Personal reflection from Board Member Joli Fridman regarding her recent visit to Kenya
A Peruvian ambassador, a Kenyan dignitary and a girl from Kansas walk into a bible study...
Sounds like the beginning of a good joke. But this is no joke. This is how my Friday morning began a few years ago. How did I end up in a bible study with a Peruvian ambassador and a Kenyan dignitary? Well that story began many years ago. When my daughters were in elementary school, I joined a school fundraising committee called Concert for Africa to raise money for a foundation called the Fred Outa Foundation. I stayed on the committee for many years and in 2016, the president of the Fred Outa Foundation retired and passed the torch to me. I became president and my husband joined me in running the foundation. I took on this very daunting task because not only is it a cause I am passionate about, but I also thought it would be a wonderful experience for my family to work together to make a difference in the world.
Fred Outa’s life story is quite remarkable. At the age of 12 he became an orphan due to the AIDS epidemic. He made his way to Nairobi and ended up living on the streets in a slum. A Colorado couple came across Fred and eventually paid his school fees so he could attend school. When Fred graduated high school, they brought him to the United States where Fred obtained both his undergraduate and graduate degrees. After graduation, Fred went back to Kenya and made it his life’s mission to help other children like himself. The couple who helped Fred was friends with the pastor of a local church in my hometown. Fred connected with the pastor and they organized a group of residents who flew to Kenya and built a small school in Kibera slum, the largest slum in Africa. The school became known as Spurgeons Academy and was built to educate the most vulnerable of children in Kenya. Not only do they live in Kibera slum, but they are all either full or partial orphans. Over the years, Spurgeon’s Academy expanded and today the school educates 450 students. Because of his support of the poor of Kenya, Fred was elected to Kenyan Parliament in 2007, where he still serves today.
Spurgeon’s Academy educates students ages kindergarten through 8th grade and it always bothered me that a large majority of the 8th grade girls did not have the opportunity to continue their education because of dire circumstances beyond their control. So three years ago I partnered with a larger organization to sponsor our 8th graders for high school and college. This is truly life changing for them. And as it turns out life changing for me.
This past summer, after spending nearly a decade volunteering for the Fred Outa Foundation, I traveled to Kenya with my husband and daughter to finally see the school and meet the students.
We spent many days at Spurgeons Academy in Kibera slum visiting and teaching the students. I taught them about life in Chicago and my daughter served them porridge for breakfast. The vast majority of the students at Spurgeons Academy receive their only meal of the day at school. School is more than just school for them, it is their family. Students arrive at the crack of dawn and stay until evening. They also come to school on the weekends. The school is located on the edge of the slum. Kibera slum is one square mile and one million people live there. One day we were asked to visit a few of the students’ homes. As we walked deeper and deeper into the slum it became more and more difficult for me to take another step. Kibera means jungle in Swahili and with each turn I became more engulfed by this jungle. The homes are 10x10 structures made of corrugated metal with a dirt floor and one mattress in the center, which usually housed 8-10 people. There was no electricity, no running water, and no sanitation. Mountains of garbage was piled up at every turn. It was a life-altering moment for my family as we witnessed what seems like unfathomable living conditions.
After just a few hours at Spurgeons Academy we were like part of the family. The next morning when we arrived at school all the students yelled our names as we walked in, they gave us high fives and big smiles. I became fast friends with a little girl named Joy. She followed me everywhere and she would jump up and down telling me how excited she was that we have similar names.
We also traveled through the Kenyan countryside to visit the boarding high schools where some of the Spurgeons Academy graduates are attending school through our sponsorship program. These girls come from the largest slum in Africa, live in extreme poverty and yet despite the odds scored in the top 10% for their high school entrance exams and therefore qualified for this sponsorship program. They are articulate, driven young women who will make a difference in this world.
So the biggest part of our adventure for me was packing only a small carry-on for a two week trip. We used our checked luggage allowance to bring donations, which included school supplies, computers to set up a computer lab, sports equipment and clothing. Having only a small carry-on meant I spent the majority of the trip in one of two outfits.
One afternoon we were invited to Parliament to get a tour, or so we thought. Since it was Parliament, I wore my nicer of the two outfits. However, once we arrived, much to our surprise, we were not there to receive a tour, we were there to receive an honor from the Kenyan government for our work with vulnerable children. And it was to be televised therefore we were scolded for our lack of proper attire. What then ensued was a whirlwind of ripping jackets and ties off poor unsuspecting Kenyan government workers so at least my husband would look respectable.
We then had the experience of a lifetime to witness a session of Kenyan Parliament and listen to a half dozen senators, including Fred, speak about our work and the difference we are making. You would think I would have felt excited and elated at this honor. Instead I felt like an imposter. After walking through the never-ending slum and witnessing the enormity of it compared to the handful of students I can sponsor, I didn’t feel like I deserved an award at all. I can barely make a small dent in the poverty in Kibera slum. At one point, truth be told, I started to wonder, “what’s the point”. But, the point is for every student I get sponsored, that is one less student and her descendants who won’t live in poverty. And that is why our foundation’s motto is “improving lives, one child at a time”.
So back to where I started, in a bible study a few years ago. Fred was in town visiting and a former ambassador invited Fred and me to his morning bible study. As I sat down, I looked around the circle at each person. They meet each Friday morning to start their day sitting across from each other, discussing the bible in the context of helping the less fortunate. I start my day by jumping out of bed, barely stopping to take a breath. How nice it felt to start the day with perspective and gratitude. The greatest gift this journey has given me is perspective and gratitude. And after spending time in Kenya I am more committed and more passionate than ever about improving lives, one child at a time.