The Power of a Volunteer

26 Sep

Recently, I was asked by the mighty directors of Flying Kites’ Oasis Program to weigh in on the importance of volunteers to our efforts in Kenya. The post, featured here, is a part of Oasis’ September Fundraising Campaign, and due to the magnitude of the topic and the cause, I would like to share it with you, readers!

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In these next few paragraphs, I am to somehow capture the importance of volunteerism to an effort as vital to humanity as Flying Kites’ Oasis program.  I stress the difficulty of this, because their impact is so massive it’s hard even to quantify.  So I’ll tell you what they mean to us, at Flying Kites in Kenya and beyond, and from this hopefully graze the extraordinary creativity, voice, innovation, financial support, energy, and depth of knowledge that volunteers bring to our facilities.  In seeing just how massive and growing their effect on our children, on our organization, and on our community, it is my hope you will see the same supreme potential and need-worth-supporting for the homes of our Oasis Program.

In Kenya, we receive a steady stream of exceptional international volunteers, without lull, year round.  Building the system and infrastructure needed to make this a culturally rich and impacting endeavor is no easy task, but the results are outstanding.

Academically, our tutor force provides one-on-one tutoring for up to thirty students at our primary school, every-day. Every night, they share a dinner table with our children, discuss their day in English, and practice table manners, and after dinner they join four staff members and two private tutors, who circulate from table to table where twenty six children await with questions, problem sets, and encouragement.  Beyond this, their presence, diversity and life experiences, color and culture our children, making them more aware of the world outside and more fit to dream with great ambition.

The cultural enrichments are equally vast. Because of volunteers, our children have explored several of Kenya’s national parks and seen the remarkable wildlife that far too few of their countrymen can afford to see.  They’ve been to the National Museum, welcomed sloppy kisses from giraffes, fed baby elephants, and squealed in awe & terror at boa constrictors.  They’ve been bowling, eaten ice cream, and marveled at a hand-blown glass wonderland.  These are just a few of the many experiences they can now relate to and build from, and all of these adventures were made possible by volunteers who saw value in the joy each outing would yield and made sacrifices to see it through.

In January, our volunteers began to teach a daily Creative Arts class. At the beginning, the students copied the examples given, they looked puzzled when encouraged to think outside the box, and at the end of a class, twenty very similar drawings were handed in. Now, when you sit in on a Creative Arts lesson, the students guide the direction of the project as much as any adult in the room. They produce wildly creative folktales, poems, and paintings. When they are asked to create their own planet, field trip, or ideal day, every single paper is covered in a unique, colorful interpretation of the assignment. They know about Van Gogh and Monet, Aesop’s Fables and Dr Seuss, charcoal and water colors.

Volunteers have also greatly enhanced our children’s health. In the span of one week in July, for the second year in a row, all seventy students at our school were given physical examinations, dental check-ups, personal hygiene classes, and a more effective hand-washing station was installed at our school; all of this was orchestrated and carried out by volunteers from the U.S.  In the following two weeks, that very team of volunteers performed the same services at two Oasis member homes, reaching over 300 children all in all.

And as startlingly beautiful as the results of volunteers’ energy & love are, that is only the half of it. An equally vital aspect of our Volunteer Program is the financial impact volunteers have on our operations. Through a program fee, a daily room and board rate, and a pre-trip fundraising target (FKLA volunteers only), volunteers’ up front contributions allow us to pay competitive salaries to our unbelievable team of Kenyan teachers, drivers, guards, and matrons.  We are able to provide a highly nutritious and varied menu of food to the children in our care. During each month-long school break, we are able to hire twenty-six tutors for our twenty-six children to work with everyday. Just recently, we were able to hire two teachers to assist our children during homework time (this on top of the 8 other adults offering their help each night.)

This is still just the beginning. Our volunteers’ collective impact on our growth & fundraising abilities is nothing short of exponential. Once a volunteer’s time in Kenya comes to an end, they return to their home, where they share stories, pictures, and lessons from their vibrant experience in Kenya. Through these actions, intentionally or not, volunteers recruit other potential volunteers and start the cycle all over again. The financial contributions do not stop there.

The majority of our returned volunteers promptly harness their passion and dedication into a fundraising campaign to sponsor a child. And quite often, their energy and enthusiasm inspires others, usually family and friends, to become a part of our Child Sponsorship program too.  In this program, supporters forge a life-long relationship between themselves and a child at Flying Kites through the exchange of letters, emails, phone calls and in many cases, visits. Child Sponsorships are key to the financial sustainability of Flying Kites, and volunteers have proven to be the best agents of growth for this program.

On top of all else, volunteers organize dozens of fundraising events each year for Flying Kites and at each of these events, and every day in between, these extraordinary individuals act as ambassadors to Flying Kites, carrying information and energy for our cause & our mission to ever-widening circles.

The enormous impact described above is just the norm. I have not even delved into the most extraordinary stories like that of Peter, who has dedicated himself to raising fifty thousand dollars to establish a sustainable green house project, or Hannah, who is raising ten thousand dollars before she embarks on one year of service at FKLA, or Mike, who started a business that employs disadvantaged women in our rural Kenyan community and simultaneously raises thousands of dollars a year for Flying Kites.

If we have piqued your interest in volunteering for Flying Kites, follow this link to learn more about the culturally enriching, energizing, and deeply fulfilling effects of volunteering at an Oasis Member Home: http://mzunguvarnum.blog.com

The ramifications of volunteers’ to the mission of Flying Kites’ is far-reaching and genuinely life altering.  For the thousands of children advocated for by our Oasis Program, I wish this same incredible gift.  This is where we need you to engage and brighten your life by sacrificing for the betterment of others. If you are able to donate your time, please consider volunteering through our Oasis Program in Kenya, or if such a leap isn’t possible, you’re potential for impact is no less vital.  Become a fundraising ambassador for our work. If time is not an option, than allow us to advocate on your behalf.  Donate directly to Oasis if you support this fight for equity. Whichever path is most suited for you, know that your compassionate actions will touch the lives of thousands; desperate children, selfless home directors, and a supremely necessary global cause.

Yours in gratitude,

Julianna Morrall

Director, Volunteer Program

www.flyingkites.org

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Hope Blooms

22 Aug

My life is like a treasure map, and we are on the quest to restore childhood.

I invite you to take a walk with me, from one end of our home to the other.  What you will see will melt your heart and warm your soul, and in it’s simplicity, give you great hope.

I am standing in the playroom.  In the far corner, three kids lounge on large pillows, huddled around a storybook pouring the excitement of dragons, princesses, and sword fights. The oldest of the trio is reading aloud, and every few minutes they dissolve into giggles. The eldest protests in a loving attempt to regain focus.

A few feet away, the big wood table has been transformed into a bracelet and necklace-making wonderland. Bright colored string, coiled into tangled bunches, is measured in arm lengths & woven into bracelets now hanging in troves on nearly every wrist (and even a few ankles), including us lucky ‘Aunties’ and ‘Uncles.’ The jewelry makers are working in surprising silence.  This is the sound of focus and love.

Traveling down the hallway, past Uncle B’s room and the boys’ bathroom, where (in an effort to curb some aiming issues) four simple reminders hang above the sink: Sit, Flush, Wash, Door.

In the sitting room, there is only a sleeping cat, a quiet fireplace, one sandal, a blanket and If You Give A Mouse A Cookie perched on the arm of a couch; remnants of someone taking a warm, quiet moment to themselves.

And now the dining room, Mach is sitting with a loving volunteer, an ABC’s puzzle & small whiteboard are arranged before them. Mach is one of our youngest, and he has recently turned an incredible corner thanks in great proportion to the one-on-one attention from a few particularly patient, tender and gifted educators. There is nothing more energizing than watching a child breakthrough their shell to newfound courage, curiosity, and motivation; to see them learn perhaps for the first time their capabilities.  It is a rewarding gift and a reminder of the immeasurable power of a caring mentor.

Back to our tour! Mach has just written the entire alphabet on the whiteboard with gentle prompting and a giant smile is exploding across his adorable face.  After several high fives and a triumphant wiggle of his hips, he and his tutor carry on. We’ll do the same, taking a right into the ‘old office,’ now study room.

