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Vaughn, Viola

Viola Vaughn


Educator, consultant, program administrator

Dr. Viola Vaughn is a U.S.-born educator whose self-sustaining educational program for girls in the West African nation of Senegal has attracted international attention. Known as 10,000 Girls (or, in French, 10,000 Filles), a name reflective of its ambitious agenda, Vaughn's program began in 2001 as an informal tutoring project run out of her home in the Senegalese village of Kaolack. By 2008 it had expanded to include a variety of educational and vocational programs for fifteen hundred girls in six locations.

Viola Marie Vaughn was born on July 29, 1947, in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her father, Wensel Rumble Vaughn, was a Baptist minister and her mother, also named Viola Marie Vaughn, was a schoolteacher. After moving with her family from Little Rock to Niagara Falls, New York, in her teens, the younger Vaughn attended Hampton University, a predominately African-American institution in Virginia. Following an undergraduate career that included a junior year abroad at the University of Poitiers in France, Vaughn received a bachelor's degree in music and French from Hampton in 1969. She spent the first half of the 1970s raising her daughter and attending graduate school at Columbia University Teachers College in New York City, receiving a master's degree in health education in 1976. Her master's thesis was in the field of public health administration, a subject she continued to study as she began work on her doctorate, also at Columbia. Her doctoral dissertation, titled Planning for Change: The Sine Saloum Rural Health Project, Senegal, West Africa, was based on her work as project coordinator from 1977 to 1979 on a major health care initiative in rural Senegal, where she would spend much of her later career. She received her doctorate in health education, with a specialty in international program planning administration, in 1984.

Vaughn's work as a graduate student in Senegal marked the beginning of a health education career that was remarkable for its geographical and thematic variety. While her interest in international development issues continued, she also found significant need for her expertise in the United States. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, therefore, she found herself shuttling back and forth between Detroit, Michigan, where she lived for many years, and a number of countries in Africa, notably Senegal. The jobs she took in these locales were intensive but relatively short term; often she would design a health program, oversee its initial implementation, write training manuals for local workers, and then move on to the next project. Among the positions she held in this period, for example, were as the coordinator of consultation for the Michigan Department of Community Mental Health from 1980 to 1983 and as the director of international health for California's Drew Postgraduate Medical School in 1981. In the course of her work for Drew, she supervised public health programs in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Togo, Cameroon, and Swaziland.

As the 1980s progressed, she worked increasingly as a consultant, helping small public health programs convey information effectively to the public. These programs included Improved Pregnancy Outcomes, an outreach project headquartered at Detroit's Wayne State University, from 1985 to 1986; the continuing education program of the Open Arms shelter for the homeless, also in Michigan, from 1987 to 1988; the National Family Planning Program of Senegal, in the late 1980s and early 1990s; the AIDS research office of Le Dantec Hospital in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, in 1993; and the Family Planning Options Project in the small West African nation of Guinea, from 1994 to 1995. Then, in the late 1990s, she began teaching classes in English as a second language, in both the United States and Senegal, even as she continued her health consultancy work.

Homeschooled Grandchildren in Senegal

In 2000 Vaughn and her husband, well-known jazz saxophonist Sam Sanders, decided to retire to rural Senegal, a setting she had grown to love in the course of her public health work. Accompanying them were five young grandchildren, who had been entrusted to Vaughn's care following the death of their twenty-six-year-old mother (Vaughn's daughter) shortly before. Only a few months after the family had settled in the town of Kaolack, however, Sanders died of a chronic illness. It was a difficult period for Vaughn, but she resisted despair, choosing to concentrate instead on homeschooling her five grandchildren.

