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Quest to send Gambian students to U.S. college gets support

Ashleigh DeLuca, formerly of Glen Cove, started the Starling Sponsorship Program when she was 17 to help her most promising students.

Ashleigh DeLuca, left, with Fatoumatta Bah-Barrow, first lady

Ashleigh DeLuca, left, with Fatoumatta Bah-Barrow, first lady of Gambia, at a meeting last week. Photo Credit: Annalise Morrone

A Long Island native met with the first lady of Gambia last week to discuss an initiative that’s been 10 years in the making.

Ashleigh DeLuca, who taught English in Gambia about a decade ago, is raising money to send three of her former students to college in the United States, and is hoping the Gambian first lady’s organization, the Fatoumatta Bah-Barrow Foundation, will donate to her cause.

DeLuca, 27, formerly of Glen Cove, met with Bah-Barrow on Friday in Delaware to talk about the initiative and is hoping to hear back from her in the coming weeks.

“It was exciting,” DeLuca said. “I’ve never met a first lady before, and I feel like my passion for the students and this project was very evident to her.”

DeLuca started the Starling Sponsorship Program when she was 17 and teaching English in Makumbaya, a rural village with no running water or electricity. The scholarship program covered costs such as tuition and transportation as the students pursued their high school diplomas.

After achieving that goal, three of her students were accepted to St. Thomas Aquinas College in Rockland County, and DeLuca is now trying to raise $60,000 by August to cover costs for their first year.

The meeting with Bah-Barrow came after DeLuca’s program received the support of the Gambian embassy earlier this month. Though the embassy could not provide financial support, it facilitated the meeting between DeLuca and the Gambian first lady, DeLuca said.

Dawda Fadera, Gambian ambassador to the United States, said he was “inspired by how much Ms. DeLuca has accomplished thus far on her own.”

“I’d like to help them cross the finish line after this long 10-year journey they’ve been on,” Fadera said in a news release.

The students, Penda Jallow and twins Adama and Awa Jarju, were accepted into seven colleges in the United States, Fadera said in the release. They were also awarded scholarships that will pay about half their tuition at St. Thomas Aquinas, DeLuca said.

So far, DeLuca has raised about $7,500 through a GoFundMe page and is planning to register the Starling Sponsorship Program as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization this week. She’ll need $270,000 to cover the students’ full four years of tuition and other expenses, DeLuca said.

“At this point, I’m just pouring my heart and soul into this effort,” she said.

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