James is leafing through his Class Six High Flyer Encyclopedia. He looks up with a shy smile, and I spot Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the corner of his desk, a literary treat lying just inches away. He is more disciplined than I.  This is certain. I ask him where he is in Harry Potter; who his favorite character is thus far. He is halfway through, and he likes both Harry and Ron.  Across the room, Ann and Hannah are sitting with a volunteer, typing a note to a friend across the world, playing with font colors and learning about the joys of spell-check and the thesaurus.  After giving them a proud, wide smile, we turn around and take a left toward the younger boys’ bedroom.

Sprawled out on the floor in the middle of the room are Isaac, Moses and Peter Gitogo.  They are speaking in wildly animated Kiswahili. Isaac is sporting his famously intense expression of passion and between them is a partially disassembled remote control car that has been in a state of dysfunction for quite some time now.  If there is any chance of breathing life into it, these three will be the ones to do so. Their conversation sways from intense to very intense as they work logically together to pinpoint the problem. They ruled out faulty batteries long ago and are now trying to determine whether it is the remote or the car failing its job.  Mo & Iso aren’t going anywhere, but Peter tires of stillness, jumps up and jaunts out of the room to explore what else is unfolding in the haven of youthful pursuits at large in all directions.

Following Peter’s lead, we wander to the younger girls’ room, where Peter is not allowed.  We find Virginia coloring a March of the Penguins coloring book. Her beautiful mind has turned a scene of frigid penguins into a hot pink, lime green, tuxedoed extravaganza. Laying next to her, Martha is completely engrossed in finishing the homework her tutor assigned to her that morning.  They are both supremely content, doing exactly what they most want to be doing in this single moment. In fact, that is true of all we’ve stumbled upon so far.

Heading through the matron’s tidy bedroom, past the girls’ bathroom, we take a right. We pass the older boys’ room on the left, the hulking bookcase turned shoe rack on the right, and come upon a closed wooden door, from behind which we hear the sounds of crackling cooking oil and laughter. Knock knock. “Karibu!” (Welcome.)

The door swings open to reveal Tabby, one of our mighty mama’s, kneading a huge batch of freshly made dough, Monicah is rolling it into perfectly round pancakes, handing them to Francis, who sits in front of the piping hot griddle, turning the doughy pancakes into what Kenyan’s call chapatti. He does this with ease and finesse, when any of us would whimper at the heat of it all. The radio crackles Classic 105, switching from one excited chart topper to the next. Ezekial, one of our guards, stands by the open window with a steaming cup of chai in hand and provokes great laughter from the bunch with a quick quip in Kikuyu. Francis sings along to the new song drifting from the radio, folding one fresh chapati into my all-too-welcoming hand. A cup of chai is poured for me and suddenly this stop on the tour could happily hang forever.

Auntie Rebecca waltzes in the door, calling over her shoulder to someone in the hallway beyond. Then she turns her warm, affectionate gaze to us. With a half-eaten chapati in one hand, tea in the other, and a kikoi wrapped around my lower half to form a long skirt, I get a cluck of approval and the “Today, you are deserving of the name Njeri,” that I’ve come to expect each time I don a skirt rather than pants. Laughter and jokes about how I belong here now; “Find a Kenyan man and settle here!”

My mind wanders to how hard it will be to depart from this dynamic, love-filled home in six weeks time, but I’m snapped back to the now by squeals of excitement and joy floating in the window from the barn.  The warmth of the kitchen on this misty, cool afternoon is hard to leave, but I’ve got to find out what the enthusiasm is all about.

Out the door, down a step, and across the barn floor that gives with each step, Lucy, Daniel, Eunice, and Rahab are trying their hand at tie-dye, under the creative guidance of several beaming adults. As their twisted white bandanas and t-shirts turn into rainbows, they discerningly choose each color and apply it with a kind of care that reveals the fact that this is not the first time they’ve tie dyed.  If you know me well, you know I say that with pride!  Again, I am tempted to stay.  But there is still further to go.

Now we are outside, where the rooster crows, the cow moos, and brays from Bob the lamb mingle with the sounds of children playing.  Joseph trundles by on a bike pushed by John, who inquires humorously about the length of time remaining for his turn to come. In the front yard, a futball match is underway. Our neighbor Munya dribbles and darts by Peter, then Alex, and swiftly passes the ball to DJ Joe. Brian, walking out of the office with a coffee mug in hand, quickly puts the cup down and joins the game. Francis, apparently done cooking for now, is drawn to the growing competition.

Mom, our head matron, and a few volunteers sit on the lawn sorting beans & maize. Serah, Miriam, and Mary take turns jump roping, counting successful jumps for each other. And back by the outdoor kitchen, Uncle Sam puts the finishing touches on a brick oven, which will go on to produce several rounds of delicious oatmeal, chocolate chip cookies on the first try!

This was one length.  And no matter how many times you do it, you will find an extraordinary flow of creative bursts, quiet moments, uproarious games, and fits of laughter.  Had we walked it two hours ago, the playroom table would be taken over by kids painting pictures of Mt. Kilimanjaro to give to the group of Adventure Challenge participants climbing the mighty mountain in their honor; the sitting room would have been a girls-only fort constructed by couch pillows, blankets and stuffed animals; the game of futball would be replaced by a wet & wild session of slip n’ sliding.

For the entire month of August, this all followed tutoring.  At nine a.m. every morning during school break, twenty secondary students from Njabini marched up to our home, paired with one or two of our students, and the three hours to follow were composed of diligent reviewing and the teaching of new lessons. During these quiet, studious hours, a walk through our home would reveal something more resembling a library during finals week; heads bent over books, speaking in hushed tones.  An incredible feat for twenty-seven children!

It is a beautiful and empowering sight, all of this; to see our children swing between all-out play and conscientious learning; to see them experience such tremendous growth on a daily basis.  If you stand long enough amid this eminent glow and soak in the vibrant joy of these little faces, it is inevitable that your mind will jump forward.  You will see the future faces of doctors and business owners; members of parliament, teachers, and veterinarians.

Hope blooms. And then, a smile.

With love,

Julianna

My momma came to visit!

Mom and Mach

 

The Return

28 Jun


The First Return

Since I last wrote (ages and ages ago,) I temporarily parted with my Kenyan family and returned to my first home, Massachusetts, where I spent six glorious weeks laughing and catching up with my family and friends, soaking in the beauty & renewal of springtime in New England, and basking in the joys of the luxuries I missed (ice cream, the gym, hummus, singing my heart out while driving alone, cold beer and hot showers- you know, the usual.) It was a whirlwind of a month that included trips to New York and Newport, a half-marathon on Bear Mountain, a part-time job working in the lovely Underwood Elementary School and endless storytelling about children who deserve the world.

I was home just long enough to establish a mini-life and feel more love and support than I thought possible pour forth from my family and friends. The whole experience was truly wonderful and it all culminated in one very special evening: a cocktail party to benefit Flying Kites, held on May 5th at the Framingham Country Club.  With 60 bighearted soles in attendance, many of whom I’d known since I was a young child, the support and generosity that emanated from all attendees that night left me glowing for days afterwards.

The party featured an auction of handcrafted items brought back from Kenya, as well as a 50-50 raffle and a table full of giving options ranging from contributing to a water purification system for our home to sponsoring the purchase of 30 pairs of rain boots (Thank you Piersiaks and Flynns!) All in all, the event raised $14,000- a humbling figure. Every ounce of it will help Flying Kites raise & educate Kenya’s future leaders.

While the smash success of the fundraiser was a product of many hearts joining together to take action, I owe a special thank you to a few individuals whose instant, but deep and lasting support made the entire night possible. Tricia Steacie, an angel from my past, thank you for re-entering my life with such unhesitating love. MaryAnne Flynn, the warmth, love and support you’ve showered upon me over the years should have prepared me for all you rained on me last month, yet I was still blown away. Thank you. Kelley Carney, meeting you and gaining your immediate, generous support reminded me how open & bottomless the human heart can be. Justine Orlando and Rob Henseler, your help kept me sane and went far beyond all my expectations. You are all beautiful people, and I’m lucky to know you.

