The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News February 8, 2008

Valentines Up for Grabs

When fundraising for a cause, bake sales and car washes usually come to mind, but College senior Rachel Rothgery plans to sell something that will entice students to shell out more money — a date. At 9 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 9, students will gather at the Cat in the Cream to outbid each other for a shot at romance.

At the Valentine’s Day Auction for Sierra Leone, about 28 male and female students will present themselves on stage to contribute toward building a school in the Kono district of Sierra Leone. The exact details of the bidding process have yet to be hammered out, but Rothgery wants this event “to be a show and a lot of fun, not about people desperately needing a date.”

Free the Children is “the world’s largest network of children helping children through education,” according to its website. Rothgery and the Oberlin chapter of Free the Children have been fighting for the cause since 2005.  Their most recent accomplishment was raising $12,000 in less than a year to organize and build a school in Kenya. Forty-five students now attend the Kenyan school, which cost $6,000 to build. Slightly more expensive at $8,500, the prospective Sierra Leone school will enable even more children to get off the streets and trade their rifles for textbooks.

Rothgery feels that, contrary to Oberlin’s reputation, “there could be more social action on campus.” That’s why she decided to take matters into her own hands in September 2007, when she started brainstorming ways to raise more money for the construction of the West African school.

When asked why she chose Sierra Leone as the beneficiary of her hard work and charity, she explained, “I just found the war in Sierra Leone extremely interesting. The world is not yet nearly as enraged as it should be over the problem of child soldiers. Stealing childhoods destabilizes a country for generations.”

The Kono district was ravaged more than any other during the 11-year Sierra Leone Civil War, which ended in 2002, by factions fighting to control the most diamond-rich region of one of the poorest countries on Earth. “This campaign is meant to educate the campus about what comes after war and about what role the youth play in the peace-building process,” said Rothgery. “Of course the date auction won’t achieve this, but hopefully no one will be buying their valentine diamonds this year.”

Ultimately, Rothgery aims to collect $12,000, not only to fund construction of the school, but also to pay a single teacher at the going rate of $1,200 per year. She hopes to raise at least $500 from the upcoming auction, an amount she says would be sufficient to purchase a blackboard. That would supplement the $6,000 already collected for the cause.

If history repeats itself, Rothgery may be pleasantly surprised. Last year’s date auction raised about $850 to buy malaria nets for people in sub-Saharan Africa.

The money will also go toward furnishing the school with a latrine,  clean water and school supplies. Installments such as a cement floor and metal roof, which students in developed countries take for granted, are more than minutiae in Rothgery’s view. She points out that youngsters learn much more effectively when their attention isn’t being drawn away by uncomfortable conditions.

While the funding for this school comes from a group of students in Oberlin, the building’s design, construction and maintenance will be handled by the community members who stand to benefit from it. Rothgery says of the Sierra Leonean youth, “If they’re old enough to be enlisted in their army, they’re old enough to help rebuild their country.”

Much of the money collected for these causes has come not from fundraisers but from Rothgery’s own pocket. Spending a prodigious number of hours working in Mudd Library, she pours “a quarter to a half” of her salary into the charity cash pool, inspiring support among the student body. College sophomore Brett Foreman decided to auction himself for Sierra Leone because Rachel’s commitment “makes [him] believe a little more that we can make a difference.”

Senior sociology and African American Studies double major Nana Efua Embil said she felt compelled to put herself up for auction because she has been too busy to participate in Rothgery’s many charitable endeavors in the past. Now she wants to take advantage of an event that she expects “will be fun, and helping a good cause is always a bonus.” Embil has just one apprehension about auction night: “I hope I’m not the cheapest.”

Anyone who is interested in being auctioned off for the cause is welcome to come to the auction and do it; advance notice is not required. As if Oberlin students need more incentive to support a noble cause, as double degree first-year Helena Thompson points out, “There’s nothing sexier than helping to build schools.”


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