In April 2021, Meraki Smile School opened for its first academic year. Meraki Smile School is a Spanish-Malagasy non-profit organization based in Madagascar. The school’s goal is to provide free, quality education to the country’s underprivileged children, while working in conjunction with locals. In addition to education, Meraki Smile School provides basic meals and healthcare, with students receiving showers, clean clothes, and two meals each day. Currently, Madagascar is the fifth poorest country in the world, with some children only eating once every two to three days, and 75% of the population not graduating high school. 

The school is located in Ambodiampanga Itaosy, a suburb of Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital. It currently hosts a class of 15 boys and 15 girls aged five to seven, with courses in English and Malagasy, Madagascar’s local language. Meraki Smile School co-founder Miriam Agüero told the Stork that her organization plans to incorporate French into the program as well, as the language is widely spoken in Madagascar. Meraki Smile School is also working with Oxford Press to follow the Primary Years Program (PYP), a precursor to the International Baccalaureate (IB). 

Meraki Smile School only pays locals for their contributions, while international volunteers work for free. Agüero explained that this stimulates the local economy, and that “[v]olunteering is actually a choice that only privileged people can have.” The name “Meraki” comes from Greek, meaning “When you dedicate yourself so much to something that you leave a part of yourself there,” as described by the co-founder. “Smile” reflects one of the school’s missions: sending kids home with a grin on their faces.

The seeds of this Meraki Smile School started germinating in 2020, while Agüero was stuck in Berlin, Germany, due to Covid. Starting a non-profit educational project in Lebanon two years prior had given her useful experience. This time, she wanted to help out in Africa. While continuing her Master’s, Agüero focused on market research, finally stumbling upon Meraki Smile School’s Madagascan co-founder, Justin Rakotoarimanana. Rakotoarimanana was looking for people to help provide Madagascan children with quality education. Agüero was eager to oblige.

However, getting the project going was not simple. For all the planning she had done in Berlin, the only way for Agüero to execute her idea was to be there in person, yet Covid restrictions prohibited travel to Madagascar. Furthermore, cultural differences slowed the process. The co-founder credits her strong support group for helping her through this difficult period. When she suddenly called them with the idea for Meraki Smile School, they believed in her, becoming a part of the process, rather than “laughing at [her].” After a lot of insistence, Agüero received express permission by Madagascar’s president to enter the country, and the school was ready just in time for the start of the academic year. When asked about this recent accomplishment, Agüero commented “getting to the point where […] people were joining the project, people believed in it, despite the fact that it didn’t [physically] exist…that [was] the real success.”

Agüero with students of Meraki Smile School.

Silvia Gosálvez, a 2nd year, Law and International Relations dual degree student, recently started as Content Creator for the organization’s social media. She found Meraki Smile School at a time when “there was nothing that really moved [her]” in her daily life. The project’s potential impact motivates her, as she dedicates her spare time to reaching as many people as possible. Gosálvez told her friends in IE about the project. Now, they are also involved with Meraki Smile School as international volunteers. 

After three tropical storms, Madagascar is suffering. Meraki Smile School tries to alleviate this pressure through healthcare and education. Miriam Agüero welcomes IE students to get involved as international volunteers to “generate the biggest impact”. The organization is also funded by donations, which can be made monthly through their website “merakismileschool.org”, or on an individual basis through their GoFundMe. Meraki Smile School is active on Twitter @SmileMeraki, and on Instagram @merakismileschool. 

Agüero told The Stork that the next academic year will be one of “introspection and [consolidation]” for Meraki Smile School, as they work to further improve their healthcare and incorporate a third language. The co-founder acknowledges the challenge ahead of her, and states “seeing the results makes everything worth it.”

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