The Second Return

Now, as I write this, I am back in the far and quaint corner of the world I love so deeply, sitting in the restaurant called TeaZone, as the Kenyan sunshine pours down on the residents of Njabini making their way to church. Returning to home number two felt as good as returning to the U.S.: the squeals and heartfelt hugs from the kids when we were reunited sent my heart soaring, the smiles of my coworkers and the steady stream of laughter and love that flows around our house once again lends all of my days a golden hue.

It has been easy to embrace the joys of life here, to hit the ground running, and to settle back into limited electricity and periodic water outages, and my time away allowed me valuable space to step back and reflect upon where we stand as an organization as well as what aspects of the experience on the ground still deserve improvement. And with each recounted story about Flying Kites and the beauteous kids I live with, I realized that Flying Kites is at a crucial juncture, one that necessitates a careful depiction from those of us spreading the word.

Virginia

In four years, the organization has accomplished an unprecedented amount: an energetic and ever-improving school for 80 children, a soon-to-be-complete clinic, and a library in the works. Poverty-stricken homes have been remodeled, desperate families given the chance to stand on their own feet, money has been pumped into the local economy, and dozens of people gainfully employed. Through the Oasis Program, 16 children’s homes caring for thousands of children have taken smart strides forward and at the heart of it all, there are 27 amazingly healthy, happy, and clever children who’s childhoods have been restored to them, who are receiving top-notch care, and who are proving the value of our mission daily. And yet for all that, Flying Kites, still in its youth, will struggle to carry on without increased financial support. This is something I do not talk about enough: it is easy for me to relay loving stories of the children I live with and the exciting progress I witness, but it is much more difficult to talk about those things that bring my heart to a pause, that stand in the way of advancement, that inhibit the genius of the team we’ve gathered here.

I’m deeply thankful that the storytelling I did while home brought the critical importance of adeptly conveying this balance to new light for me. I learned that telling our story is telling a success story that is far, far from written in stone; I’ve spent a good deal of time contemplating how to better share our joy, hope and progress alongside the urgency with which we need all those already involved, and those who will come to us in the future, to find ways to help us sustain, and then grow, via financial support. Surely honesty is the best policy, and weaving our weak points into our strong is no betrayal; though knowing that does not make conveying the right message easy, it does make me feel freer to do so. And to my great joy, it seems to be working.  The people in my networks have stepped in to further the work of Flying Kites in many clear ways; there was the enormous swell of generosity that defined the Cocktail Party & Auction, my closest friends from college banning together to sponsor Martha, a handful of those same folks who joined me in running one hell of a race (on Bear Mountain) on behalf of FK, and recently this gathered energy has taken a step wider with incredible people like Lisa Musso, my friend Kara’s mother, stepping in to sponsor a child at Flying Kites (the one and only brilliant Moses.)

Luckily for this operation, my small (though significant!) piece of the pie is just that and our base of support is growing daily thanks to the unbelievably dedicated team working for Flying Kites in Brooklyn and Newport. Thanks to the courageous and compassionate people signing up for Adventure Challenges everyday and those pouring their heart and soul into raising funds in order to come add their energy to our spectacular volunteer team.

Our network within Kenya has also begun to swell to a tipping point; a hard earned indicator of this growth in reputation and circle of friends was Flying Kites’ 2011 International Day of the African Child celebration that occurred on June 11, which I am proud to say I had a hand in crafting.  International Day of the African Child honors children’s rights, particularly their right to a quality education, and it began as a way to commemorate a march for better education in Soweto, South Africa in 1976 during which the police opened fire and killed many of the innocent student protestors. As an organization dedicated to providing children with exemplary care and education, Flying Kites has been rightfully celebrating this remarkable day for several years now.

Day of the African Child

When I arrived back in Kenya in early May, the preparations for IDOAC were really kicking into full gear, and I unhesitatingly jumped head long into helping wherever help was needed. Alongside an incredible team of people lead by the amazingly capable Michael Behan, we planned for a procession of many thousands to culminate in a day-long festival of singing, dancing, poetry reading, and rousing speeches delivered by the region’s children all to the tune of quality education.

While the day itself shines in my mind like the sun’s bright rays in a stunning, summer blue sky, the lead up to the momentous occasion held a dear sweetness of its own, and is the reason the success of the day was felt so deeply by those who planned it. The days leading into the event were marked by endless visits to area schools, mad dashes from one side of town to the other while canvassing the town’s main market, churches, and businesses with fliers, hours of brainstorming, endless & wildly creative problem solving, and many a thorough meeting. In my experience, event planning involves a great deal of last minute problem solving and the final weeks and days leading up to the occasion are characterized by a total devotion to the end goal, not to mention more than a few frenzied hours. Add to that the curveballs that perpetually keep us on our toes here in Njabini- broken down buses, town-wide power outages, the inability to access certain goods, washed out roads- and you’ve got yourself the kind of challenge that takes serious teamwork to conquer; the kind of challenge that kept us all moving at breakneck pace.

The volunteer team who comprised the IDOAC Planning and Advisory Board will forever hold a special place in my heart; Flying Kites will never be able to adequately express how indebted we are for the countless hours they spent pulling together every last detail of this momentous event nor can we overstate their selfless dedication to furthering our mission. Peter, Lewis, Esther, Tom, Jane, Meso, Rahab, and Peter, you are all bright lights in this special community which we are so lucky to be a part of; I am honored to have worked alongside you in this mighty endeavor, and moreover, to be your friend.  Mike Behan, my already deep respect and admiration for your work ethic, your unshakeable equanimity, and your keen sense of humanity grew by leaps and bounds during the many hours we spent making sure we hadn’t forgotten anything too major, during the committee meetings you lead with such care, and as I watched you make necessarily quick yet sound decisions over and over again.

Mike & Peter Murimi

Tom. Nakupenda rafiki!

The energy and beauty captured in the pictures unfolded only because of Mike, Tom, Esther, Jane, Peter, Lewis, Rahab, Peter, and Meso. And the day itself went as smoothly as it did (at least to a spectators eye!) only because of the unbelievable support provided by our staff and volunteers. Frannie, Brian, Hannah, Tricia, Julia, Hannah, Anna, Chelsea, MaryKate, Vin, Rachel, Meg, Molly, Lilly, Nele, Phoebe, Tabby, Joyce, Sam, our teachers, and our guards, thank you for putting your full weight behind us on June 11th. Whether it was counting thousands of cakes and bananas, hanging up signs, blowing up balloons, painting banners, distributing food, comforting young performers, or looking out for our kids, you all did a remarkable job and I will forever be blown away by the flexibility and dedication you all put forth that day.

On the morning of June 11th, our house was wide-awake and moving fast by 5:30 am.  By the time the sun rose over Elephant Mountain in a breathtaking display of beauty, we were already on our way to make last minute touch ups to our school site, where just hours later five thousand people would clap, dance and sing in celebration of our children’s future and the education that will shape it. By the time we began gathering for the procession, many of us had been up for five hours and had done a variety of tasks, the absurd range of which would make anyone smile.

Lucy O and Serah

Benny boy

As a crowd of school children began to gather around the decorated lorry blasting popular music, the calm of a carefully orchestrated plan finally put into motion started to settle over me. For the next few hours, as we made our way through town and the procession swelled to many thousands, I played crowd control at the front of the parade and soaked in the beauty of a pulsing sea of colorfully uniformed children standing up for their rights. As we crested the hill leading out of Njabini and towards our school, there was a moment when the joy and accomplishment of it all crushed down upon me; looking around as my colleagues and fellow committee members rushed in every direction, everyone moving with such purpose & resolution, it was one of the proudest and most gratifying moments of my young life.

Triumph!

