Penfield native Kelly Burke traveled 4,600 miles to change her life and her life goals.
If all goes according to plan, six girls in West Africa will have years of education because of a young woman who wanted to help others.
After graduating from Penfield High School, Burke attended St. Lawrence University as a chemistry and math major. She had a history of volunteering all through high school; and after college, without a definite plan, she decided to enlist in the Peace Corps. It seemed a natural fit to send her to a school where she could share her science background; and, of the options available, Burke chose Guinea where it seemed that there was the greatest need. First, however, she had to learn French, which is the native language of the Guineans. She went to intensive language training not only to speak French but to be able to teach science classes in French.
Burke found the environment different from the home she left in Penfield. She had her own house with an outdoor latrine and a well that was 50 yards from the house. There was no running water, no electricity, no electronics and no internet. Burke planned her own lessons writing in a notebook, then wrote her lessons on a chalkboard. The students sat at wooden desks and copied from the board with a notebook and pen. No textbooks and no lab equipment.
The people in the village were welcoming. The teachers are respected, and she was often invited for lunch or dinner with one of the village families. If they saw her drawing water from the well, they insisted on carrying it for her. She was humbled and changed by the experience.
Even after she returned to the U.S., Burke could not stop thinking of the students, especially the girls, and how important education is for this population. She began looking for a way that she might give back and came across an organization called One Girl with the motto, “When you educate a girl, she can change her world.” Through One Girl, Burke found a fundraising initiative called Do it in a Dress. Participants train and participate in a Tough Mudder wearing a cotton dress like the dresses the girls wear to school in West Africa.
On May 19, Burke will travel to Philadelphia for a full Tough Mudder, which includes a 10-mile run with 20 or more obstacles, and she will be wearing her cotton dress. To prepare, she’s been running three to four times a week and working out with personal trainer Tyler Bartlett at Penfield Sport and Fitness. Bartlett takes Burke through her weight training, agility exercises, and a core workout, all in a dress.
Burke’s original goal was to raise $1,800 to educate six girls for a year. However, she has surpassed her goal and is now working to raise enough money to educate these girls for more than a year. Her fundraising page can be found at for those who want to contribute to her efforts.
Burke realized during her time in Africa that she is passionate about teaching. After May 19, she’ll be moving to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where she has been accepted into Teach for America and will train as a math teacher.
While she had to travel over 4,000 miles from Penfield to figure it out, Burke found her passion and lessons to take with her into the next chapter of her life.