Gillian Rose, head of distribution at WNET, parent company of the major New York-area PBS TV stations, has a long and successful professional history in journalism and in television.
Rose decided several years ago that she wanted to give back and do something charitable with her free time. So in 2006, she founded The Rosemary Pencil Foundation, with a mission to educate disadvantaged and orphaned children in Africa. The organization raises money and pays for students to attend four-year secondary schools in Africa, something they likely wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
Back in the late 1980s, Rose ran VideoAge’s London office. After that, the British-born Rose moved to New York and went on to work at the International Council of NATAS (now the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences), she later moved into sales at Don Taffner’s DLT Entertainment, started her own company for a time and, finally, moved to WNET in 2004.
Rose relies on donations from her TV industry colleagues, as well as many others to keep Rosemary Pencil going.
Among the TV industry executives involved in the organization are board member Georges Leclere, a longtime TV professional and former International Council executive director, and Bruce L. Christensen, former CEO and president of the Public Broadcasting System, Bill Reilly, former president of Lightworks Pictures and George Twumasi, chairman of the African Broadcast Network.
We spoke with Rose about the program, her new female-only initiatives and more.
What made you want to start the Rosemary Pencil Foundation?
When I was growing up my mother was the headmistress of a boarding school in England, and we had a lot of African students. I’ve always been terribly interested in that part of the world.
A few years ago I decided I really wanted to give back and do something for other people. I looked at indexes of the poorest countries in the world that might need help and Malawi was the right fit. The country is very poor, and because they used to be a British colony, they speak English.
Never having been to Africa, I booked a ticket to Malawi.
I rented a car and visited schools. I saw that this was something I could do to directly help the orphans living there get to school.
In September, we’ll have 45 starting school in Malawi, and seven girls are starting school in Zimbabwe in January … and they’re all there because of the Foundation.
How old are the students whom you send to secondary school?
They range from 14 to 19. Some are older because they’ve taken a few years off, because they lost their parents or were ill. The issue is that primary school in these places is free, but secondary school isn’t. Even people who pass their entrance exam can’t go if they can’t pay for it.
How many of the kids in Malawi go on to secondary school?
It’s a very small percentage, especially in the rural areas, because they don’t have the money. They’re dependent on outside help like us and other NGOs. Families sometimes scramble to send one child to school, but it’s always the boy.
How do you raise money?
One is the old sponsored walk [a 10-mile walk Rose completed on Sunday]. I also get Pencil’s board members to reach out to people they know. We have one donor who writes large checks on a regular basis.
The good thing is that I don’t have any operating costs, really. I only have to pay an accountant, and someone to occasionally update the website. But the rest I do on my free time.
Does you raise a lot of money from your TV industry colleagues?
Yes, but a lot of it also comes from friends and acquaintances too.
What does Rosemary Foundation pay for?
We pay a fee that covers four years of school, school uniforms (including shoes), books, pencils, pens and notebooks.
The cost depends on the school. Boarding schools at the high-end are about $650 a year, which includes boarding. Those are more academically driven.
Day schools can be $75-$150 a year depending on the school and where it is.
Usually in the day schools, if the children show promise, I try to funnel them into the boarding schools. Because otherwise not only do these students have a long walk to school every day (four to six miles often), there’s no lunch there. When they get home, they have to do their chores. It’s a lot.
At boarding school, they’re there, they’re fed, and they don’t have the chores they have to do at home.
You go to Malawi every year. What do you do there?
I make a point of meeting every student, talking to the teachers and headmasters … it’s quite heartwarming really. Apparently my visits are eagerly anticipated, despite the fact that the kids seem so shy when I meet them.
Do you feel as though your TV experience has helped prepare you for running this non-profit?
Rather than TV it is probably my years as a journalist that help with doing the research, being organized, finding ways to reach out to the appropriate person or company and then talking to them/questioning them about how things work, etc. So I think it is those reporting and interviewing skills that come in o play more.
You partner with fellow non-profit Children in the Wilderness. Can you tell us more about that?
I have a great partner in Children in the Wilderness. They put on camps for orphaned children. It’s out of the pool of children who go to the camps that our scholarship recipients get chosen.
And you’ve recently expanded your reach to Zimbabwe.
We wanted to do a girls-only option. Children in the Wilderness has a program there, too.
How does the retention rate differ for kids in the program vs. those who aren’t?
The retention rate is much higher for students in this program — they’re motivated and don’t have to worry about school fees.
And how many students have graduated?
We’ve had about 40 who have completed program. Some have gotten jobs.
What’s next for the foundation?
We’ve recently expanded, with a teacher’s training scholarship for one boy in particular.
We also have a girl who’s studying to be a dentist. We’re paying for that.
We’re in the process of purchasing Kindles and loading them up with the curriculum, because there are no books. I’m also researching solar devices to keep them charged. I have a donor who’s given me money just for the Kindles.