Once the performances began, and I found myself moving constantly, most often locating a school or speaker set to perform shortly, the hours rushed by me until suddenly it was time for our honored speakers and guest performer to take the stage. Our special guest speaker, Ann Karima, took the stage just as a gentle rain began and our generator rain out of fuel.  Without so much as a blink of the eye, Ms Karima, a charismatic powerhouse of a public servant, took up a megaphone and delivered a rousing speech to an eager crowd.  Next, our honored guest speaker, Mr. Joseph Kaguthi, a former provincial commissioner, founder of NACADA and a native of our district, took the stage as the generator belched back to life and the rain became a bit more insistent. Mr. Kaguthi, remaining true to his reputation as a humble and loving representative of the people, drove our point home about the importance of quality education in the crowd’s mother tongue, Kikuyu. To top off the day, Jimmie Gait, a renowned Kenyan pop star and committed friend to Flying Kites, worked the crowd into a delighted frenzy by performing an extraordinary set including the brand new tune ‘African Child’- a song which has quickly become an anthem to the children of Flying Kites and is poised for international attention.

Ann Karima and Brian Jones

The Honorable Joseph Kaguthi

MIke Behan with the Chairman & representatives of the day's official sponsor, Seneca EA

Thank you Seneca EA!

Though the day up until these last performances was more of a blur than I’d like to admit, there are a handful of moments that I will remember forever: watching the children of FKLA perform a skit about education, standing on stage as the winners of the primary school poetry contest performed their prose with dignity and striking emotion, dancing alongside local politicians and community leader’s, watching mouth agape as a courageous five year old from the Oasis member home, Children’s Garden, took the stage solo only to break into a rap that stunned and elated the entire crowd, two of FK’s  young day scholars, John and David, being pulled on stage to shake their stuff alongside Jimmie Gait, and lastly, the IDOAC planning committee being pulled on stage and recognized one by one for their outstanding efforts.

A winner of the poetry contest

Dream Team!

And in the end, as quickly as the day came upon us, it passed in a whirlwind of school uniforms, hand shaking, wide smiles, and little voices making big points.

Post-DOAC

You may notice that June 11th was several weeks ago now. Since IDOAC, we’ve settled back into fighting the good fight, to the routine that manages to keep us energized and yet drain us daily, and to our kids who are excelling in school & growing into better people with every waking hour.

The months of June, July and August are our busiest in terms of volunteers as summer in the states frees up many dedicated university students to make the trip over here (and to my great joy many of them will be doing so for the second or even third time!) The extra hands on deck are a great gift to us; nearly a third of the students in our school receive one on one tutoring everyday as a result, but the increased numbers also present a challenge on the home front. Maintaining order, peace and productivity in our home becomes a task demanding a great deal of attention and care. Thus it is my challenge to welcome new faces into our home and show them that there is a time for the joy of laughing & playing with our kids and a time for insisting upon quietude, upon diligent studying, upon order & routine. Like so many challenges we encounter, this can be conquered with the powerful combination of clear communication and consistent follow-through.

The glorious part of this job and this life is that it challenges me daily and it showers me with rewards just as often. For that, I am so grateful. I am grateful to be back here, I am grateful to have many more months here, and right now, I am grateful that I will soon be sharing all of this with MY MOTHER!!! My mom will be visiting in a few short weeks and I am beyond excited to introduce her to my Kenyan family, to show her the life that’s sprung up around me here, and to have her wise mom/teacher eyes help me find areas to improve upon.

Thank you all for sticking with me through this long and windy update! Soak in some summer sunshine for me (though I hear that’s been in short supply) and raise your gin and tonic in celebration of all we are lucky for.

With love,

Julianna

Because We All Need Love…

21 Apr

Miriam & our head matron, known to all as Mum

We can’t replace the loss of Miriam’s mother.  No one can.

But when she cries, we can comfort her. When she wants someone to watch her do cartwheels, we can applaud her. When she doubts herself, we can believe in her. When she has a fight with her best friend, we can listen to her. When she dreams big dreams, we can encourage her. And when she asks how this is all possible, we can tell her it’s because of friends like you.

Support our Mother’s Day Campaign and honor your mother all year with a monthly contribution of $10 or $20 to orphaned children and the remarkable women raising them.

http://www.flyingkitesglobal.org/mothers_day_form.shtml

And then, let your smile grow wide and heart swell while watching this beautiful video. This video captures the results of our work better than anything else I’ve ever seen.

Thank you for your love, your support, and for honoring your mother through our Mother’s Day Campaign. Here’s to the hope of loving!

Julianna

A Photo Journey of FKLA

27 Mar

Lucy Obama, future president of Kenya

Teacher Tabby leads Class 2 in yoga

Boys will be boys.

Morning assembly

 

This prolific photo journey is courtesy of John Deputy, who recently spent a week at FKLA, generously donating his incredible photography skills to help us capture the beauty that pours forth from all angles here.

These photos are among the very few I have seen that do justice to the vibrancy of Flying Kites’  teachers, students, and school days. Tomorrow, our students will begin end of term exams. Wish them luck as they work diligently to finish out the semester strong and send the teachers your love and gratitude, as there is no group of people more deserving of it.

I will be back in America on Wednesday; there are no words to describe how quickly the last six months have rushed by! Thank you all for your love and support throughout this unbelievable chapter of my life; I cannot wait to thank you all in person.

All my love,

Julianna

Meet Virginia

22 Mar

When I think back on this past week, an unusual number of the bright, shining moments involve one incredibly beautiful little girl with dazzling eyes and a smile that could melt the arctic.

Virginia just joined our family this week, but you wouldn’t know it from how she giggles with the other girls, helps with the chores, or stands up during our nightly family meetings and shares with us all what she is happy for. Virginia is ten years old, in Class 3, and is the older sister to Michael, whom we’ve had in our care for some months now.

There is nothing more rewarding than bringing a new child into the Flying Kites family here; there is no greater gift than being present at the beginning of a new, life altering, happy chapter to a child’s life. Add to this the fact that Virginia’s entrance into our family also marks the reuniting of siblings and joy emanates from all angles. I was given the great honor of collecting Virginia from her former guardian and accompanying her on her first trip up our now muddy road (yes, the rainy season is here!), through the gates of her new home, and into the welcoming arms of her new caregivers and playmates.

In the first moments of our blessed interaction, Virginia was shy to speak, but not to smile. The instant her smile lit the room, an astonishing resemblance between her and her brother nearly knocked the wind from me. Since those first quiet moments, Virginia has proven herself to be a beautiful combination of quiet, steady, confident, conscientious, loving, and above all else, happy. There are countless remarkable laughs dancing through our household, but Virginia’s competes with the best of them. It bubbles up slowly, spills over and fills the space around her with pure euphoria. When I heard it for the first time, I literally had to sit down and cover my mouth.

Usually, standing up and speaking during our nightly “Gratitude” session is a rite of passage that newcomers to our family undertake after a few weeks, but Virginia stood up her first night, without any extra coaching, and said “I am happy to be here.”  She then leapt up from her seat, made her way across the room toward me and snuggled up next to me like she knew how proud I was of her; like we’d known each other for ages. Taking my hand in hers, she put my hand against her face, and kept it there.  And from this, I am done. My heart is now hers forever.

If anyone else is as charmed by Virginia as I am, please engage yourself in her life.  Virginia does not have a sponsor, someone to assist in our ability to provide the very best education, healthcare, and love.  Become her sponsor or help us find someone who is able.  She needs you.  We need you.  Click here.

Over the weekend, we welcomed another little one into our home. This is Nala.

Nala is tiny, adorable and disproportionately noisy for her miniscule size. Our older boys constructed a cozy home for her in their unused fireplace and Danny the protective father, as he is with all living creatures, has taken to following her around, tisking anyone who touches her with anything less than extreme delicacy. Though she is named after the female companion to Simba from The Lion King, Nala and our cat Simba have yet to find any joy in each other.  Join us in keeping your fingers crossed that they work things out!

Last Friday marked an exciting and noteworthy point in my colleague, Brian’s, life: the one-year anniversary of his arrival in Kenya.  A year ago, Brian jumped headlong into the great unknown of living and working in Njabini, Kenya and though he landed a bit gingerly, it was not long before he took off at a breakneck pace, first in his role as Director of Magnet Effect, and then as Country Director.  Brian has been instrumental in moving our ground operations very, very far forward, he is known by all in Njabini and is making a name for himself and Flying Kites in Nairobi, and you have never met someone so gifted with children.

