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Chester County Press

Kennett resident creates fundraising campaign for Kenyan schoolchildren

12/03/2019 01:23PM ● By Steven Hoffman

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

In May of 2018, Kennett Square resident Mary Williams traveled on a tour bus with seven other visitors through the village of Kawangware in Kibera, Kenya, a trip that was sponsored by Intentional Tours, a Lancaster County-based social enterprise travel company that organizes interactive and purposeful trips to under-served countries.

What those on the bus saw from the windows silenced everyone aboard – a massive and ramshackled city built on the rickety foundation of hardship, where 250,000 people live in what is considered to be the largest slum in Africa, and one of the largest in the world.

From the Intentional Tours bus window, the facts of poverty revealed themselves before them.

There is a 50-percent unemployment rate in Kibera, and those who do have jobs are employed as unskilled laborers.

The average size of home in this area is 12-foot by 12-foot, and is constructed of mud walls and corrugated tin roofs, with dirt or concrete floors. Each residence houses up to eight or more people, most of whom sleep on the floor.

Only ten percent of the entire population of Kibera owns their own home, which are rented to the remaining 90 percent of the population.

Only about 20 percent of Kibera has electricity, and until recently, the only access to water was from the Nairobi dam, which is considered unclean and causes typhoid and cholera.

In most of Kibera, there are no toilet facilities, and one latrine – largely a hole in the ground – is commonly shared by residents from as many as 50 homes. Once full, young boys are employed to empty the latrine and they take the contents to nearby waterways.

“We pulled into this community on a giant tour bus with our fancy clothes and fancy shoes,” Williams said. “We were watching them through the glass windows of the bus, and they were watching us. At first, it felt like we were tourists from another world.”

When Williams and her colleagues got off the bus, however, they saw the purpose of Intentional Tours at work. Created as an alternative to the traditional mission, service-learning trip, the company provides authentic cultural experiences that allow guests to engage with local communities as equals, rather than as benefactors.

Williams and her entourage played hand puppet games and sang songs with the schoolchildren. They drank tea with members of the village. They met with the community's pastor, and heard the stories of several community members.

“It was their story of survival and gratitude, and of coming from nothing but having so much, in their church, their community and in their families,” she said. “You can see that they are all living in extreme and abject poverty, but these are robust and engaged communities, thriving in a way that I didn't anticipate experiencing. I felt a transparency that passed through a filtration process of mutual interest and storytelling.”

“We allow our travelers to have conversations and experiences that help them understand a wide array of perspectives, from a tribal Maasai shepherd to a tech entrepreneur in Nairobi, to religious leaders based in the slum areas,” said Jonathan Coleman, who co-founded Intentional Tours with his wife, Kate. “All of these experiences are carefully thought-out, so as to empower the Kenyan people we meet to share their stories, because they have so much to offer. 

“Our travelers are there as guests and tourists, so we want to have unique experiences that help them grow as humans, while also ensuring that the people we interact with are treated with dignity, as well as fairly compensated for their time, expertise, and willingness to interact with us.”

                                          Mary meets Winnie

During her two weeks in Kenya with Intentional Tours, Williams met Winnie Kiunga, the founder, chief advocate and operating officer for the Molly Kiunga Foundation (MKF). Founded in 2011, the foundation – named in honor of Kiunga's mother -- is focused on three areas of youth development: its Youth Mentorship Project, that provides opportunities to encourage youth leadership and help with career choices, financial planning and other life skills; its Scholarship Initiative, which provides direct financial support to needy students for secondary and university education, as well as school supplies in under-resourced schools; and its Girls Hadhi Project, that provides safe spaces for girls to talk about sexuality, gender-based violence and other topics and to attend self -esteem building activities.

“When I first laid eyes on Winnie during one of our events, we immediately wrapped our arms around each other,” Williams said. “She radiates that struck-by-lightning energy that I was immediately drawn to. I didn't want to leave her. I wanted to stay. I asked her to tell me everything she was doing.”

