With their father's help, these siblings at Palm Crest Elementary are helping to clothe Kenyan villagers

When is an old jacket or outgrown shirt more than mere clothing? When it has the opportunity to keep someone less fortunate warm, safe and protected from the elements.

That's a life lesson Palm Crest Elementary School students are learning, thanks to the efforts of three siblings — Nicole, Ashley and Elijah Otieno — who with the help of their physician father hope to create a cultural bridge between the La Cañada campus and two Kenyan villages in need.

Charles Otieno, a doctor of emergency medicine, frequently travels to his native country to visit his parents and take badly needed second-hand medical supplies and equipment to health workers there. Sometimes, his children and wife Nelly accompany him and interact with schoolchildren living without the barest necessities.

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"I always go to my village school and see the kids walking to school with no shoes," Dr. Otieno said in a recent interview. "The schools have no electricity — a school may be a permanent makeshift structure."

Last spring, while picking up his children from Palm Crest, the doctor noticed numerous items of unclaimed clothing culled from the school's lost-and-found box. He learned employees usually donate the goods and asked whether his family might take them to Kenya and pass them out to children there.

School officials agreed and, during a summer trip, Ashley, Elijah and Nicole went to Kenya with their parents to deliver the clothing. A second gift was made over winter break, when another 16 boxes of unclaimed lost and found items were cleaned and donated to Bumala Primary School.

On Friday, the siblings spoke at two Palm Crest assemblies, sharing facts about Kenya and asking fellow classmates to contribute school supplies for a collection drive starting next month to benefit students of Bumala Primary School.

"The school is where my grandparents came from," said 8-year-old Nicole. "Most of the kids are poor and farmers and live on less than $1 a day."

Elijah shared how students stood in long lines to receive the clothes from Palm Crest's accumulation of "lost" items.

"Our grandma helped us donate the clothes to many kids," the 12-year-old said. "The kids were very excited and the school was very appreciative. But there weren't enough (clothes) for everyone."

After the assembly, student council leaders Mariana Valderhaug and Kimberly Hardash congratulated the trio on their address. The advisers are helping the Otieno family turn clothing donation into a wider philanthropic mission with hopes that, as Wi-Fi access reaches rural Africa, students from Bumala can someday video chat with Palm Crest students.

"I think it's very important for the kids to learn and see where the donations are going," Valderhaug said Friday. "That's why this is such a neat project."

As for Charles Otieno, he plans to return to Bumala this summer with his family to pass out the donated school supplies. Next on the list is helping villagers acquire and stock a library children can use and study in.

"I cannot stop — if I stop, I've given up on so many kids," he said of his efforts so far, sharing his dreams for his three children. "Hopefully, they will continue as they grow older and the three of them will take the lead."


Sara Cardine, sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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