To show how widely loved he is and how deeply appreciative we all are of Brian’s work, I reached out to as many people as I could think of who have visited FKLA in the past year, and asked them to send me words of love, gratitude and memorable moments, which I would then read aloud to Brian on Friday.  The outpouring of love for Brian was marvelous; dozens of people responded to my request to “overwhelm Brian with our gratitude” and it made for an incredible couple of days for me as an unending stream of amazingly heartfelt messages came rolling in.  To say Brian was blown away when we read all twelve pages of messages to him is a vast understatement. Thank you to all who helped show the mighty Mr. Jones how much he is loved and appreciated by the FK family.

Another, thank you, the depth and intensity of which cannot be overstated, is owed to Peter Keating, whose generosity has allowed Flying Kites to purchase a gently used LandCruiser to replace our old LandRover which recently died. Our new, forest green LandCruiser is a beauty. It is spacious and runs quietly. Its starts every morning, and makes its way through the mud with ease.  When the kids first saw their new vehicle, they screamed and jumped and our driver Stephen temporarily took on the role of riot police. Peter, your Njabini family says a heartfelt “ASANTE SANA!”  Your generosity has made our day-to-day lives measurably easier.

The Inaugural drive through the gate!

The smiles say it all...

In just one week, I will be boarding a plane in Nairobi and beginning the two-day (including a twenty four hour layover, ah) journey back to the home I’ve missed greatly while I’ve settled into my current, extraordinary home that has forever changed me for the better. In the days before I leave I have an enormous amount of work to do, most exciting of all is putting the finishing touches on a one to one tutoring program between our twenty-seven kids and twenty-seven secondary students from the top schools in Njabini. Each of the twenty-seven secondary students will come to our center every weekday for three hours a day to tutor.  During the month-long April break, each will spend a significant amount of time lifting our kids academically in all subjects, particularly those subjects that are weak, and helping us to inspire them to excel and compete in top secondary schools. This program will unfold every school break from here on out (school lets out for the months of April, August, and December) and it marks an exciting step forward in our relationship with area schools and our delivery of the promise of an exemplary education.

In the meantime, every day brings me one giant step closer to seeing your faces, to indulging in far too many hot showers, constant electricity, high-speed internet and refrigerated food! The thought of all those things, but more so the thought of seeing all of you who I love so dearly, plants an unshakable smile on my face.

See you in a week!

All my love,

Julianna

Lamu Tamu

9 Mar

‘Lamu Tamu’ translates to Lamu sweet, which is the perfect way to describe the heavenly little oasis where I just spent a week utterly delighted by the gorgeous beaches, stunning architecture, enchanting alleyways and the incredible blend of African and Muslim influences, the result of which is ‘Swahili’ culture.  And it’s all tucked tightly together on a tiny island that the locals proudly describe as “paradise.”

Joining me on this awesome ocean-side adventure were my colleagues and dear friends, Frannie and Mike, with a guest appearance by Erin O’Malley, volunteer extraordinaire and her equally extraordinary sister, Megan. We stayed at the Shella Bahari Guest House, in the tiny, fairytale-esque village of Shella.

We were blessed with perfect weather for both beaching and sailing and we took advantage of this to the fullest extent possible. We also spent many hours just wandering around the narrow, winding alleys that crisscross the villages of Lamu.  There are only two cars on the island of Lamu; one is owned by the government and the other is an ambulance- for donkeys. Donkeys and dhows (traditional Arab sailboats made of wood, with one dramatic sail) are the primary modes of transportation and though I shied away from riding a donkey (they are such sad looking creatures, it didn’t feel right to add more of a burden), I jumped at every chance we had to go sailing and delighted in every moment spent on a dhow.

Though the entire week was bliss, a few moments stand out as experiences I will cherish forever: my first swim in the pristine Indian Ocean, sailing from Lamu village to Shella on our first night & the stunning night sky that seemed to envelop the whole world, swimming at night in water so full of phosphorescence that it felt as though my limbs were highlighters when I dragged them through the water, eating a traditional Swahili meal next to a bonfire on the beach under yet another astonishing night sky, and perhaps the most meaningful of all, being handed the tiller of the beautiful dhow named “Hippo” on a sunset sail and the feeling of utter peace and joy that washed over me as the wind filled the sail and propelled us onward.

From the second I stepped off the plane and into the little boat that carried us to Lamu, a deep calm washed over me and I knew that every moment I spent on Lamu was going to be very, very sweet. Over the course of the week, I settled into a deeply entrenched state of bliss and relaxation. I fell so entirely in love with Lamu during my time there that I promised myself I would return many times during my lifetime. Truly, words do not do justice to how wonderful our vacation on Lamu was, so I am going to rely on pictures to convey what words cannot.

Dhows in Shella

Island-chic donkey

Mangroves along the coast

No roads, just enchanting alleys...

And men wear skirts.

Frannie!

My favorite pirates

Dhow race

Though a part of me felt like staying in Lamu forever, perhaps the best feeling of all came as it was time to leave and I realized that I was wildly excited to return home. I am deeply lucky to love my job as much as I do and the happiness I felt as I walked into the gates of FKLA and was bombarded with hugs and  kisses from the little ones reminded me that our home may not be the paradise that is Lamu, but it is every bit as spectacular.

I will be back in the states in just a few weeks and I am getting more excited by the day! I cannot wait to see the many beautiful faces of friends, fellow Kiters and my family.

All my love,

Julianna

Blissful Juncture

23 Feb

The fuller my life becomes here, the harder it is to find time to write. Once again, without me realizing it, an entire month has passed since my last post. In a book I recently read, the author uses the saying “The days are long but the years are short,” to describe how she feels about the passing of time. Though I haven’t been in Kenya for years, that saying could not be more applicable to how time seems to pass here. Each day is packed with events, yet each week and month slip by at an astounding pace.

The last thirty days have been as dynamic and stimulating as the thirty before them. The past month has seen the arrival of the incredible Frannie Noble, FK’s Oasis Program Manager, and Mike Behan, who is overseeing our Magnet Effect program and is founder of Njabini Apparel, an awesome undertaking that I will touch upon in greater depth another time. These two accomplish more in a day than most accomplish in a week; I learn a huge amount from both of them on a daily basis and it is wildly exciting to have them back on the ground in Njabini. Mike and Frannie, I am in awe of you both; you add leaps and bounds to our productivity levels, not to mention my personal happiness!

In the last few weeks I’ve also had the great pleasure of meeting and getting to know the second Adventure Challenge team to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro this year. This team was composed of sixteen beautiful souls, many who hail from the Los Angeles area. It is always humbling to meet people who have worked for months to fundraise for children they have not yet met and this group was no exception. Amongst the sixteen mighty climbers, I spent the most time with former rock star turned ultra-marathoner and Adventure Challenges recruiter, Jared Reynolds, who felt like a life long friend within the first day of our meeting. I’ve met very few people in my life who were as skilled at story telling or making me laugh as Jared. I’ve said this before, but one of the hidden blessings of living at FKLA is that you get to meet the most extraordinary people. Whether they come for three months or three days, the connection you make is one that will not fade during this lifetime.

To this note, this Adventure Challenge team was the first to meet our family at it’s new capacity of twenty six.  We are happy to welcome Joseph, 13 years old, into our extraordinary family.  Joseph is an incredibly bright young man; he is in class seven at Good Shepherd Academy, where our other oldest 7 children are all boarding students, and he is certainly a bright one, earning top marks in all his classes. Joseph has long been a friend to our kids, so his official entrance into our family was especially meaningful and exciting for the rest of our children. Our eldest eight- Joseph, Francis, James, Hannah, Eunice, Ann, Peter and Monicah- are all now boarding at Good Shepherd Academy, which has changed the dynamic of our household (we miss them immensely!) and means that we will not get to know Joseph very well until they return home during school break in April. Until then, we will visit them every chance we can get. In fact, two weekends ago our entire motley family- all children, matrons and volunteers- rolled up to Good Shepherd for visiting day and simultaneously delighted and embarrassed our pre-teens for the better chunk of a beautifully sunny Saturday.

