Deborah Santana is passionate when she talks about the girls at Daraja Academy, a secondary school in Nanyuki, Kenya. Daraja means “bridge” in Swahili, and the school is designed to be a bridge to a brighter future for girls from poor rural families. “It gives me great joy to see girls who did not have a chance to receive an education blossom and grow when they attend school,” she says. Deborah recalls the words of a student from the first graduating class: “I was the happiest girl when I joined Daraja. I met the most welcoming people who had my interest at heart. Right now I am a different person from who I was four years ago; I am the master in the mirror. I have confidence. My hope has doubled.” Daraja is just one of countless beneficiaries of Deborah’s philanthropic efforts, which span four decades and several continents.
Deborah’s most recent undertaking, the Do A Little foundation, along with other generous supporters, helps make dreams come true for remarkable young women—like those of Daraja Academy—who are top students with leadership potential, but would otherwise be precluded from continuing their education by poverty. Since 2008, the foundation has been helping women and girls find their own strong voices by supporting their health, education, and happiness. The foundation now supports women and girls in Cambodia, Haiti, Kenya, South Africa, and the United States. The name was inspired, Deborah says, by a quote from Desmond Tutu: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
“I created a nonprofit to serve the needs of women because the balance of power in the world still lies in the hands of men, often bypassing the skills, intelligence, compassion, love and grace of the female gender,” Deborah writes on her website. “I want to support women as leaders and as owners of our futures, and to encourage women to grow in whatever ways bring happiness and peace. And I want men to do the same.”
Born in San Francisco in the 1950s, Deborah came into the world with the instincts and inclinations of a compassionate activist. Her father, blues guitarist Saunders King, and mother, free thinker Jo Frances, defied societal conventions that separated black from white when they fell in love and married in the 1940s. At the time, laws against interracial marriages were still on the books in many places, including California. “My parents’ stand against injustice and for love was in my DNA,” she says.
Deborah was forced to navigate the pain of racism throughout her childhood. Her home life, however, gave her a strength that has carried her through many rough spots. “In my childhood, my mother helped everyone she met,” Deborah says. “And our church in Oakland, founded by my paternal grandfather and grandmother, cared for the indigent and welcomed every citizen to worship, no matter their station in life. I always believed in equality and that it was important to lift up others, especially if they were in need.”
Deborah’s greatest joy was raising her three children. Now that they have left the nest, she has expanded the amount of time she serves others. Today she pursues a path guided by a phrase she wrote years ago: “Work with integrity, live with compassion.”
Deborah generously gives of herself, whether helping a friend or lending a hand to a woman halfway around the world. She provides funding to support educational programs, health services, social justice action, peace building, environmental protection, and the arts. “There are thousands of nonprofits serving the needs of their villages,” she says. “That is what our world is: villages filled with others just like us. I believe that serving is sacred work. We can all be channels through which spirit illuminates the world. We were all put here to love and support one another, and to dispel the darkness of fear and separation.”