Civic Leadership | Women

Building a Community in Kenya

Today’s guest post is from Jen Sapitro, founder and Executive Director of Uweza Foundation, who talks about how a scholarship from a Junior League in Illinois led to a life change for the young woman who received it…and for women in a far-away community in Nairobi, Kenya called Kibera.

In June 2006, as a recent college graduate, I spent six weeks volunteering in the Kibera slum, an urban informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. My volunteer trip was made possible by scholarship funding from a Junior League in my community and changed the course of my life.

Ten years have now passed since that first trip and today, I am writing this article from my living room in the same informal settlement. I am watching my eight month-old son, who has just learned to crawl, try and make his way from one end of the room to the other.  My two and a half year-old daughter is busy helping my husband, who grew up here in Kibera, carry buckets of water from the one working faucet in our home to our car, which he is currently washing.  Water only fills the pipes of our home three days a week and this, the first of the three days, is always full of activity.

Growing up in suburban Chicago, having access to clean water is not something that I ever even thought about. For my daughter, who has lived in Nairobi her whole life, water three days a week is normal. For millions of children her age in Kenya, even three days a week is a privilege. Only 63% of Kenyans have access to a clean water source. A very large majority of families in Kibera must walk to public water taps, fill containers, pay and then carry the water back to their homes.

I am currently the Executive Director of Uweza Foundation, an organization that I founded in 2008 and that is dedicated to improving the lives of children and youth living in Kibera. One of our programs, Bright Futures, was developed and run in partnership with the Junior League of Evanston-North Shore, the Junior League that funded my first trip to Kenya. Bright Futures provides business training, income generating activities, life skills sessions, and small business loans to young mothers living in Kibera.

When I share what I do with people, I am often asked, “Why Kenya?” Many people are curious why, as an American citizen, I have decided to dedicate my life to serving people in a country thousands of miles away from home, while millions of children and families in America are also struggling with similar problems.

Statistically speaking, life for a Kenyan is much more difficult. The life expectancy in Kenya is 63.4; in the United States it is 79.3. 49 out of 1,000 children born in Kenya will not live to see their fifth birthday. In the United States, that number is 7. Only 20% of Kenyans have access to any kind of medical coverage. Just 56% of high-school aged children are able to enroll in high school. Kenyans lack access to many crucial social services that are available to people living in the United States.

Beyond statistics, though, the citizens of Kenya and the United States share one crucial bond: we are all humans. Mothers in Kenya and mothers in the Unites States both want the same things for their children: access to a quality education, good health, a balanced and nutritous diet, and safe places to play, to name a few. As an American, I have been fortunate enough to choose my own path and work for a cause that I am passionate about. I can compare my choice to working in Kenya rather than the United States similar to the choice of becoming a doctor rather than a lawyer: both are important in different ways.

I can’t imagine that anyone would believe that my children, who were born in Kenya, are any less deserving of the opportunities to follow their dreams than they would be had they been born in the United States. This brings us back to Bright Futures and The Junior League. Fortunately, Karen Miller, my friend and partner at JLE-NS shares with me a passion for helping women both at home and around the world.

“Our League has a strong desire to continue advancing the vision of The Association of Junior Leagues International, Women around the world as catalysts for lasting community change,” adds Karen. “When we began to explore the potential of this statement, my League took a deeper look into its meaning and began to think of community globally rather than just in our geographic backyard.  Our world has changed and we wanted to reflect that change by expanding our reach. We want to be more inclusive and to be able to educate and train our membership on global issues.”

Together, we helped create the first program that JLE-NS has funded that is located outside of their local community. We hope that our partnership will empower young mothers in Kibera to improve their lives and be able to provide for their children in the same ways that we have been able to provide for our own children. We also hope to inspire other Junior Leagues to think globally. Ultimately, regardless of where we are born, we are all united in our humanity. 

 

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