Another monumental event that meant the world to me and marks a new depth in this family was the delivery of my Kikuyu tribal name; something we all secretly pine for and hope will carry a fitting legacy.  Mine, received with tremendous gratitude, is Njeri.  Auntie Njeri, which means ‘calm and peaceful.’  And of course, I love it– it’s like a song in itself.   I was surprised to hear that this was my name because of the pace I am required to move at, but over the last five months, I am learning to better sculpt a sense of calm.  So I welcome it with humble thanks.  It will serve as a reminder in the frequent moments when four kids are calling my name, as I am on the phone with the Chief, chasing a wayward rabbit from the house.

For example, last week I was sitting in a meeting with the Headmaster of Good Shepherd Academy and the guardian of a young boy Flying Kites was about to take custody of, discussing how to make the transition to his new home as smooth as possible, when my phone rang. I answered (as is the custom here) and was astonished to hear Mum (also known as our Head Matron, Phoebe) excitedly announcing that our cow, Flossy, is in heat and she wants to artificially inseminate her as soon as possible. I did my best to hold back my laughter and told Mum I’d have to consult with Brian and call her back when I was out of my meeting. Then I hung up the phone and returned to the conversation at hand without a second thought. And with such moments I’ve begun to realize that Njeri may be more apt that I initially thought.

Self-portrait!

I have now been in Kenya, living in Njabini, for nearly five months. That means I am nearing the end of my six-month stay here and need to be thinking about the next step. About a month ago my thoughts became consumed by this realization and a deep anxiety over this dilemma set in. I was torn between not wanting to leave here, wanting to spend the summer months in New England, missing family and friends from home and feeling as though if I left now, I would be abandoning my role just as I am finally getting really good at it. On top of this, June, July and August are the busiest months for volunteerism, so what am I to do?

After much contemplating, I have made my decision and both peace and great joy has already bloomed.  I will be returning to the states for the month of April and half of May, returning to Kenya for 3-4 months to follow. It makes me sad to think that I will be missing a Newport summer, missing out on weekends at the Big House (my family’s cape house and my heaven), and losing several more months of time with many of my closest friends, but I am not ready to leave my life here.

I am happy and fulfilled. There is still a great deal I want to accomplish in terms of improving and growing FK’s Volunteer Program, and I feel like I’ve finally hit my stride here. Not to mention the fact that I can’t imagine waking up to any sound but kid’s laughter. I can’t imagine spending mornings at any place besides our school, talking with the teachers, catching up on emails and dropping in on the Creative Arts and Creative Writing classes taught by our volunteers.  I want to be there afterschool when the kids wash their socks, put soapsuds on their faces and walk around pretending to be Father Christmas. Right now, there is nothing more important to me than those small bright moments, when one of them crawls into my lap and shines their smile.  Welcome these blessings and this news with me.

In finally arriving to my decision, fruits I didn’t initially see are now showing themselves.  I will be here when many of my favorite people in the world return to volunteer again this summer. It means I will get to see the completion of the Carly Pie Liptak Clinic, and the continued progress of our library. I will get to see my amazing coworkers implement all sorts of impressive initiatives and will get a chance to further improve the structure of the Volunteer Program on the ground. In the last two months alone, volunteers have gone from tutoring one or two children a day and haphazardly assisting in the classrooms to tutoring three kids a day, leading a daily Creative Arts class, initiating a weekly Creative Writing class for the two older grades, and playing an integral role in our new and improved homework time routine. It’s a hard fought and fulfilling mark!  And now, with months now ahead of me to sculpt, I am excited thinking about the feet still to climb.

Beyond this, I get to see my family and friends soon! During the six weeks I am home, I hope to see ALL of the faces that I’ve missed so greatly over the last months. You all at home can count on a fundraiser I’ll be hosting for Flying Kites, where I will tell you the stories I can’t publish and the glory in my heart can pour out!  I hope you all will attend!  Details to come.  In a fit of inspiration, I signed up to run a half-marathon on the trails of Bear Mountain over the weekend of May 7 & 8 to raise money for the kids who have stolen my heart. I have never run more than 3 or 4 consecutive miles, but after climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro last year, I’ve been hungry for another challenge and know the overwhelming sense of accomplishment that resonates from these events.  I’ll be running alongside many of my greatest friends from the Flying Kites U.S. team and some of my best friends from B.C.

My fundraising goal for this challenge is to raise $2,000, which will cover all expenses for one child at Flying Kites for an entire year. I have along way to go both in my fundraising and my training, but I hope those of you reading this will be compelled to contribute in any way you can.  Please visit my fundraising page for more information. If you are looking for a challenge yourself, it is not too late to sign up for the NorthFace Endurance Challenge as a member of FK’s team- the Kite Runners. To those of you who have already signed up to join us or have already donated (Caitlin Martz, Robin Elliot, Robin Troxell Maureen Florio, Jared Furtado, Josh Furtado, and my parents), thank you from the bottom of my heart for your love and support.

To all of you reading this, thank you for your continued dedication, support, and wish of love!

All my love,

Njeri

Whirlwind

21 Jan

Photo by Julia Pai

It has been a month since I last wrote; a month that could not possibly have been more packed with visitors, excitement, progress or joy.  In sitting down to finally write this post, I am faced with the daunting task of writing about a very special Christmas, our New Years celebrations, a two week visit from my brother, a 3-day safari, a hugely successful Flying Kites event at the Tribe Hotel, multiple groups of visitors who touched my heart and brightened Flying Kites during their time with us, the arrival of a handful of stellar volunteers, and the welcoming of FOUR new children to the Flying Kites family. And while I may be intimidated by how much I have to cover in the following paragraphs, such feelings are more than neutralized as the task serves as a reminder of how full and vibrant my life has become.

Many of you may be familiar with the oft-quoted saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” A less catchy, but equally true version of this statement proved itself to be abundantly true about a month ago: It takes a village to orchestrate and successfully pull off a memorable Christmas for 21 children & something like 15 adults. Lucky for us, we had just that.

A week before Christmas, we welcomed Bill Piersiak, Julia Pai, and Bill’s four kids Derrick, Hannah, Dylan, Dean to Flying Kites and within minutes of arriving, they had put themselves to work. Whether it was building a chicken coop, tie-dying t-shirts with the kids, making 21 mugs of hot cocoa, organizing trips to the river, or making s’mores by the campfire (that is literally only the half of it,) they came into our world projecting constant warmth, laughter, and productivity. Without Bill, Derrick and Julia cooking Christmas dinner, or Hannah running crowd control on Christmas Eve morning, I don’t know how we would have entertained and fed 21 kids to the extraordinary degree we did (we gave all of our Kenyan staff Christmas Eve & Christmas Day off.)

Bill and Derrick preparing Christmas dinner. Photo by Julia Pai.

On Christmas Eve, Jane, our Magnet Effect Director, Tom, a faithful friend of Flying Kites, and our infallible driver Stephen helped us deliver several weeks supply of food and story books to around 10 families in the area, including one child-headed family of 8-orphaned children. They also helped us bring food, books, mattresses and blankets to a single mother and her 8 children, all of whom had previously been sleeping on a pile of clothing, in a house with gaping holes in the walls (several days later, several volunteers returned and revamped the home to be far more solid and warm.) Without the help of all those mentioned above, our kids would not have been able to give back to their neighbors is such a meaningful way on Christmas.

Looking through the books they were about to give to their neighbors. Photo by Julia Pai.

Our longer-term volunteers at the time, Stephanie and Tina turned our home into an oasis of Christmas-y beauty, making garlands to adorn the fireplaces, wreaths for the doors, teaching the kids to make snowflakes for the walls & ornaments for the tree. Steph brought Christmas lights and advent candles back from Nairobi, and Tina took it upon herself to respond to EACH AND EVERY one of the kids’ letters to Father Christmas. Tina took to heart many of the children’s requests for ‘magic wands’ and created 21 sparkly, colorful wands which Father Christmas then placed in their stockings. Christmas day was abound with “Auntie, my wand is not working, Joseph did not turn into a mouse when I waved it at him…” and the like. You can only imagine the creative answers that were given.

On Christmas day, our guards slaughtered the chickens we consumed for dinner, our kids were given presents donated to FK by a great many of our dedicated supporters, our neighbors brought us honey and plums, our bank teller brought a crate of soda for all the kids, no less than ten people helped prepare our delicious meal, and a former volunteer made a donation to cover the costs of the desert of decadent chocolate cake. Clearly, the village rose up around us, and as a result, our Christmas was truly remarkable.

