Sebastian Maroundit was puzzled.
The numbers of boys who attended the school that he helped build in Mayen-Abun in South Sudan had steadily increased to more than 600.
Yet the number of girls who attended held steady at 259, even though there were more girls in the village who could have been at school.
Why were they not in the classroom?
The principal of the school told him girls who have hit puberty miss a week of school each month; the girls lack sanitary products and underwear, and culturally they are not welcome to be in public during menstruation.
That’s why Maroundit is helping to lead an effort called PADS for Girls to provide washable sanitary pads to girls in Mayen-Abun. The project is part of the charity Building Minds in South Sudan, which he cofounded with his cousin, Mathan Noi.
"If (PADS for Girls) becomes successful, we hope to apply it to every village so girls can become successful," Maroundit said.
He also hopes to set up a vocational program to teach women to sew and market the sanitary products.
Though it sounds like a tall order, Maroundit is used to dealing with challenges. He and Noi were younger than 10 years old when they and thousands of other "Lost Boys" fled their villages in Sudan due to a brutal civil war in the late 1980s. They took refuge first in Ethiopia until unrest broke out there. Eventually they made a harrowing journey back through Sudan and to a refugee camp in northwest Kenya, where the two cousins met and discovered they were related. In 2001, they were resettled in the United States.
"The question was what kind of weather do you want?" Maroundit said.
Maroundit was hoping to be resettled to an area with temperatures around 70 degrees, so during an interview with resettlement facilitators, he asked to live somewhere with cool weather. That was interpreted as cold, which is how he wound up in Rochester, he said. The first winter in the area was a shock, he noted.
"Even though I appreciate it now," Maroundit said. "I love it now. It has become my home."
He said when he first arrived, his goal was to attend a military college in the United States and return to his home to fight and rescue his mother. Yet soon he began to choose a path of peace.
"I don’t believe in conflicts anymore," said Maroundit, who became a U.S. citizen in 2006 and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in management at SUNY Brockport.
He returned to Sudan in 2007 to be reunited with family, and found that Mayen-Abun, which had long been a home for Catholic missionaries, had been destroyed. He had been supporting his brother’s education in Kenya, and when he returned to Sudan, a small boy asked Maroundit, "What about us?"
That’s how Building Minds in South Sudan was born, and it is one of the many organizations working to re-establish a school system in the Republic of South Sudan, which became an independent nation in 2011.
So far the Building Minds in South Sudan has raised more than $100,000 and has built four classrooms in 2012 and more in 2013. Their efforts have been supported by a host of local groups, including St. Mary Parish in Rochester, which has donated money to Building Minds and to another South Sudan school-building effort, the Vocational Institute for the Children of South Sudan, which is working to raise $100,000 to finish building a vocational school in Aweil, in the Northern Bhar El Ghazal State. That vocational institute is being built by St. Mary parishioners Kuc Majak and Achay Dau and also has been supported by St. Mary Parish.
Maroundit said Building Minds in South Sudan needs donations and connections to groups that are looking to support the effort. Recently, for instance, St. Mark’s University in California hosted a video conferencing program to train teachers in South Sudan through Building Minds in South Sudan, he said.
Education is a dire need, he said, noting that 83 percent of children in the country do not know how to read and write.
"I want to give children a good education so they can have a good life," Maroundit said.
He said his brother also is continuing to pursue his education and is now in college.
"I am so proud of him," Maroundit said. "He wants to be a surgeon."
EDITOR’S NOTE: To support Building Minds in South Sudan, visit www.bmiss.org or write to 5880 Pittsford Palmyra Road, Pittsford, NY 14534-2444.