Nelly Cheboy, who creates computer labs for Kenyan students, is CNN’s Hero of the Year
Neli Cheboywho in 2019 quit a lucrative job as a software engineer in Chicago to set up computer labs for Kenyan students, is CNN’s 2022 Hero of the Year.
Online voters chose her among this year’s CNN’s Top 10 Heroes.
Cheboi’s nonprofit, TechLit Africa, has given thousands of students in rural Kenya access to donated, refurbished computers—and a chance for a brighter future.
Cheboy accepted the award with his mother, who he said “works very hard to educate us.” At the start of her acceptance speech, Cheboy and her mother sang a song on stage that she explained had special meaning growing up.
As CNN’s Hero of the Year, Cheboy will receive $100,000 to expand his work. She and the other 10 CNN Heroes honored at Sunday’s gala all receive a $10,000 cash prize and, for the first time, additional grants, organizational training and support from The Elevate Prize Foundation through a new partnership with CNN Heroes. Nellie will also be announced as a recipient of the Elevate Award, which comes with a $300,000 grant and an additional $200,000 worth of support for her non-profit organization.
Cheboy grew up in poverty in Mogotio, a rural town in Kenya. “I know the pain of poverty,” Cheboy, 29, said. “I’ve never forgotten what it’s like to have my stomach churn with hunger at night.”
A hard-working student, Cheboi received a full scholarship to Augustana College in Illinois in 2012. She began her studies there with little to no experience with computers, writing handwritten documents and difficulty transcribing them on a laptop.
However, everything changed during her freshman year when Cheboy took a programming course required for her math major.
“When I discovered computer science, I just fell in love with it. I knew it was something I wanted to do as my career and also bring it to my community,” she told CNN.
However, very basic computer skills were still a steep learning curve. Cheboi recalls having to practice touch typing for six months before he could pass a coding interview. Touch writing is a skill that is now a core part of the TechLit curriculum.
“I feel so accomplished seeing 7-year-olds touch typing, knowing that I just learned touch typing less than five years ago,” she said.
After starting work in the software industry, Cheboy soon became aware of the extent to which computers were discarded as companies revamped their technology infrastructure.
“We have children here (in Kenya) – myself included back in the day – who don’t even know what a computer is,” she said.
So, in 2018, she began transporting donated computers back to Kenya—in her personal luggage, handling customs fees and taxes herself.
“At one point I brought 44 computers and paid more for the luggage than the plane ticket,” she said.
A year later, she co-founded TechLit Africa with a fellow software engineer after they both quit their jobs. The non-profit organization accepts computer donations from companies, universities and individuals.
The hardware is wiped and refreshed before being shipped to Kenya. There, it spreads to partner schools in rural communities, where students ages 4 to 12 receive daily lessons and frequent opportunities to learn from professionals, gaining skills that will help improve their education and better prepare them for future jobs.
“We have people who have specific skills that come in and just inspire kids (with) music production, video production, coding, personal branding,” Cheboy said. “They can go from a distance learning class with NASA to music production.”
The organization currently serves 10 schools; next year, Cheboi hopes to partner with 100 more.
“I hope that when the first TechLit kids graduate from high school, they’ll be able to get jobs online because they’ll know how to code, they’ll know how to do graphic design, they’ll know how to do marketing,” Cheboy said. “The world is your oyster when you are educated. By providing the resources, by providing those skills, we open up the world to them.”
Watch the moment CNN announces the Hero of the Year
CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Kelly Ripa co-hosted the 16th annual “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute,” which featured more than a dozen celebrity hosts.
“We’re so honored to be here,” said actress and singer Sophia Carson, who performed a song with award-winning songwriter Diane Warren at the event. “Diane wrote this incredible anthem ‘Applause’ for those who lead, survive and fight, and tonight we dedicate this song and performance to our heroes.”
Actor Aubrey Plaza introduced the character to CNN Aidan Rileywho started his non-profit while on his way home from college during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“From their pandemic couch, Aidan and his friends co-founded the Farmlink Project,” said Plaza. The nonprofit connects surplus food from U.S. farms—food that would otherwise go to waste—with those who need it. “In just two years, he . . . moved more than 70 million pounds,” Plaza added.
debra vines – whose non-profit organization The Answer Inc. supports families affected by autism in underserved communities in Chicago—was honored by actress Holly Robinson Peet, “another autism mom.”
Vines says her group has provided programs and guidance to more than 4,000 families. “Join me and be a servant for change today,” Vines said as she accepted her award.
And Emmy Award-winning actor Justin Theroux brought his rescue dog Kuma on stage to honor him Carrie Broker and her nonprofit Peace of Mind Dog Rescue.
Two teenagers who are changing their communities were also honored as Young Wonders of 2022:
Ruby Chitsey, a 15-year-old from Harrison, Arkansas, started Three Wishes for Ruby’s Residents, which donates personal items to nursing home residents who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them.
Sri Nihal Tammana, a 13-year-old from Edison, New Jersey, started Recycle My Battery, which keeps used batteries out of the ecosystem through a network of collection containers.
The show was also honored two poll workers in GeorgiaShay Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, whose lives were turned upside down after false accusations of involvement in election fraud spread on social media.
CNN has partnered with GoFundMe to make it possible donations for this year’s top 10 honorees. GoFundMe is the world’s largest fundraising platform, enabling people and charities to give and receive help. Supporters can make online donations to the CNN Heroes Top 10 nonprofits directly from CNNHeroes.com. Subaru is matching all donations up to $50,000 for each of this year’s honorees through January 3, 2023.
Do you know someone in your community who is doing amazing things to make the world a better place? I’m following CNN.com/heroes and consider nominating this person as a CNN Hero in 2023. You can also read more about many of the 350 past CNN Heroes who have helped more than 55 million people in all 50 US states and more than 110 countries around the world.
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