Saya Doe-Sio knows what it’s like to overcome challenges.
Doe-Sio grew up in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, Liberia, and struggled every day. Her mother, the late Annie T. Doe, encouraged her to make education a priority. Even when she had little to eat, she said her mother – who was uneducated – reminded her that education was her path to a better future.
Doe-Sio immigrated to the U.S. in 1998. Since then, she has received a bachelor’s degree in accounting, a master’s degree in business administration and became a certified public accountant. Doe-Sio works as a finance director at TIAA-CREF.
In December 2010, she visited her hometown in Liberia. Doe-Sio said she saw hundreds of children struggling to survive with few resources and opportunities for growth.
Doe-Sio said, “I am the same as them.”
From that moment, she knew that she wanted to make a difference. Upon return, Doe-Sio began working to create the Annie T. Doe Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit named in memory of her mother that would provide a free primary education to children in Africa, free basic health care services and women’s empowerment programs.
Just shy of four years since she visited Liberia, Doe-Sio stands in front of a crowd in an elegantly decorated ballroom at the Embassy Suites Resort and Spa in Concord for the fourth annual Annie T. Doe Memorial Foundation’s Charity Gala on Sept. 13. The anticipation mounts as she takes the microphone to announce the successful opening of their first free primary school in Buchanan, Liberia.
“I have prayed for this school to be finished before my 40th birthday, and today, it has happened,” Doe-Sio said.
Since August 2011, the Annie T. Doe Memorial Foundation has raised $100,000 from the support of 250 people. These donations were used to support three programs: a micro-lending and entrepreneurial program for 10 Liberian women, an Ebola awareness campaign and the building of the first free primary school, the Annie T. Doe Memorial Academy.
The bright-blue 6,000-square-foot school building sits on 2 acres at the site of Doe-Sio’s childhood home. At full capacity, the school will accommodate 200 students from kindergarten through sixth grade, but it will start out with 75 kindergarteners and first-graders.
The school was set to open this month, but has been delayed until January. The Ebola outbreak caused the Liberian government to issue a 90-day state of emergency last month; schools were forced to close.
In response to the Ebola outbreak, the foundation’s director of finance and strategy – Doe-Sio’s husband, Francis Sio – said, “At the end of the day, we (Liberia) will be stronger.”
Regardless of the health crisis, the Annie T. Doe Memorial Academy’s principal Chapman Adams said in a video response that they were excitedly awaiting opening day to give these children an opportunity to “receive love, learn, grow and evolve.”
One of the school’s supporters, Georgia Hansen of Indian Trail, attended the charity gala. She said she moved to the United States 27 years ago from Grand Bassa County, Liberia. She found out about the Annie T. Doe Memorial Foundation three years ago and has been supporting it ever since.
“I am very proud of Saya and what she’s doing in her mother’s name to help poor people. I am happy to help in any little way that I can to give back to my country,” Hansen said.
At the end of her speech, Saya Doe-Sio points toward two walls in the ballroom lined with photos of the 75 children who will attend the academy.
In each photo stands a child age 5 to 13, some smiling and some not. Each photo includes a short story about the child’s home life and dreams. Even though the situation depicted in every story seems unbearable, each child seems hopeful, given the prospect of attending school for the first time.
“Somebody believed in me. I was less fortunate and somebody believed in me. And now I believe in them,” Doe-Sio said.