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A Brighter Path

CRISSCROSSING the back roads of Vietnam is all in a day’s work for Gil Kemp ’72, who went from a Swarthmore sociology degree to a Harvard MBA, and then on to join—and chair—the College’s Board of Managers.

Difficult travel is part of visiting the country he’s come to know and love. It’s often the only way to reach students he’s helped here for more than a decade through a nonprofit started with friend Eric Hemel.

Kemp jetted across much of the world as founder and CEO of Home Decorators Collection. When Hemel invited him to explore Vietnam and Cambodia on a walking tour in 2003, Kemp’s children were grown and he was glad for a distraction from empty-nest syndrome. Vietnam’s culture and beauty stood out, but so did its poverty.

“Some homes are just two rooms divided by a canvas wall, covered by a corrugated steel roof,” he says. “The conditions were very bleak.”

Dismayed by the number of Vietnamese children not in school, Kemp and Hemel researched their obstacles to education, including the cost of tuition, books, and uniforms; travel; and the need of some families to keep them working at home.

Moved to help, Hemel jump-started the nonprofit Scholarship Program to Enhance Literacy and Learning (SPELL) and asked Kemp to join him. Initially a silent financial partner, Kemp embraced a more hands-on role after he retired in 2010.

“The Quaker values that still influence Swarthmore influenced me,” says Kemp. “Gene Lang ’38, H’81 was a powerful role model, and I’ve been blessed with many teachers who positively influenced me.”

They began by networking with agencies in Vietnam and identifying children at high risk of dropping out.

Targeting the poorest 10 percent of third- and fourth-graders from within 300 miles of Da Nang in central Vietnam, SPELL provided for their educational and, in some cases, health-care needs.

“Philanthropy can entail more than just writing a check,” says Hemel. “Gil and I are involved in every key policy decision regarding our scholarship program.”

They apply many business practices to the nonprofit model, including selling the idea of the program to parents and making expectations of success clear to students.

“This program has benefited from trial and error,” Kemp says, “and from having the flexibility and humility to say we don’t know all the answers and ask how we can make it better.”

SPELL, which employs eight Vietnamese staff members, has shifted from the grade-school commitment; it has 2,200 high schoolers and 500 college students enrolled and each year adds 600 new ninth-graders.

“I’m exceedingly fortunate to connect with young people who are working so hard,” says Kemp, who visits two weeks each year to meet with potential students. “They are so impressive and coming from very desperate situations. Resilience is far and away the trait I see as a determinant of happiness and success. What appeals to me most about resilience is that it’s a learnable trait.”

Now 14 years later, SPELL has supported more than 6,000 students.

“It’s remarkable to see them achieving so much,” he says. “It’s been the most joyful experience. I didn’t anticipate that it would be as impactful and such a source of joy.”


'SPELL'-ing success

Eric Hemel and Gil Kemp ’72 have made strides in education for Vietnamese children. Here, they discuss their work.

How did you and Gil Kemp first start thinking about philanthropy?

Gil, our wives, and I were guests on the first Backroads Vietnam Walking Trip in the Fall of 2003.  It was our first visit to Vietnam. We went as tourists, with no other agenda in mind.  But in the course of our trip, during which we walked through a number of rural villages, it came to our attention that in at least some of the poorer provinces a considerable number of school age children were not attending school for economic reasons. It was unclear to us at the time why, exactly, this was the case. But, regardless, we viewed it as tragic that children were not receiving the benefits of a full primary education when their lives could be so greatly enhanced by even a few years of additional schooling.

What kind of research did you do?

After returning to the U.S., we engaged in considerable research to determine the nature of the problem and what we could do about it.  Up until that point we had never engaged in any meaningful humanitarian efforts, so this was all new to us. We confirmed that despite its Communist form of government, a child's going to "public" school in Vietnam costs his or her family approximately $50 per year, enough to deter the very poorest kids from receiving much more than a fifth-grade education ($50 is a lot in a country where the poverty line was defined, at the time, as income below $120 per capita annually). The challenge for us, at that point, was to find a way to channel funds so that they reached the intended recipients with as little bureaucratic red tape and administrative costs as possible.  We were distrustful of large development agencies with large institutionalized bureaucracies.  We wanted to have enough ongoing involvement so as to ensure that our funds were reaching the designated beneficiaries. And we also wanted to monitor the situation on an ongoing basis so as to ensure that once a child began receiving our assistance this arrangement could continue in subsequent years.

How did you launch SPELL?

We decided to launch our program through the East Meets West Foundation which, at the time, was the largest American non-profit in Vietnam.  The program, then called the Scholarship Program to Enhance Literacy and Learning (SPELL) began in September, 2004 with 1,500 enrollees.  The program has expanded, and now approximately 6,000 kids have benefited from the program (in addition, another 7,000 students have gone through a high school program which EMW developed and administered, based on our SPELL experience) but which was funded entirely by the World Bank.

What’s involved in the program?

The program is fairly comprehensive for our students.  In addition to providing school fees and” income-in-kind" to the students (books, book bags, notebooks, school uniforms, bicycles for the children who live long distances from schools) we also provide, most importantly, extensive after-school tutoring and, in some cases, room and board.    The program is also complicated, at least financially, by our pledge (and the pledges of other donors) to continue to pay for the children's school and tutoring expenses through the end of 12th grade so long as they are promoted from one grade to the next (despite the fact that the exact level of future expenses, per student, is impossible to estimate precisely).  The initial selection of children was based solely on poverty criteria, not academic performance (although there are some exceptional kids in the program).  Also, we recently started a "SPELL Goes to College" component of the program which now provides college scholarship to close to 500 students, many whom started with us in the third grade.

How involved are both of you in the everyday tasks?

Gil and I are involved directly in all of the major policy decisions and changes regarding the program.  We take a hands-on approach; I visit Vietnam twice to four times a year; Gil accompanies me on at least on those trips annually. Each of our trips involves several weeks of field work, on both scholarship and several other programs we are involved in as donors and/or program initiators.  The scholarship related portion of our trips including visiting numerous scholarship families and meeting officials and teachers at some of the 100-plus schools where the program has operated. We rely, day to day, on seven full-time EMW staff members who work exclusively on the program, as well as a far-flung network of Vietnamese retired teachers who volunteer their time to administer the program in their particular locales. The opportunity to transform thousands of lives with a relatively small expenditure has proven both exciting and gratifying.  

What have both learned since starting SPELL?

There are three important life lessons that we have gleaned from our experience. First, traveling to faraway places can change both your perspective and your role in the world in unexpected ways.  Getting away from crowded tourist spots provides insights that would not be remotely achievable otherwise.  

Second, as you are probably aware, U.S. dollars have a whole different meaning in places like Vietnam. Our finding that $50 (in 2004) could secure a child a year in school is just one example.  The third lesson is that involvement in developing country philanthropy can entail more than just writing a check. As I have conveyed, Gil and I are involved in every key policy decision regarding our scholarship program. In regards to this last point, our experiences need not be unique.  What the world needs more of, Gil and I both believe, is “engaged donors", with the knowledge that philanthropy coupled with direct involvement will entail a stronger commitment on the part of the contributors, as well as greater program accountability and effectiveness.