Photo/Courtesy of Davinia James-Stewart
“When you educate a girl, the following happens. Her horizons widen, she takes ownership of her life, and then she inspires and educates a generation.” - Davinia James-Stewart
Davinia James-Stewart has collected more than two million pennies to send over 450 girls to school in countries such as Haiti, Cambodia, Nepal, Peru, Afghanistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, and Nigeria. Through her organization - Pennies4Girls she has given these girls something often taken for granted now - an opportunity. Having profited from the good nature of others, Davina is paying it forward in a major way.
How It Started
Born in Jamaica, Trelawney to a teenage mother, Davinia James became very ill after three months. Her mother, the sole provider for three children, was not able to complete high school. This was not only her mother’s reality but that of her sisters and most of the young women she grew up with. Alongside the challenges that come with poverty is a lack of education. Given her earning potential in Jamaica and the cost of looking after a sick baby, her mother felt Davinia would be better off in the care of a friend and community activist.
In her new home, Davinia wanted for nothing. She was enrolled in the finest school in her area and lived in one of the best neighborhoods in Jamaica. The family friends she intermingled with were politicians and other influential people. “I had no idea what poverty and violence were at that time,” she told Unstoppable Yes You.
Unexpectedly, Davinia’s life changed quite drastically when her adopted mother suddenly passed away from a heart attack. The young adolescent went back to live with her birth mother eleven years later.
Adjusting to her new life in the ghetto was difficult. Some aspects were tougher to handle than others. One day while walking home from school with her brother in Kingston, a man came towards them with “the biggest gun I had ever seen.” Davinia’s heart pounded against her chest and she clenched her brother’s hand for dear life. The man stopped the siblings and placed the gun on her brother’s chest. Without breaking eye contact with the man, her brother demanded that Davinia run. After some squabbling, she ran home to her mother and declared her brother dead. At that moment her mother ran to the road and placed herself in the way of the gun.
“I just remember thinking this is where we all die. This is it. This is the moment. My mother was like Superwoman, she didn’t flinch. She told him straight up, ‘if you want to get to him you have to go through me.’ He hesitated for a moment and then walked away without looking back. As soon as we got home, my mother started packing up our things and moved us.”
After that incident, James-Stewart was determined to get an education. Understanding what it would take to avoid living in a world where those traumatic incidents were possible, she knew education would be her way out, and it has proven to be. Davinia became the first person in her family to graduate from high school and college. Sadly, her mother did not live to see her graduate from college. However, with the help and support of two of her mother’s friends, she was able to obtain her bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland College Park and break the generational cycle.
After witnessing the challenges young girls face to get an education and having lived through some of the same struggles in Jamaica, James-Stewart knew she had to do something to help.
Becoming A Girls Education Activist
Walking around her house one day after work, Davinia noticed she had a lot of pennies lying around and no real purpose for them. After all, how useful are pennies anyway? Then it hit her, what if she collected enough pennies to make a difference?
Davinia began collecting pennies for girls’ education from family, friends, and donors around the world, an initiative she called Pennies4Girls. Working with the non-profit organization Girls Rising, the former teacher has given over 450 girls around the world an opportunity to gain an education.
Pennies collected by the Pennies4Girls organization
Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. The Global Citizen Youth Ambassador for Education was featured as a Top 25 Women Leading Change Around The World in Role Model Magazine in December 2014. She also received the Ignite Caribbean 30 under 30 Caribbean American Emerging Leaders award in June 2016 and the Champion for Girls Award in October 2018 from the Society of Girls.
James-Stewart’s work with Pennies4Girls is now a part of a school curriculum in Europe for the next five years. This means that over 23,000 students will be taught how one simple idea can become something far greater with the right application, dedication, and foresight.
A Focus On The Caribbean
Davinia is in discussions with Global Citizen, an international education and advocacy organization on how they can help improve lives in the Caribbean region, starting of course with Jamaica. She has expanded her interest beyond education to other social issues that impact lives including health, finance, food and hunger, and innovation.
The Global Citizen believes that the Caribbean region often gets overlooked because more focus is placed on larger regions like Africa and Asia. According to a UNICEF New Era for Girls 2020 study, in Latin America and the Caribbean 5 million girls are out of school, including 1 million of primary school age, 1 million of lower-secondary school age, and 3 million of upper-secondary school age. Although this is an improvement over the last 25 years, there is still a long way to go.
James-Stewart life’s mission is to make the world a better place for all; however, making an impact in the Caribbean is very personal to her. In addition to her plans with the Global Citizen organization, she continues to call upon leaders and organizations in her home country to ask for more investments in the necessary resources to help improve the lives of their constituents.