Christmas morning- looks just like yours, right? Photo by Julia Pai.

Though the glee-filled faces of the kids on Christmas morning brought me immense joy, what truly made my Christmas was the news, delivered to me by Leila in front of all the kids and volunteers, that 17 of my best friends from BC had joined together to sponsor a kid at Flying Kites. I knew nothing about this incredibly generous act until the moment Leila told me, and never have I been more touched by and grateful for, the amazing group of people who were nothing less than family during my years at BC.

During the week between Christmas and New Years Eve, we were joined by the second group of inspiring people participating in Flying Kites’ Adventure Challenges program, all of whom would go on to successfully summit Mt. Kilimanjaro ten days later. These ten hardy individuals came to us from all over the U.S., with incredible stories of how they had raised the $5,000 necessary to take part in the challenge; they had cleaned yards, held parties, knocked down beehives, worked second jobs, and told the story of Flying Kites countless times.  The group was made up of students, recent graduates, teachers, lawyers, and more; they had worked hard for every dollar they raised. While they all embarked on the adventure for different reasons, by the time they reached FKLA the team had only two goals: to get to know the kids they had worked so hard for and then to successfully climb Africa’s highest peak in their honor. After having spent months fundraising and training for the climb, it was deeply moving, exciting, and gratifying to watch these heroes finally experience firsthand the laughter and smiles of our kids and the love of that fills our home here.

Having took part in the very same Adventure Challenge (www.fkadventurechallenges.org) 6 months earlier, this whole experience brought intense waves of déjà vu as well as an overwhelming desire to do it all again (Martz, you in?) After the AC team left FKLA to begin their journey to the summit of Kilimanjaro, I took great pleasure in waking up every morning and thinking about where they were on their journey (Day 4 & 5 are really foggy though) and I was nothing less than jubilant when I learned the entire team had summitted: no easy feat. Thank you to all of those who climbed Kili for our kids; they talk about you daily and I would be hard pressed to think of better role models for them than you all.

During this same stretch, I had the great joy of welcoming my younger brother, Bentley, to Kenya, to Njabini, and  to FKLA. It may have been the fact that I had been talking to the kids about Ben’s upcoming visit for WEEKS beforehand, but from the moment he walked through the unobtrusive gates of FKLA, the kids were enthralled by him. They climbed all over him, delighted in playing football with him, nestled into his lap and asked him to read them stories, and declared their love for him during every nightly meeting (as I write this it is dawning on me that the kids might like Ben more than me.) Sharing my world and family here with Ben was even more meaningful that I had imagined and we had an absolute blast together.

Ben arrived just a few days before the New Year, and between having the AC group and my brother at the centre for New Years Eve, we had ourselves a joy-filled evening despite the lack of champagne, streamers and dropping golden ball. There was no shortage of music and dancing as we indulged and left the generator on all night. Francis, Eunice and Lily lead the kids (& brave adults) in all sorts of dance moves that I could never hope to mimic; at one point in the evening there was an impromptu limbo contest, which Isaac took very seriously (should come as no surprise to those who know him well.) All of the kids wrote down their New Years resolutions in brand new journals, and those who were still awake at midnight shared theirs out loud during the countdown. When the clock struck midnight, with a very, very sleepy Rahab in my arms, I looked around the room and had one of those priceless moments of complete amazement over all that surrounded me.

A few days later, the 2011 school year began at the Feinstein Junior Scholars Academy, and the excitement on our kids faces as they readied themselves for the first day of classes in their beautiful, new school honestly outpaced the excitement they displayed on Christmas morning. The school is being called a ‘symbol of hope’ by many in the community and this echoes true in the pride that is evident in its students, teachers, and staff. Next to the new school, which boasts four classes, five teachers, and 70 students, construction on the Carly “Pie” Liptak Clinic proceeds at a breakneck pace; another symbol of hope and progress and a hint at all that Flying Kites will accomplish in the near future.

Amidst Ben’s two-week stay, we squeezed in a three-day safari in the Masai Mara, where we witnessed the astonishing spectacle of animals and landscapes that has made the Mara such an internationally famous tourist destination. We travelled with an impressively diverse group: a young Swedish gentleman, a German couple, a Russian woman and her Kenyan turned Russian boyfriend. Our pleasant safari-mates made the adventure all the more memorable, but by the end of our trip we were both eager to return to FKLA and the kids.

Just days after our return from safari, the generous and glamorous Tribe Hotel hosted a fundraiser on behalf of Flying Kites which unfolded spectacularly and included a heartfelt speech by the former Minister of Justice and current Member of Parliament, Martha Karua, the musical talent of Anto Neosoul and his group Paragasha, an acrobatic performance by several yogis connected to the African Yoga Project, a crowd-rocking performance by Kenyan pop-star Jimmie Gait, and an incredible speech by FK’s oldest boy and consummate leader, Francis, which recounted how he came to live at FKLA & began with the line “You may have heard of something called Facebook…”  His speech revealed Francis to be living & breathing proof of the soundness of Flying Kites’ mission.

Many friends of Flying Kites as well as many, many new faces that we hope to get to know better attended the event at Tribe, including the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger and many established members of Nairobi’s business community.  The biggest thing that set this night apart from any other Flying Kites event we’ve held was the attendance of nine very special guests: the oldest children of FK. When we hold events back in the states., we always find ourselves saying “I wish Daniel/Moses/Lucy were here to speak for themselves” and for the first time, they were there.

The FK kids in attendance made me prouder than I thought possible; each time they greeted a guest, they stood tall, gave a firm handshake, held eye contact, and spoke clearly. They did not let the unfamiliar setting shake them; on the contrary, Miriam greeted the General Manager of Tribe with a “Hello, my name is Miriam. Welcome.”  The kids danced on stage in front of a crowd of several hundred people and they were always the first to get out on a the dance floor. In short, they were leaders.

Since the event, my brother has returned to Massachusetts to finish up his third year at Westfield State University, the AC Kilimanjaro team members have all returned home, and life at Flying Kites has begun to quiet down.

Well, not quite. In the past week, we have had four more children join our family. These four children represent a hard won victory for Flying Kites as the children themselves desperately needed and wanted to be taken in, but local politics kept them out of our reach. Country Director Brian Jones spent countless hours fighting for the rights of these children, and a few days ago, his work was rewarded ten-fold when Martha, 9 and siblings Macharia, 6, Peter, 11, and Monicah, 13, joined FK to bring our clan to 25.  There is nothing, nothing in the world like seeing a 7 year-old boy put his arm around an overwhelmed and slightly frightened 6 year-old boy and commence giving him a detailed tour of the latter’s new home, including a really, really long stopovers at the rabbit pens, the chicken coop, and the room with the bicycles in it.

There are many other people who touched my life over the past month, including the incredibly hardworking and compassionate Meredith Starr, chef extraordinaire Briony Bax, fellow FK-ers Amy Wolanski & Mike Chambers who quickly became my great friends, and the sunshine-filled Maggie Surbridge. To each of you, it was a great pleasure getting to know you; you each impacted many, many lives while you were here.

The past month wasn’t entirely sunshine and gumdrops; it was really hard to be away from my friends and family during the holidays, I was sick for several weeks with some mysterious parasite that Cipro finally conquered, I’ve seem to hit a brick wall of dissatisfaction in regards to the food here, and saying goodbye to so many lovely people was not easy. Yet, if it weren’t for these harder moments, the wonderful ones wouldn’t shine as bright. Cheers to the New Year!

All my love,

Julianna

Siblings in the Masai Mara

Sunrise over the Mara

Giggling Mary

Photo by Julia Pai.

A League of Extraordinary Gentle-souls

20 Dec

Over the past few weeks I have been overjoyed by a continuous stream of emails from former volunteers announcing their desire to return to Flying Kites’ mountainside home. Each time I learn that a volunteer plans on returning, my heart skips a beat; this is one of the ultimate goals of the Volunteer Program- to attract people who will volunteer again and again, who will become lifelong role models for our children, and vital ambassadors for our cause. A string of inspiring interviews with prospective volunteers has accompanied these mission-affirming emails, and this combination prompted a new round of reflection on my part about the incredible souls who make up the ranks of successful FK volunteers.

