By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Maria Carrillo incoming junior, Ellie Petty, 15, holds a photo of Gloria Ingabire, her pen pal from Rwanda. (Photo by Crista Jeremiason / PD)

Fifteen-year-old Ellie Petty sits at the board table with a half-dozen adults: professionals, company founders, Ph.D.s. And she holds her own.

Petty is the youth member of the Rwanda School Project board of directors, which in conjunction with Santa Rosa’s Bethlehem Lutheran Church, raises funds for and operates a school for junior high and high school children in the poor east African country.

Growing up in the church and having parents who both served others has inspired Petty to give back. For the past two years, she has organized the Run For Rwanda charity event, the second of which was July 21 at her high school, Maria Carrillo.

The runs have raised about $5,000 for the Rwanda school, which opened its doors in 2010 with a curriculum that focuses on sustainability. There are 86 students now in grades 7-10, with a planned future enrollment of about 500 students.

“Some of the kids from Africa came to our church and told their stories about how amazing it was to go to school,” Petty said. “Some of the kids here don’t even want to go or drop out. But the kids there are so excited to even get to go to school.”

Public education lasts only six years in Rwanda, a country torn by war, poverty and genocide. Beyond that, families must pay for their children to attend. And that means generally, only boys — and only some of them — have access to education.

“Most families will never pay,” said Karl Smith, president of the school’s board of directors, who has known Petty almost her whole life.

Smith said Petty has been impressive in her engagement with the school. As a board member, her responsibility is to spread the message to youths and encourage them to become involved in contributing to the school project or organizing trips to Rwanda.

“She’s just been a powerhouse in doing that sort of thing,” he said. “She’s our go-to person to see what young people are thinking or what they can contribute.”

Petty, also an accomplished diver, said her enthusiasm for helping others springs from her parents: Her mom has long been active in the school project and other charity work, and her father was a Marine. She said she may want to be a doctor someday.

For now, Petty’s fundraisers are directly helping two girls in Rwanda improve their lives and achieve their dreams for an education. About half of the school’s students are girls, Petty said, and the funds raised by her two runs have sponsored two girls to attend at $1,200 each.

Two-thirds of the students live on campus, because distance and family chores, especially for girls, become major obstacles for attendance.

“When we raise enough money to build another dormitory we will have all students live on campus,” Petty said.

The school is open to students of any ethnic group, nationality, religion or social class.

“We are very environmentally friendly, with solar power, water- catching systems and a bio gas digester,” she said. “I am glad we pushed being a ‘green’ school because it’s something that I find really important.”

A long-term fundraising goal is to create an endowment, which will help fund partial or full tuition of students who otherwise could not attend any school.

“I feel good about helping, and hope to go to Rwanda next year to see some of the girls I’ve sponsored, see the school and how it is growing,” she said. “It just feels fun and right to help others.”

ELLIE PETTY

Age: 15

Birthplace: Santa Rosa

Lives with: Parents, 18-year-old sister, 12-year-old brother, and a dog

What’s in her iPod: Magic Dragons, Jack Johnson

Favorite hobby: Running, reading

Dream job: Coast Guard, doctor

Favorite TV show: 30 Rock

Favorite food: Pasta

Quote: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Website: www.rwandaschoolproject.org

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.