Sheila Ward, a member of the Mount Saint Joseph Academy class of 1971, has been to Kenya four times. While Kenya may not be the top tourist destination for many, Sheila finds it exhilarating, but also exhausting and heartbreaking all at the same time.
She began her work there in 2006 when she traveled with a group from the Louisville Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church to visit children in an orphanage in the Vihiga District, which is northeast of Lake Victoria. The group of 24 travelers found The Vihiga Children’s Home to have almost 100 children living in meager conditions, sleeping two to a tiny cot, supervised by only two caregivers. Most of the children were orphaned as a result of AIDS. The group spent a week working on a new school building, tending to sick children, fitting new shoes, building a swing set, and playing with the children.
After returning home, the travelers became a work group, and eventually found a sponsor for every child at the orphanage. Sponsors were also found to help support the school at the home. Orphans are often stigmatized in Kenya, so having their own school at their “home” was important. High school children from the orphanage attended local boarding schools, returning to the orphanage during school breaks. Each sponsor made monthly contributions to help pay for the needs of the children. Fundraisers like yard sales, picnics and dance parties were held several times a year to help pay for a paid caregiver, an accountant, medical care, food, school uniforms and other necessities.
Over the years, members of the work group traveled to Kenya to visit the children and observe their progress. Disappointingly, in 2010 the director of the orphanage was found to have been misappropriating funds. Thus, the work group became more formalized and formed the Kenya Education & AIDS Program (KEAP). The decision was made to place the most vulnerable of the sponsored children in good boarding schools to improve their education, diet and care. A local nurse was hired to help transition the children out of the orphanage and into the boarding schools over the next year. When Sheila visited the next year, she and another board member visited children in 20 schools in two weeks! (That was the exhausting part mentioned earlier.)
2014 was a big year for KEAP. Sheila again traveled with a group of 14 travelers, to visit 11 young adults who were to begin university and other post-graduate work! Four students obtained government scholarships. A new relationship was forged with an excellent post-secondary technical school for the many students who were not destined for universities and needed to learn a trade. One of the employees at this school was eventually hired to become KEAP’s primary caregiver. She is still in this role, and she serves as an honorary mother for the remaining 22 young adults (age 15-24) still in the program. She tends to them when they are sick, scolds them when they misbehave (and just like our kids, they do), mentors them as they launch into jobs, and counsels them when they start their own families and need a “mother” to advise them.
Sheila’s last trip to Kenya occurred in January 2019. She was invited to teach a course in sewing machine maintenance and repair for the tailoring students at the technical school. After a 24-year career at the University of Louisville, Sheila found this teaching experience to be one of the most rewarding of her lifetime. Sheila has no future plans to travel to Kenya. But then, she says that after every trip.
Since the pandemic of 2020, the Kenyan Minister of Education has ordered all schools closed, including technical schools and universities. KEAP students have had to leave their boarding schools and dorm rooms to return to their Kenyan guardians. Many of these guardians are the same families who were forced to put the children into the orphanage years ago because they were too poor to feed them or send them to school. Things have generally not improved in Kenya during the last 15 years, and these families are still desperately poor. So, the children are hungry. Another serious concern is unplanned pregnancy due to forced prostitution. Many girls feel pressure to help feed the family by selling their bodies. Letters from the young adults in the KEAP program verify that this is a very urgent concern.
As a result of this crisis, KEAP has directed staff in Kenya to spend all available funds to purchase packages and deliver them to the families every two weeks. The food packages contain:
- Maize flour
- Whole wheat flour
- Dried beans and/or dried minnows rich in protein
- Cabbage or other vegetables
- Cooking oil
- Tea leaves & sugar
- Bar soap for bathing and laundry
Many letters of thanks have arrived from the children expressing how much the food means to them. One letter described a family in which no one had eaten in two days when the packages arrived.
Unfortunately, also as a result of the pandemic, all the usual fundraisers KEAP holds have been cancelled for the year, so funds are drying up. KEAP has launched an online fund fundraiser to raise enough money to keep the children fed until they can get back to their boarding schools in (hopefully) January 2021.
To contribute to help keep the children fed, send a check to:
10523 Buckeye Trace
Goshen, KY 40026.
Be sure to make the check out to TJUU and write “KEAP Food Donation” in the bottom left of check on the “For” line.
You can also visit https://www.tjuc.org/ and select KEAP in the donation box.