Formal homeschooling, with books and assignments, is rare in West Africa, and Vaughn's activities soon attracted the notice of local residents, notably the neighborhood children who played regularly with her grandchildren. One of these children, a nine-year-old girl, asked Vaughn if she could join the lessons. Though Vaughn had come to Senegal to retire, not to teach, she was touched by the girl's request. Vaughn also knew that, while educational opportunities for both boys and girls are limited in West Africa, the situation is particularly dire for girls, who face intense social pressure to remain at home to help their parents. According to the Senegalese government's own figures (reproduced on the 10,000 Girls Web site), fewer than 40 percent of the nation's age-eligible girls enter the first grade, and fewer than 4 percent enter high school. Alarmed by these statistics, Vaughn decided to act. "I went to see this child's mother," Vaughn recalled to the cable news network CNN in 2008, "and her mother said that she had already failed school once, that she couldn't pass because she wasn't smart enough. Well she was smart enough to come find me. And I said, ‘OK, I'll help you.’" Within two weeks, CNN reported, "Vaughn had 20 girls in her house who were failing school and asking her to teach them."

Expanded Schooling

The innovative structure of 10,000 Girls developed gradually. When students continued to appear at her house, she converted spare rooms into classrooms, obtained a small grant, and hired several teachers. Even as late as 2003, however, she wanted to keep the program small, and tried several times to set a limit of one hundred students. Girls kept arriving, however, and those already enrolled prevailed upon her to continue the expansion, urging her not to stop until she had reached "10,000 Girls." To handle the influx and to teach responsibility, Vaughn decided to make each girl responsible for teaching a younger student. "I taught them how to teach each other," Vaughn remarked to CNN.

At a Glance …

Born Viola Marie Vaughn on July 29, 1947, in Little Rock, AR; daughter of Wensel Rumble Vaughn (a Baptist minister) and Viola Marie Vaughn (a schoolteacher); married Sam Sanders (a jazz saxophonist; died October 18, 2000); children: one daughter (deceased). Religion: Muslim. Education: Hampton University, BA, music and French, 1969; Columbia University Teachers College, MS, health education, 1976, EdD, health education, 1984.

Career: Sine Saloum (Senegal) Rural Health Project, project coordinator, 1977-79; Michigan Department of Community Mental Health, coordinator of consultation, 1980-83; Drew Postgraduate Medical School, director of international health, 1981; worked as a health-information consultant for a variety of public health programs, 1980s-1990s; taught several classes in English as a second language, late 1990s; 10,000 Girls, founder and executive director, 2001—.

Awards: CNN Hero, Cable News Network, 2008.

Addresses: Office—c/o 10,000 Filles, BP 2130, Kaolack, Senegal. Web—

The same spirit of independence and self-reliance is visible in the program's fund-raising activities. 10,000 Girls receives no funds from the government of Senegal and only limited assistance from aid organizations and individuals. Instead, books, supplies, and teachers' salaries are financed through vocational programs designed and implemented by the students themselves. The most important of these are Celebration Baked Goods, a bakery and catering business, and Celebration Sewing Workshop, which produces dolls for sale and export abroad. The students are allowed to keep 50 percent of the proceeds for themselves, a policy that allows them to contribute significantly to their families' income. The other 50 percent supports school programs.

As of 2008 there were approximately fifteen hundred girls enrolled in Vaughn's program, with another thousand on the waiting list. A 2006 note on the 10,000 Girls Web site indicated that Vaughn that would like to retire again "in about seven years," or around 2013. In the meantime, she continued to find satisfaction in the day-to-day management of a program that has already transformed life for thousands of girls and their families. "Here I am, retired," she remarked to CNN, "and this is the best job I have ever had in my life."



Detroit News, August 9, 2008.


"The Best Job I Have Ever Had in My Life,", April 18, 2008, (accessed July 22, 2008).

Leis, Julia, "Sweet Charity," Africa Consultants International, (accessed July 22, 2008).

Meyer, Amy, "In Her Own Words," 10,000 Girls, April 14, 2006, (accessed July 22, 2008).

"Viola Vaughn, Executive Director," 10,000 Girls, (accessed July 22, 2008).

—R. Anthony Kugler

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