After she returned to her Ethiopian hometown, she had to help the girls

Lily Yoseph was struck by the poverty in the village, as well as the fact that often girls don’t have the opportunity to attend school. So she established a nonprofit that gives girls everything from medical care to school uniforms.

Courtesy of Lily Yoseph
Dozens of Ethiopian girls have benefited from Lily Yoseph’s nonprofit. She and others say they’ve seen a visible transformation in the girls.

“You took me out of the darkness and brought the light into my life. You washed my clothes and clothed me.... I will never forget what you have done for me. Today, because of you, I can read and write.”

Those words were part of a letter penned by Bontu, a young girl living in Ethiopia, who is now literate and able to pursue her education in a country where the opportunity to attend classes is often available only to boys. (Last names have been withheld to protect the girls’ privacy.)

Bontu is one of some 70 girls who are supported by Tangible Hope Foundation, founded by Lily Yoseph, herself a native of Kofele, Ethiopia. The nonprofit organization, headquartered in San Francisco, is dedicated to rescuing Ethiopian girls from poverty, gender inequality, and violence.

Ms. Yoseph founded Tangible Hope in 2011 after considering her life’s purpose three years earlier, which led her to return to the town where she was born. What she discovered stuck with her.

“I was very overwhelmed, because the poverty was heart-wrenching,” she says in a recent phone interview. “The girls cannot go to school because of poverty. Even if [the families] have the money ... they send the boys to school, not the girls. The girls are doing chores, working every single day.”

Yoseph also vividly recalls meeting Ubo, who was 7 years old and had never seen her own image before viewing it on Yoseph’s digital camera. That moment, she says, helped her shift her focus to helping girls like Ubo.

“It is [Tangible Hope’s] goal to make this the last generation of girls worldwide to endure atrocities and hardships and to help those girls become the inspirational leaders who change those around them,” Yoseph says.

Tangible Hope operates on the ground in Kofele, supporting girls by furnishing everything from medical care to school uniforms and supplies. A lack of such school items can be the chief reason that young girls don’t attend school.

When the girls entered the program, the organization arranged for medical checkups for parasites and other common afflictions, while also providing nutritious meals. It offers tutoring and other educational support as well.

Together, Yoseph says, these elements led to a visible transformation in the young girls – distinguishable as early as during the first year of participation.

“The girls are now beautiful, healthy, literate, and full of hope for a fulfilling future for themselves, their families, and their communities,” she says.

Yoseph has recruited girls around the ages of 7 or 8, with the goal of seeing them through their education, from start to finish. Some girls in the program are now 14.

Currently, Tangible Hope functions with Yoseph at the helm and a host of volunteers. Also, one of the board members assists with administrative projects. The organization benefits from donated space and resources, with funding coming from individuals who sponsor participants. In addition, foundations and organizations have made grants.

Yoseph has plans to expand – especially given the 30 girls on the program’s waiting list and the many more who could benefit from Tangible Hope’s approach.

The nonprofit has land in Kofele, along with an architectural plan donated by a California architect, charting a compound based on the traditional Ethiopian mud hut. In that space, Yoseph says, girls could gather after school to take showers, use a library, and take classes on cooking, gardening, and technology, among other topics.

Such a vision is a far cry from the humble beginnings of Tangible Hope. It was based in Yoseph’s one-bedroom apartment and she was balancing it with three jobs.

“I realized that I could not take Tangible Hope to the next level and work three jobs,” she says. “So now I am receiving a bare-bones stipend from the foundation that allows me, if I am very frugal, to focus all my time and energy on Tangible Hope.”

Chris Ryan, a supporter of Tangible Hope, visited Yoseph’s home village in 2015.

“As soon as I met the girls I could see that the impact Tangible Hope has on their lives is profound,” he says in an email. “I was struck by the pride the families have for their daughters and the immense gratitude they have for Lily for helping their daughters live a healthier life. You could see the sparkle of life in the eyes of the girls who are a part of Tangible Hope compared to their siblings and other children in the village.”

Mr. Ryan also notes Yoseph’s commitment. “She works tirelessly to achieve her goal of educating and empowering young girls,” he says. “... [T]he beautiful thing about Tangible Hope and what Lily has created is that the impact she has brought to these young girls is not only immediate but will be felt in their community for generations.”

Yoseph also speaks about a broader mission that Tangible Hope is part of.

“There is a movement, and a growing understanding, worldwide about the importance of the education of women,” she says. “I truly believe that education of women is the key to world peace. Through education and empowerment of women across all religions, tribes, and cultures, we will find the common ground where reason triumphs over hatred.”

Still, the young girls in Kofele, Ubo included, remain at the heart of Yoseph’s passion.

“These girls had no voice and no choice before Tangible Hope,” Yoseph explains. “Now, they are writing poetry; they are singing. They have dreams for their lives. They will be teachers, doctors ... One wants to be a pilot.”

She adds, “I am motivated by them every day.”

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