If there is one thing I’ve learned after a year directing our Volunteer Program, it is that to truly excel as a volunteer at Flying Kites, you have to be an extraordinary person.  And I mean really, truly extraordinary.

To make the most of a volunteer stay at FKLA, you have to be able to watch and learn the ways of our center while simultaneously jumping right in to the day-to-day workings of a family of 21 children and upwards of 6 adults.  You have to adapt to a small-town, rural setting where you are one of the lucky if you have running water, three meals a day, western-style toilets, and electricity at night (all of which we have) and you do this while tutoring several children in English each day. Those who leave the largest legacies do a remarkable job at balancing their daily priorities (tutoring, assisting in classrooms, engaging the kids in new & different activities, chores) with self-directed side projects as varied as collecting statistics on education levels across our district, building a compost heap, or running a soccer clinic for the kids. The mightiest of volunteers manage to carve out time to get to know our staff, and they share their own gifts and passions with the kids through creative lessons and activities.

As Toby, Co-Executive Director & founder of Flying Kites, likes to say, you cannot hold other people to a higher standard than you hold yourself. It only takes a cursory glance at the lives and characters of my colleagues to know that each and every person on the FK team holds themselves to nearly impossible heights. And this is why I have no qualms about our incredibly high expectations for volunteers- that, and even more importantly, the children.  Our volunteers live alongside and become daily fixtures in our children’s lives. This is both a great gift and an enormous responsibility. It means you are there to tuck the children in at night, to clap and cheer when they score a goal in football or perform well on an exam, and to hug & comfort them if they get banged up along the journey; in many ways, the privileges usually reserved for parents. It is for this very reason that the first words a volunteer hears when accepted into the Volunteer Program are “Welcome to the Flying Kites family.”  It is also why we only want the highest caliber people filling that privileged position. And lucky for us, people of just that astounding character continue to learn of Flying Kites and join our daring endeavor.

I can’t think of a better way of getting my point across than by highlighting a few of the individuals who have shone very, very brightly in the role of volunteer. If I were to write about every one of the remarkable people who’ve come through the Volunteer Program over the last year, you would still be reading on Christmas morning, but please know that the following people are just a sampling of the wonderful volunteers we’ve been graced with.

Bethany

Let me start with the indefatigable Bethany. The legacy Bethany left behind is unbelievable. Though her first days at FKLA were marked with considerable doubt that she’d make it the full ten weeks of her scheduled stay, in the end Bethany extended her stay and demonstrated unparalleled adaptability. She was just as willing to tutor as to canvass surrounding towns promoting our Day of the African Child celebration, and to mop or sort beans as to hike to the river with the kids.  Bethany showered the kids with genuine love & affection daily and she connected personally with every one of the FK staff members on the ground. At the mention of Bethany, everyone from Oliver, one of our security guards, to Francis, our managing director, to Rebecca, one of our matrons, cracks a smile a mile wide and recalls a warm memory of her, usually having to do with her notorious laugh and effusive enthusiasm.  Bethany embodies the mantra “live everyday to the fullest,” and she channeled this energy into orchestrating daily adventures and activities for the kids. Bethany was on the ground from May through July of this year, and is slated to return on January 10 for another three-month stay. In the interim, Bethany held fundraisers, gave talks, shared the Flying Kites story with every person she knew (and if her first rate networking skills are any indication, probably a great many that she didn’t previously know) and  created a  great website to document her journey: http://www.fear-lol.com/Life_is_too_short.html. Extraordinary.

Devon

And then there is Devon, a remarkable model of devotion both to our kids and to Flying Kites. Devon has made two trips to FKLA to date, and she is currently planning a six-month stay with us after she graduates from Salve Regina University in June. As an education major, her mission during this extended stay will be to help us enrich our school’s curriculum. When here in Kenya, Devon demonstrates a rare level of self-directedness, and an attention to detail when tutoring and working with the kids that makes my heart soar. When at home in Massachusetts, or at school in Rhode Island, Devon is a tireless advocate for Flying Kites, heading up Salve’s MyTurn chapter, a fiercely passionate group of students who do everything from hold fundraisers in Newport to create photo albums for each one of our kids. To top it all off, the Flying Kites kids occupy such a huge part of Devon’s heart that she will up and send me an email, a full six months after her last visit, with carefully thought out ideas for how to improve one of the kids’ behavior, or with a creative approach to tutoring another.  She makes time to do this in the midst of her senior year of college, a full time teaching practicum, and working a part-time job to save funds for her upcoming trip. Extraordinary.

Mike

Mike Behan is another young person who has been a tremendous supporter of Flying Kites for many years, regularly attending our stateside events and even helping to organize them on a few occasions. Mike’s first trip to FKLA didn’t take place until this past summer, but Mike arrived in Njabini in July and immediately plunged headlong and heart first into any and every job, task, and chore that was in need of attention. Mike is a legend here for the work he did battling our August mice invasion, a supremely unglamorous job that he unflinchingly tackled with his relentless work ethic.  Throughout his time at FKLA, Mike displayed an intuitive understanding of what needed to be done and when, and that is NOT a trait to be taken for granted (I am still trying to master it myself.) As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Mike took the idea of the self-directed project to the next level and beyond by establishing Njabini Apparel (http://www.njabiniapparel.org/) a non-profit social venture which aims to create sustainable development by paying Njabini-based wool spinners a fair wage to create various products (primarily hats & scarves) which are then sold in the U.S. All Njabini Apparel profits are donated to Flying Kites. This type of venture is hugely needed in a poor, rural community like ours. Education, entrepreneurship and the resultant job creation are the most effective ways to combat poverty, in my opinion. The positive ramifications of Njabini Apparel will ripple across this community for a long time to come. Mike is returning to FKLA in January for six months to focus his considerable energy and brain power on our community-strengthening program, Magnet Effect. Is it overkill to say it? Perhaps. Nevertheless- extraordinary.

Tamia

Tamia Sullivan is a resident of Newport, RI, a mother, a grandmother, volunteer extraordinaire, and easily one of the kindest & most compassionate women I’ve ever met. Tamia spent the month of April at FKLA; a seriously rainy month during which our little wild things were on school vacation yet she rose up to each frustration and challenge that presented itself with amazing grace. Tamia sewed adorable dolls for each one of the kids, which many of them carry around to this day. Tamia became very close with our matrons and shared a bond that transcended language with Esther, the heroine who washes the kids’ clothing BY HAND all day, six days week. Tamia sends a batch of clothespins for Esther every time a volunteer from the Rhode Island area travels over. To me, that sweet act speaks of unbelievably deep consideration and thoughtfulness. Since returning home, Tamia, among other things, has held clothing drives for us, hosted the US based FK team for wine & cheese & barbeques, sent each kid a present on their birthday, and written a beautiful article about her volunteer experience: http://wisewomennow.com/2010/12/17/paying-it-forward/#more-1433. On a personal level, she has become a tremendous and unwavering cheerleader for me, whether I’m in seaside Newport or mountainside Njabini. Tamia plans to return to FKLA this spring. Yes, she too is extraordinary.

All four of these people are an integral part of the Flying Kites family, as are the many other incredible volunteers, and the immense work that they have all done on our behalf is invaluable. They embody our Adventure Challenges motto, “Live Beyond Yourself.”

Flying Kites and its Volunteer Program has been forever impacted by the energy, ingenuity, and love of a great number of volunteers. To the four above and the many, many more extraordinary people who volunteered at FKLA this year, I would just like to say that I am eternally grateful to you and proud beyond words to count you as someone I’ve gotten to know and work with.

Thank you.

We ask you to be patient, resilient, creative, hardworking, adaptable and dedicated. And I am blown away by how many people fulfill these very high expectations and then go further.

You are all the gifts I need. Happy Holidays!

All my love,

Julianna

Lucy proudly showing off the beginnings of the Carly "Pie" Liptak Memorial Clinic

Francis & James, leaders in every sense of the word