Kindness for Kenya: Orphans Get Oklahoma's Help
By Nour Habib
Published: February 03, 2009
Ten-year-old Aurell Bloomer III wanted to see Paul, the Kenyan orphan he had been sponsoring for nearly a year.
Last summer, he got the chance to do just that.
Bloomer, a fifth grader at Wilson Elementary in Oklahoma City, traveled to Kenya over the summer with a team of college students to volunteer at the Maisha International Orphanage.
The director of the orphanage, Beatrice Williamson, a business administration sophomore at OSU-OKC, is originally from Kisumu, Kenya. Williamson, 32, founded the orphanage while she was in Oklahoma and takes teams of volunteers several times a year to Kisumu to work with the children.
Maisha, which means "life" in Swahili, has several programs. The orphanage takes care of about 185 children, ranging from 2-year-olds to 14-year-olds. It places them in homes, provides them with food and offers them an education.
Maisha has given scholarships to 150 primary school students, five secondary school students and two college students, Williamson said.
"We are bringing life back to the orphans and destitute children around the village of Kisumu," Williamson said. "We are showing them that there is somebody who cares."
Last summer's focal point was an art camp.
Kendall Brown, an OU multi-disciplinary senior, helped Williamson create the idea.
Brown applied for a $10,000 grant to establish the art camp within Maisha but did not win it. She and Williamson decided to go ahead with the project anyway, raising money through various fundraisers.
"I believe in the therapeutic power of art," Brown said. "The camp introduced the children to the concept of visual journaling — to communicate what you can't communicate in words."
The team was expecting about 100 students and took enough supplies for around 125. When they arrived in Kisumu, they found more than 350 students who wanted to participate in the camp.
"I have never, ever ever seen kids who were more willing to share what they had than our students at the camp," Brown said. "This sort of thing would not have been able to be pulled off in America, because in America, we grow up and we're so used to having all of our own stuff, our own crayons. Every single school year, you get new supplies. And it's just not that way there.
"It definitely taught me a lesson about generosity."
Mark Nehrenz, an OU journalism senior, was also one of last summer's team members. Nehrenz went to make a documentary film about Kenya.
The people's attitude in Kenya was one of the things that struck Nehrenz the most, he said.
"I got to see firsthand what it was like for people who are living with HIV/AIDS, living as orphans of HIV/AIDS or living in extreme poverty," Nehrenz said. "What influenced me the most was how hopeful and joyful and intent these people were, who by American standards are incredibly poor and have nothing, but are happier than most kids you meet in America."
Nehrenz enjoyed training some of the older Kenyans he worked with on how to use the cameras and other equipment. Nehrenz took two video cameras with him last summer and left one there so that the people of Kisumu could document their lives throughout the year, he said.
"I fell in love with the continent," Nehrenz said.
Nehrenz and Brown plan to return to Kisumu this summer with the team Williamson is taking.
Bloomer enjoyed his time in Kenya, too. He spent a lot of the time playing with the children, and he learned some Swahili while he was there.
Bloomer noticed differences between his life in America and the few weeks he spent in Kisumu.
"Everybody barely ate," he said. "People have to work really hard to get food."
When he returned, Bloomer started a program called Change for Orphans. He is raising money for toilets and showers in Kisumu.
Maisha mainly works with children but also impacts women and widows with HIV and AIDS, Williamson said. Maisha tries to help the women become self-reliant and involves them in income-generating activities.
"We let them know they are worthy, and they are accepted in the community," Williamson said.
Maisha is looking for people to donate money and supplies for the camp as well as people interested in volunteering in Kisumu this summer.
Maisha truly is an international effort, Williamson said. This year's team has participants from California, London and Australia. The team, generally composed of about 20 people, has seven spots open. For more information about Maisha, call Beatrice Williamson at 405-209-5438 or e-mail her at email@example.com.
"We can tell their stories, but it has a bigger impact if they tell their stories themselves," Williamson said.