Scott Ruplinger ’10 recently celebrated a remarkable achievement: he raised enough money to finance the construction of a Kenyan school through his online fundraising project and brainchild, the Penny School Project.
Though the project itself was conceived and completed in well under a year, it owed much to Ruplinger’s many years of nonprofit work—and, somewhat more unexpectedly, to his long background in competitive athletics. A marathoner who recently completed the Texas Marathon in less than three hours, Ruplinger began coaching and managing Kenyan marathoners several years ago, and was able to raise funds to fully support the runners while they trained in the U.S. Once Ruplinger helped the runners grow into highly competitive athletes, they returned to Kenya as part of a mentorship program, repaying expenses and working with younger athletes to prepare them for international competition and to attend college abroad. Because of the comparatively low cost of living in Kenya and the emphasis on family and community collaboration in Kenyan society, the runners’ winnings from international races were able to be leveraged to help families stay afloat and subsidize community-based development projects.
Ruplinger’s foray into school-building grew from the personal connections he developed with these Kenyan athletes. Ruplinger used the power of mentorship and his skills as a fundraiser to subsidize the construction and staffing of two schools in Kenya’s Rift Valley region. The first school, completed in 2007, is a primary and secondary school serving 150 students from grades two through 11. The school offers a combined academic and athletic program designed to help students seek education and competition abroad on graduation. A second school, which focuses exclusively on education, was built soon after. Two graduates from Ruplinger’s schools will study in American universities this fall.
Ruplinger has an uncanny talent for selling big ideas and has traveled the world courting big names and organizations to support his projects. But when the market plummeted into chaos, things changed. Unlike before, he explained, “You couldn’t just go places with your list of great, worthy projects and say, ‘You know the issues, write me a check.’”
Without deep pockets to turn to for further school construction, Ruplinger hit on the idea of “penny wars,” a fund-raising concept used for years in elementary, middle, and high schools around the country, and the Penny School Project was born. Ruplinger got the web site up and running, networked with friends and family with ties to the U.S. school system, and had enough support and participants to launch the project in just four months. The Penny School Project’s Penny Wars Contest ran from April 15 to 21, 2009, and participants raised more than $18,000 in pennies, enough to build and staff a school for 150 Kenyan children in Eldoret, an impoverished town in the Rift Valley region and one of many sites of political violence in the wake of the 2007 elections.
When asked how his work building schools ties into his law career, Ruplinger explained that he never had much interest in commercial success, and would rather spend his time helping those who are disenfranchised through hands-on involvement. Much of this perspective was informed by Ruplinger’s early professional experiences: After attending the The George Washington University, where he completed his B.S. in chemistry in 2002 and masters-level coursework in forensics in 2003, he went to work as a drug chemist. Often called to testify as an expert witness in criminal cases, he saw first-hand the effects of socio-economic disparities on those caught up in the justice system. He planned to become part of the solution by working as a public defender.
“The defendants were mostly people who had the misfortune of being born in low-income communities, exposed to drugs and crime,” he said. “I used to sit there and think, ‘It’s not their fault that they can’t pay a lawyer. It doesn’t have to be this way. The resources you’re born with shouldn’t be all that dictates your opportunities.”
Ruplinger, who is not yet 30, has started a total of six nonprofit organizations in the U.S. and abroad, been instrumental in building four schools in east Africa, and volunteered to train and manage a number of international long-distance runners. In addition to his packed extracurricular schedule, Ruplinger was a Brooklyn Law Students for the Public Interest (BLSPI) Fellow in 2008, a 2009 and 2010 selection committee member, and served as BLSPI's 2010 Co-Chair.