” Van Winkle said.

I saw a need, and though some of these children were being helped, I could see there was so much more potential.
— Anna Butler, on founding Modzi.

Butler graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and international affairs, and with minors in African studies and global social entrepreneurship. Her academics and experiential learning while at Northeastern focused largely in the social development realm, with global experiences in Greece, Haiti, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Ghana, South Africa, and Zambia. In fact, she graduated having only spent three semesters on Northeastern’s Boston campus. She described herself as a “non-traditional student” coming into college, and chose Northeastern because of the co-op program.

“Northeastern creates opportunities for its students and encourages them to pursue their passions,” she said. “It has experiential learning opportunities that allow students to step out of their comfort zones and explore their areas of interest.”