The Children Are People School
An unlikely friendship leads to a mission to offer South Sudanese children education and a way to change their world.
Written by Caitlin Adams
When Oxford resident Will Guest visited Africa for the first time in 2003, he left his college plans in the rearview mirror. Guest was set to attend the University of Hawaii the following month, but instead he accompanied a family friend to a continent that would forever change his future.
“I was just kind of winging it,” Guest said.
What was supposed to be a quick visit turned into months, and it was during this trip that he met John Garang, a former Sudanese warrior, for the first time.
Garang had quite a history. He was a Lost Boy — one of more than 20,000 Sudanese boys who were separated from their families and forces to flee their homes during the country’s civil war in the late 1980s. Garang, who stepped on a land mine in the war and was later discharged with an injured leg, had not been home to what is now South Sudan, nor seen his mother, in 15 years. It wasn’t long after the duo met through mutual acquaintances and formed a brother-like bond that Guest and Garang hatched a plan to trek back to Garang’s home.
“We were both incredibly naive about what we were doing,” Guest said. “We were in places we really should not have been.”
After more than 40 hours on a bus, a chartered plane, four hours wading through waist-deep water, and an encounter with a not-so-pleased army, the men finally made it to South Sudan. Garang saw his mother, now blind, for the first time since he was a young boy.
“It was emotional, to say the least,” Guest said. “It was something neither of them thought would happen.”
The men returned to Kenya, changed by their eye-opening, albeit brief, visit to Garang’s homeland. South Sudan and its people had been devastated by decades of war, famine and poverty. The buildings were crumbling, and broken-down military machinery littered the roadsides. Tens of thousands of children were orphaned, displaced and suffering, in need of food and medical care, and without education or a sense of security. In South Sudan, there were limited resources to help them. Guest and Garang thought Kenya could offer these children a respite and second chance. Not long after their visit, the friends were kicking a soccer ball around when they began planning to do their part to change South Sudan.
“We were like, ‘we should educate kids,’” Guest said. “Some people think there was a big plan behind all of this. There really wasn’t. We were in a field and came up with the idea.”
The men decided that investing in the education of local children would be the best way to change their future. Guest had walked away from his own education, only to walk toward the promise of education for others.
It took 12 years for their dream of opening their own school to come to fruition. Meanwhile, Guest returned to Oxford. He got married and founded his own business, Oxford Property Group. Back in Kenya, Garang was sponsoring children’s education at other area schools. Guest continued to send funds to Garang, until one day Garang called: He had found the perfect land for their future school.
It was in Moi’s Bridge, Kenya, which is roughly 10,000 feet above sea level and backdropped by rolling mountains and lush landscape.
“I thought it was going to be this picturesque spot,” Guest said.
But the land Garang had purchased with his cobbled-together funds was anything but.
“It was the rattiest part of an already dusty town,” Guest said, laughing.
But Guest trusted Garang’s vision, and most importantly, him. They built a metal church and began hosting Bible studies and fellowship. In 2014, the men took a leap of faith and broke ground on the school they had dreamed of starting. The Children Are People School opened its doors in 2015. Today, there are 149 students enrolled, 80 of which are South Sudanese.
The area is in a former British colony, and many influences still remain. The school system, including the Ministry of Education, is strict, and thus, Guest and Garang have had to meet high standards to get the school operational. This includes building a robust curriculum and syllabus and working toward district objectives. Each of the 11 teachers on staff have extensive educational training and background, including the principal, who is a retired teacher of 30 years.
“It is very structured,” Guest said. “This isn’t just a dream in a field.”
The school is more than a place to learn — it’s a place to grow. Guest said there’s nothing that compares to sitting in his favorite spot, a dusty porch floor outside the cafeteria, listening to the children giggle, sing the ABCs and shuffle their feet as they chase one another.
“I just sit there and listen to the laughter that is permeating through the campus, and I am like ‘how did we do this? how did this happen?’” Guest said.
But there have been plenty of obstacles along the way. Space is limited, so the students sleep two in a twin bed — head to feet. The school was recently infested with bed bugs, which set them back $4,000 to spray the entire grounds. Many of the students cannot pay for their education and only eat when they are on the school grounds. But perhaps the greatest struggle of all is caring for young children who are removed from everything they know and love.
“These are children who are off at a school without their parents,” Guest said. “They’re not all 12- to 15-year-olds who can rationalize what is going on. Some of them are 4- and 5-year-olds who are not with their parents.”
Guest has soothed countless children through their homesick cries, and Garang orchestrates care when one of the students falls ill. Each makeshift boarding house has a female chaperone, dubbed “mama,” but it is a far cry from the children’s parents, many of whom have perished.
“The young ones don’t know the sacrifice,” Guest said. “A lot of these kids’ parents sent them here to be better than where they are. They know education is key to getting them out of war-torn countries. But that doesn’t mean it is easy.”
Nonetheless, the school and the students persevere. The school has placed first in the district twice since opening its doors, and is nearly approved to offer eighth grade, which will allow for full accreditation and larger dormitories.
A lot has changed since Guest and Garang’s visit to South Sudan. The home they visited no longer exists. Civil war has once again plagued the region. Garang’s mother died — she was shot by the army while standing on her front porch. But one thing that has not changed is Guest and Garang’s resolve to continue their commitment to invest in the future of the Sudan.
“Sudanese kids know their vision,” Guest said. “I’ll be dead and gone, but over time, these kids know they need to get educated to go back to South Sudan to change the tribal customs.”