Picture a high-school classroom – there’s a boy leaning back in his chair, a few girls whispering in the corner, one student sleeping with his eyes open and a select few taking notes. Then there’s Katie Gehrz: a student driven by a passion for social justice, a desire to serve the Lord and a determination that she can change the world.
“I’ve had an obsession with Africa since I was 15,” said Gehrz, a St. Thomas senior. “I took a social justice class, and I was blown away that people [have] such a low standard of living.”
During her senior year at the Convent of the Visitation School, Gehrz rallied a few friends to help people in Africa.
She never imagined that her decision to raise money would lead her to where she is today.
Her initial thought was to raise enough money to renovate a school in the Kasena Village of north Ghana; six months later, Gehrz and her friend Ginny Winninger applied to be a nonprofit organization, and Students United For Africa (SUFA) was born.
According to Gehrz, the community was willing to help the organization as much as it could; it just took SUFA to make people aware of the problem. The first fundraiser was held on an “out-of-uniform day” at Visitation, a private Catholic school in Mendota Heights. “Out-of-uniform day,” the first Friday of the month, allows students to pay a dollar to wear something other than their school uniforms. A few days before a particular out-of-uniform day, Gehrz and Winninger made a presentation to their classmates about the school in Ghana.
“On out-of-uniform Fridays, the charity pot is usually about $500,” Gehrz said. “On our Friday, we made $2,500! I cried; I just couldn’t believe it.”
The success that morning left Gehrz and Winninger motivated to do more. Each girl has a self-proclaimed passion for serving those in underdeveloped nations, and believes that education is the most productive way to precipitate change.
“Katie is such a devoted and genuinely loving person. She gives her whole self to her relationships with others,” Winninger said. “I value her as a person and a friend. Also, Katie is super organized and motivated. These attributes have been vital to the success of SUFA.”
At the suggestion of their parents and with the help and generosity of a local accountant, the young women applied to be a nonprofit organization.
“It was a long, confusing process,” Gehrz said. “At times, it seemed really hopeless. But six months later it was official, and SUFA has been a huge part of my life ever since.”
The building project in Ghana began by renovating a three-classroom building that served more than 900 students. That building has been renovated and a five-classroom extension is being added. SUFA’s goal is to make the school environment more conducive to learning by providing the minimal things needed to receive an education: desks, bathrooms, food, a building and incentives for teachers. To date, SUFA has raised more than $25,000.
The organization was the first student-initiated justice group at Visitation and it continues to flourish. Gehrz helps oversee the students there and said it’s their energy that keeps the organization going.
She has tried, with little success, to get more students involved at St. Thomas.
“It was hard to get energy for this at UST,” Gehrz said. “There are so many organizations doing the same thing.”
As for her partner, Winninger has found a lot of support at St. Louis University, where she is in her senior year. In January, six SLU students, Winninger and Gehrz traveled to Ghana to spend a few weeks meeting the people they are serving and learning how their money is being used.
“I’m really excited to see with my own eyes what we’ve been working toward,” said Gehrz, who wants to “make connections so I can have the opportunity to go back someday and make a life there. Then the next time we send students to help the African community, I can send them in good confidence and faith.”
Gehrz studied abroad in Tanzania in January 2007, but this is her first trip to Ghana; she said that not being able to see the school has never hindered her vision.
“When a few St. Thomas professors visited Ghana last year, the people of Ghana made a huge deal out of the professors knowing SUFA, and they painted ‘Thanks SUFA’ on their building,” Gehrz said. “We are happy that they know other people care about them, want to serve them and improve their standard of living, even though they’ve never met them.”
Gehrz also is completing research on the importance of foreign aid to countries like Ghana during times of crisis, as well as the necessity of foreign aid during times of stabilization and growth.
Pursuing a double major of international and Catholic studies, Gehrz said her classes have answered the question of why, both philosophically and practically, she has dedicated herself to SUFA.
While she is no longer sitting in her high school social justice classroom, and her days of being a resident adviser in Dowling Hall are numbered, Gehrz hopes to never leave the classroom.
“I like to romanticize that someday I will be a teacher in our Ghana school,” Gehrz said.