Kiunga told Williams that the foundation was seeking U.S. funding to raise the essential money to provide three students from the village with scholarship funding to attend a private school. While each student demonstrated high academic achievement, their families could not afford to send them to better schools. When Esther Mathenge, a young girl from Kihuyo Village in Central Kenya, received an acceptance letter from Kahuhia Girls High School, her parents approached the foundation for assistance, due largely to their being jobless.

Moses Ndirangu became the first recipient of the MKF scholarship, and received full tuition and fees to attend Kaheti Boys High School. He was then accepted at Moi University and is currently studying public relations and communications, but right now, MKF is not able to provide additional scholarship funding for him.

Diana Emali from Western Kenya began high school this year and received a partial scholarship from MKF, but due to her family not being able to afford school tuition and fees, she has moved from one school to another. Right now, MKF is trying to raise money to afford Diana a full scholarship next year.

“When I met Mary, I was consulting with Intentional Tours by overseeing logistics and facilitating community interactions during their trip to Kenya,” Kiunga said. “I immediately liked Mary. She exuded warmth and kindness, and she was very funny — I like people with a sense of humor. In the course of our interactions, I shared with her about the Molly Kiunga Foundation, and since then she has been my number one cheerleader.”

After spending the next two weeks in Kenya, Williams and Kiunga have kept in nearly constant communication with each other, and recently, Kiunga told Williams that if MKF is not able to raise additional funding by January, that Mathenge, Ndirangu and Emali will be in danger of not being able to complete their schooling this year.

Two weeks ago, Williams launched a social fundraising campaign, titled “Sending Students to School,” that to date has raised more than $500 for MKF, and will be accessible for additional donations through the end of the year.

“These children are poised to attend a university if that is their choice, or have demonstrated that they are qualified to go right into the work force, in a meaningful way,” Williams said. “It quickly became abundantly clear to me that without this support, that for many of these children, there's nowhere for them to go.”

                                              ‘My big sister’

“Sometime in 2017, I felt like giving up and closing the foundation,” Kiunga said. “I had been paying tuition for many kids and I was overwhelmed. I had just lost my job and had no more money to help the kids. I sent a message to Mary asking for help. She responded immediately and rallied support for me. That year, MKF was able to pay fees and tuition for all scholarship awardees.

“I was with Mary for less than five days, but I feel like she has been my big sister all along. She is not patronizing with her giving. She is one of my most favorite human beings.” 

Growing up in West Hartford, Conn., Williams was an active participant in her parents’ efforts to serve those who were less fortunate. Her mother Patricia formed an interfaith coalition made up of community leaders, for for-profit and nonprofit businesses and local churches, in helping to raise money to build affordable housing for low-income families in the Greater Hartford area that opened up opportunities for the children of these families to attend better school districts.

Her father Bill, a longtime journalist with the Hartford Courant, created a literacy program at a nearby state prison.

Williams' dedication to young people doesn't end with her efforts to help Kiunga raise funds for Kenyan schoolchildren. She is a program advocate with Chester County Futures, a non-profit organization that offers direct program support and services through after-school academic enrichment meetings, mentoring and post-secondary scholarship support. Founded in 1996, the organization serves low-income students in the Coatesville, Kennett Consolidated, Oxford Area and Phoenixville Area school districts who are motivated to earn a high school diploma and post-secondary degrees.

Williams said that she is very confident that her campaign will provide a good chunk of what MKF needs to continue to send these students to school. After all, she said she grew up in the company of diligent and dedicated parents who in the process of creating opportunities for others, never took 'No' for an answer.

“I can’t stand it when people say ‘No,'” she said. “We don’t get anywhere when people say ‘No.’ I told Winnie that when I came home, that I intend to return to her, whether it's to build a building or help in other ways. I will be in touch with her forever.”

To make your contribution to Williams' efforts to raise funding for the Molly Kiunga Foundation, visit the Facebook page of “Mary Elizabeth Williams, Sending Students to School.”

To learn more about the Molly Kiunga Foundation, visit it on Facebook.

Headquartered in Lancaster County, Intentional Tours is headed by co-founders Jonathan and Kate Coleman. To learn more, visit intentionaltours.world.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email rgaw@chestercounty.com.

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