Cradle to Career boosts education in Kenya

Jene Meece got involved with Kenya on a whim.

In 2006, the Newport Beach resident read a news story about Father Henry Simaro, head of the African Child Foundation, visiting the United States to raise money for Fanaka Primary School, in the Kenyan town of Athi River. Now, Meece works alongside Simaro as the executive director of Cradle to Career: Kenya, and she's seen results. To date, the nonprofit has sent hundreds of girls through middle school, and it's looking to build a dormitory at Mt. Olive Academy, also located in Athi River, that will house 200 more.

This month, to help raise awareness for her cause, Meece is launching a speaker series in Newport Beach and Irvine, with topics ranging from "Honoring Women in African Arts" to "Teaching in Africa's Largest Slum." (For the program, visit Meece, who recently stopped in Atlanta for a Cradle to Career fundraiser, took time for an interview with the Daily Pilot:

Last year, 100% of the middle school girls at Mt. Olive went on to high school. How does middle school life in Kenya compare to in the United States?

That is not an easy question to answer because there are two extremes. There are the elite boarding schools catering to the top echelon of Kenya. Then there are the government schools, which can have 90 children to one teacher. The elite schools are out of reach for the vast majority of Kenyans. The government schools, especially the ones I visited, are not conducive to learning. They were dusty from the dirt floors, the corrugated tin roofs made it impossible to hear when it rained, and there was little ventilation, so heat was insufferable on the hot days.

If you are lucky enough to attend an elite boarding school, then middle school may appear very similar to what we experience in the United States. But if you are part of the majority of Kenyans living on $1 a day, school is difficult at best and not in the cards for most children. While Kenya has offered free education since 2001, the students still have to buy shoes and uniforms to attend, they have to pay for school supplies, and they have to have food to eat. This sounds so simple, but in the poor sections of Kenya, it isn't.

The students we enrolled when Mt. Olive Academy was completed in 2010 were able to do homework at night for the first time because Mt. Olive was a boarding facility with electricity. They were challenged to complete their assignments when they were in the government schools and living in the shanty towns because they didn't have access to electricity. Also, upon entering Mt. Olive, they received three meals a day. When you aren't worried about where your next meal is coming from, you can concentrate on your studies.

According to your fundraising campaign, it takes $810 to sponsor a Kenyan student for one year. That sounds like a remarkably small amount of money by American standards. Just how does that $810 break down cost-wise?

$810 is the cost to sponsor a middle school boarding student at Mt. Olive Academy. It covers the tuition, room and board, along with uniforms and school supplies. Our biggest challenge can be the cost of food, but we harvest corn, kale and other vegetables on campus and we have a well on site that supplies all the water to the school, and we can sell water to the surrounding neighborhood.

The cost of living in Kenya is very low, and this helps us when paying salaries to over 30 teachers and staff.

For us in Orange County, it's so easy to scribble a check or drop a few coins in a jar. Is there anything deeper that people can do for a population like Kenya's?

Actually, developing an email connection with one of the children is a very deep way to touch a life. Once children are in fourth grade, we know they are committed to school and will stay with the program. When a student receives communication from California, their sense of self-esteem soars as they realize someone cares about them. When a sponsor keeps track of their grades or wants to know their hobbies, it encourages them. I encourage people, if they can't afford to sponsor a child directly, to get their book club or group of friends to band together to raise the money, and then the point person can be the one to communicate with the child. Nothing is more fun than meeting that child when you travel to Kenya!

Your lecture events are all free to the public, but I imagine you need to raise a lot of funds for Cradle to Career. What is your main goal with the lecture series?

Our main goal for the lecture series is to find a community of people interested in African culture. We hope to add book events, a mini film festival, gallery visits of African art and African cooking classes over time. We want to share all the positive influences that Africa offers us. And if we find people along the way who want to support Cradle to Career: Kenya and all the children we support, then so much the better!

Tell me one misperception that most Westerners have about African life.

Most of Africa is stereotyped as full of poverty, disease, war and corruption. That is not to say it doesn't exist. It does. But there is also a rich culture of indigenous authors, new burgeoning filmmakers and artists. There is a wonderful artist named El Anatsui with a show currently in Brooklyn of shimmering shapes created with discarded bottlecaps picked up in the slums. Each time I visit Kenya, I spend most of my time in the trenches of poverty, but I also take a few days during each trip to discover the wonderful artistic secrets throughout the country.

Would you ever live in Africa full-time?

I would live there for extended periods of time. I wouldn't make it my base home, but I could stay for two or three months.

Why wouldn't you make it your base?

Why would anyone want to leave Southern California? This is where my kids are and my family is. But my second home is in Kenya.

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