Garbage. It was the first thing a group of Reason 2 Smile volunteers noticed as they walked the crowded dirt roads leading to Jambo Jipya Academy and Children's Home in Mtwapa, Kenya.
They would later describe the scene as "like a city, but unlike any we had ever seen" with "streets literally paved in garbage."
People stared as they walked by; strangers reached out to touch their hair. It was a sensory overload, a claustrophobic onslaught of noise, heat and smells, and a world completely removed from their hometown of Lake Placid.
From left, Reason 2 Smile volunteers Mary Kate Graham, Tricia Garrett and Carleigh Garrett; founder and Executive Director Keela Grimmette; and Destiny Mwende pose after purchasing items to help teach gardening to students at Jambo Jipya Academy in Mtwapa, Kenya.
(Photo — John DiGiacomo)
John DiGiacomo, one of the volunteers and a Reason 2 Smile board member, explained that the prominent piles of refuse don't reflect a lifestyle choice for the people of Kenya but are instead a symptom of the lack of infrastructure in the country. It isn't that Kenyans want to toss garbage on the ground; there's simply no other place to put it. When poverty is a way of life, other concerns, like obtaining food and fresh water, trump aesthetic shortcomings.
"There are no safety nets in that country," DiGiacomo said. "The country has been so poor for so long that charities really don't exist."
That's where the volunteers come in. The four of them - DiGiacomo, Mary Kate Graham, Carleigh Garrett and her mom Tricia - traveled to the equatorial African country in May with Reason 2 Smile founder and Executive Director Keela Grimmette to continue the work Grimmette began with Jambo Jipya six years ago.
The school began in 2004 as a small, one-room mud-hut classroom that served about 20 students. It was founded by a Kenyan woman named Christine Mwende, a single mother with three children of her own. With the help of Reason 2 Smile, it has since added an orphanage, and the school has grown to 13 classrooms where more than 300 orphaned or at-risk children go to learn. It is an opportunity most of them would not take advantage of without the safety the facility provides.
In Kenya, students must have a uniform and books to attend the free public schools, requirements many families in the region can't afford. Jambo Jipya provides those things, plus two meals a day and health care, but the cost of those necessities was too much for Mwende to handle on her own. Grimmette realized this, so she started Reason 2 Smile in 2007 to help keep the school open shortly after spending 10 weeks teaching first-graders there.
"Keela has gone down a different path than most people to be able to support the school," DiGiacomo said. "If you look at the children there, it's all these natural smiles. You would think that they are the richest children in the world."
Those smiles inspired Grimmette, and she has, in turn, used her experiences in Kenya to inspire others to help. After Grimmette delivered a presentation at the Adirondack Community Church in Lake Placid, Garrett told her she wanted to go on the next trip to Jambo Jipya. Her friend, Graham, asked if she could go, too, and the two Lake Placid High School juniors went about raising the $2,500 for the trip. The money wasn't to afford the volunteers comfort while away from home, though. What didn't go toward plane tickets was spent on supplies, which the girls used to teach students at Jambo Jipya about gardening and composting.
"The garden went well," Garrett said. "I taught three larger lessons, and we planted beans, carrots, sakuma wiki, peppers, tomatoes and onions. Before I went I had a general idea of what they grow there, and I asked a woman who cooks there what she'd use the most, and that's what we planted."
In between those larger lessons, Garrett quizzed the soon-to-be gardeners about things like watering and basic garden maintenance. After clearing a pile of garbage from behind the school, the students implemented their newfound knowledge and created raised garden beds in its place. The long, hot days of Kenya produced fast results.
"In a week, the beans grew 6 inches from seed," Garrett said. "It was incredible. Everything we planted had sprouted by the time we left."
While Garrett was busy teaching the students about gardening, Graham focused on composting.
"They eat a lot of peel-able fruits, and they don't waste as much as we do," Graham said. "I tried to tie in something with Carleigh's project, and I think the two really fit together."
School days at Jambo Jipya start early, at 6:30 a.m., and go until 5 p.m. Some of the children walk two hours to get to class every day, and others live at the orphanage. The volunteers stayed at a house about a mile from Jambo Jipya and often slept more than eight hours a night to recover from the rigorous Kenyan days.
"The environment there is very wearing," Grimmette said. "Death is everywhere. I can't tell you the number of direct family members kids have lost since I've gotten to know them in the last six years. I've lost one family member, and some there have lost over a dozen in that time."
The lingering presence of death keeps Jambo Jipya's orphanage filled, as does the fierce living conditions of Mtwapa. Many children now living at the orphanage were found begging in the streets by Mwende. Other children were brought in to help them escape deplorable living conditions. Grimmette told the story of three boys, Regan, Collins and Adrian, who began attending the school about four years ago.
"Their dad would walk them to school every day, which we thought was neat because dads are not very involved in Kenya," Grimmette said. "They're typically the ones working, and they usually haven't married the moms, so they don't really feel a connection to the family."
One afternoon Mwende and Grimmette were driving back from the school and passed the three boys walking home, a 7-mile trip. Their father wasn't there, so the women gave them a ride. Mwende walked the boys inside their home, which Grimmette described as a "bunch of sticks in a hut formation," and soon returned to the car with them.
"Mwende went into their home, and it was a goat pen surrounded by a fence. They slept on the ground with the goats," Grimmette said. "They got right back in the car, and we all went back to the orphanage."
The boys' father visited the orphanage the next day, and Mwende convinced him that it was a better living situation for his kids. He was told he could visit any time he wanted, but he hasn't been back since. The boys, Keela said, have embraced their home at Jambo Jipya and are proving to be exemplary students.
"Yes, there is garbage; yes, there is poverty; but they're creating this haven, this family, this amazing place amidst everything going in the opposite direction," Grimmette said. "Christine (Mwende) would tell you that she's tired, that she loves those kids like she loves her own kids, that she would do anything for those children and wants to see them succeed. She will do anything in her power to help them become who they want to be."
This November, almost a decade after its inception, Jambo Jipya will see its first batch of students graduate, which creates a new hurdle for both the school and for Reason 2 Smile. Grimmette said she would like to expand the operations of Reason 2 Smile to include helping the school provide a guidance counselor type of role, someone who would help graduates learn about college options. In a country where school often takes a back seat to a desperate need to satisfy hunger, a new batch of educated, community-minded individuals entering the workforce is a prospect Grimmette finds encouraging.
"Jambo Jipya has been instilling in these kids the need to help others," Grimmette said. "I'm not sure they would be that way if they grew up on the streets. Maybe these kids will go on to become doctors or business owners, and then come back to help the school."
To learn more about Reason 2 Smile, visit www.reason2smile.org.
Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.