By Kelly Parrett
Since 2015, the Bill Cook Foundation has distributed around two million dollars to support children’s education in 31 countries. Founded by lifelong academic and educator Bill Cook (ΦΒΚ, Wabash College), the foundation increases educational access across the globe. “I am 77 years old, but the Bill Cook Foundation is just getting started,” said Cook.
Cook was inspired while writing Francis of Assisi: The Way of Poverty and Humility (2008). “Francis recognized that we all are brothers and sisters and that is not just a metaphor,” said Cook. “Thus, the question becomes, what is my skill set and how can I use it to foster the brother- and sisterhood of all people?”
Capuchin Franciscan friars introduced Cook to some of Nairobi’s impoverished areas while he was giving lectures in Nairobi. “I had seen poverty,” said Cook, “but I had not seen the poverty of Kibera, a slum of between 1 and 2 million people with, I found out later, only about a third of school-age children in school. I wanted to do something but had no idea what.”
Cook became further inspired by his interactions with poor children. While in Mexico, Cook was approached by a 12-year-old boy who asked Cook for food. “I took him to a nearby taco stand, and Pedro ate a lot of tacos,” remembered Cook. This interaction with Pedro stuck with Cook for decades. “I am glad we fed Pedro, but that did not do him any permanent good because the next night he is hungry again.”
After hearing Cook’s stories from his travels, Countess Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda, a founder of Friends of Florence, encouraged Cook to start the foundation. “I would often tell her stories from my travels to Kenya and to other places where there is great poverty and need including Laos, Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Peru,” said Cook. “Simonetta’s sister was the Treasurer of Friends of Florence and walked me through the process of setting up a 501(c)3.”
Cook’s dream was to raise $50,000 per year. “In the last 6 months of 2015, we indeed raised about $50,000,” said Cook. In the first full year, the foundation raised $250,000. “Since then, we have taken in about $500,000 each year and should do so again in the remarkable year 2020.”
After 25 years, Cook found the boy that he met in Mexico. By this time, Pedro was married with children of his own. Pedro’s older son could not speak and had not been to school. With the help of the foundation, the boy got an operation, a speech therapist, and special education classes. Pedro’s younger son’s “sight was so poor that he could not function; my foundation paid for glasses,” said Cook.
“That is what the Bill Cook Foundation is—an organization that will work with every kid we learn about, no matter what disabilities, to allow that child to flourish,” said Cook. “Now we have projects with severely disabled children in Vietnam, deaf children in Equatorial Guinea, and Down syndrome children in rural Peru.”
Beyond working with special needs children, Cook’s foundation “built science labs, a computer lab, and several libraries stocked with books in Kenya, South Sudan, and Papua New Guinea,” said Cook. “We have built three classrooms for the first girls’ high school in all of South Sudan.”
A strong believer in liberal arts education, Cook explains how it is especially important in developing countries. “For poor countries to move out of extreme poverty and end oppressive regimes, we need properly educated citizens, literate citizens, people who understand their role in making their countries fair and safe and prosperous,” stated Cook. “We need lots of carpenters and technicians (and the Bill Cook Foundation sponsors many vocational programs), but all students need literacy and exposure to the arts and sciences.”
Cook is also a proud supporter of Phi Beta Kappa. “When I entered Wabash College in 1962, Dad told me that his educational objective for me was to earn a Phi Beta Kappa key.” In addition to his own membership, Cook is a charter member of Phi Beta Kappa at SUNY Geneseo. “The key is a recognition of a good liberal arts education at a great college.”
Learn more about the Bill Cook Foundation at www.billcookfoundation.org.
Kelly Parrett earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature from SUNY Geneseo, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in May 2020. SUNY Geneseo is home to the Alpha Delta of New York chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.