By Sam Harrell
One lesson I have learned over the years is that the way up is actually down. When we find ourselves at the end of our own resources and abilities, we are often better placed to be useful instruments and ask for the help we need.
After five years of ministry with vulnerable children and those living on the urban streets of Nairobi, Kenya, my wife, Melody, and I felt depleted. Serving as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel to the area, we were working with three different groups of children, all either in or from slums and informal settlements that make up two-thirds of the then-three million residents of Nairobi. One ministry was in a residential orphanage, another in a youth center on the edge of a dump site in a large slum and the other was an informal education program for children from a nearby township.
“At the time, there were more than 60,000 street children in Nairobi, and at least twice that number of other children not in school and at risk for ending up on the street. Combining all our projects, Melody and I were only reaching 300 children. I used to lay awake at night wondering what difference we would make as the number of children finding their way to the streets increased daily.
We worked with wonderful and dedicated Kenyan volunteers and social workers, along with constant support from CBF staff and short-term mission teams. Yet, I would find myself fleeing from the city on occasion to clear my head, get out of the filth of the slum and breathe fresher air.
During one of my forays into the Great Rift Valley outside of Nairobi, I made the acquaintance of a Masai couple, John and Esther Kintalel. John was a community motivator, and Esther a primary school teacher. I asked John what his community’s greatest need was, and without hesitation he responded, “a nursery school.”
In Eroret, where John lived, children had to walk up to three miles to the local primary school, and it was not feasible for the youngest ones to make that journey on foot twice a day. John envisioned a nursery school closer to where the children lived that would serve as a pre-primary education venue. He also hoped it would create a space for grandmothers to tell cultural stories so the children would be less likely to lose their identity once they started public school.
I shared this vision with a church group from Richmond, Va., that was planning a mission trip, and they raised funding for the construction of two classrooms and an office. Another partner supplied us with a trailer that I could use to transport building materials. We finished the first phase of Eroret Preparatory School with a kitchen garden and a rainwater catchment system.
Little did we realize that God would use this model to help us develop a multiyear, nationwide program called Change for Children.
As we began to gather data, consult education officials and visit communities, we were inspired by the number of groups we encountered doing amazing things with very little. Many of the communities we visited agreed that preschool education was an important and viable means of meeting the holistic needs of children.
Using an available poverty analysis survey, we determined to place one unit in the poorest, most underserved district in each of Kenya’s eight provinces outside of Nairobi. These units became known as Integrated Child Development Centers (ICDCs). We sought partnership with communities that already had an emphasis on early childhood education and quickly learned that nothing can substitute for community involvement and shared vision.
In building each center, the community was responsible for donating the land, clearing the space and gathering sand, gravel and water for mixing concrete. They also supplied labor for the initial phases of construction. We found that even poor communities have something to contribute, and allowing community members to make small contributions increases dignity. We learned to give responsibility for each project to community leaders and members and that we needed to allow failure to happen as a learning tool rather than succumbing to the temptation of rescuing “our projects.”
Two years later, eight ICDC units were operating in Kenya. Initially, we committed to a three-year partnership with the ICDCs, where we funded the construction, facilitated teacher training and qualification, furnished each unit and provided a budget for operating expenses on a decreasing basis each year.
Our CBF partners were of paramount importance in making the ICDCs a reality. Individuals, churches and state CBF organizations committed $50,000 to each ICDC over the three-year period. The partner church or group would then travel to Kenya to meet, learn from and celebrate with their partner community. The resulting relationships, built on mutuality and trust, are among the most valuable and enduring results of the entire experience.
At the three-year mark, it became evident that we had not done enough to build the capacity of the communities to insure the ongoing sustainability of each unit. We embarked on another three-year effort toward sustainability. In consultation with the communities, we developed income-generative initiatives, including bee keeping, fish farming, kitchen gardening and commercial water projects.
Each of these solutions required both major input and attention from local communities, as well as sacrificial giving from partners with a heart to help. The response and results have been tremendous.
Much more could be told in this story of Change for Children. Eight years later, five of the eight units are thriving, two could be doing better and one is struggling. Beyond that, three of the units have spawned fully functional primary schools up to the eighth grade, two units have received national recognition and the eight combined are “graduating” 600 healthy, bright, enthusiastic, well-fed children each year.
The children whose lives are touched by Change for Children have experienced the love of Christ and are primed to be the leaders of their generation. What began as an experiment from a position of depletion and desperation has become a life-giving program thriving on its own that will definitely outlast this tired missionary!
Sam Harrell and his wife, Melody, serve as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel in Nairobi, Kenya.