During the summer of 2007, Valentino returned to Marial Bai to talk with the community, consult government leaders in the region, and lay the groundwork for this project.
Valentino was working while attending community college, and was already well known as a captivating public speaker and spokesman for the South Sudanese community. Valentino contacted Dave with the help of his friend Mary Williams, who was the founder of an Atlanta-based organization called the Lost Boys Foundation.
After spending a weekend with Dave in Atlanta, Valentino asked him to help write his autobiography. He felt that his story could convey to the world the realities of what had happened in the civil war in South Sudan, and its effect on the people there. Dave agreed to help, and they began the process of recording Valentino’s story—a process that took three years of steady work.
Early on, Valentino and Dave decided that any and all proceeds from the book would be controlled by Valentino and used to help the South Sudanese community. Valentino knew immediately that he would send most of the funds home to his village of Marial Bai. When he returned there with Dave during the writing of the book, he was overwhelmed by the difficulties facing his people. South Sudan was (and still is) recovering from war, and the extreme damage to infrastructure has left most of the region in poverty.
Valentino decided that he would use the funds from What Is the What to provide better educational opportunities for the South Sudanese. To help achieve his goals, Valentino established the VAD Foundation in the fall of 2006. Its creation coincided with the publication of What Is the What. All proceeds from the book are donated—and will continue to be donated, as it’s published in paperback and overseas—directly to Valentino’s cause.
During the summer of 2007, Valentino returned to Marial Bai to talk with the community, consult government leaders in the region, and lay the groundwork for this project. In early 2008, he returned to start construction on the secondary school, on a large plot of land that was donated by local government. A South Sudanese architect designed the structures, bricks were made locally, and all of the construction workers were from the Marial Bai region.
The Marial Bai Secondary School opened in May 2009. It was the first fully-functional high school in the entire region, where there are no other opportunities for students—especially girls—to continue their education past the elementary level.
Since the opening of the Marial Bai Secondary School, the school has been ranked one of the best schools in the country, and because The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation is independent of the government of South Sudan, even when the government cannot fund the country’s public schools, the Marial Bai Secondary School can continue to operate.
Our students consistently score in the top percentile on the national exams. This has resulted in our graduates finding work in international NGOs, healthcare nonprofits, the government of South Sudan, and as teachers themselves
Because the Marial Bai Secondary School is recognized as the one of the country’s best independent secondary schools, in 2017 the government of South Sudan granted the VAD Foundation an entire campus, already built and ready to be populated with students. The VAD Foundation will, in 2018, transform it into the Alok Girls’ Academy, a boarding school for up to 144 young South Sudanese women.