The poorest kid in my grade-school class was a boy who dressed in worn clothes long out of style and occasionally got lunch handouts from other kids because he didn’t have enough to eat. But he was in school every day, got good grades and went on to get a good job.
Contrast that with a place where over half of the families of elementary school children are so poor they can’t afford to send their kids to high school, girls are forced into early marriages so their parents will have one less child to support, and students fortunate enough to attend high school are sent home if their families can’t afford to buy them proper underwear or hygienic supplies.
That’s how it is in parts of Vincent Kituku’s native Kenya. But with hard work and help from Idahoans, he’s changing that.
Kituku was one of the lucky ones in the town of Kangundo, Kenya, where he grew up. He graduated from high school there and attended the University of Wyoming on a scholarship. He came to Boise to work as an environmental scientist but has since become known as a motivational speaker and the author of an Idaho Statesman faith column.
What isn’t well known is what he’s doing to help young people in his native country escape a cycle of poverty and degradation. In 2010, Kituku founded Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope. The organization helps capable but impoverished students attend high school.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of that. In Kangundo, students who don’t attend high school are likely to spend the rest of their lives in poverty, earning less than $2 a day doing manual labor. Forced marriages are common.
“A lot of girls marry very young because their families are desperate and it’s one less mouth to feed,” Kituku said. “Often the families are given a goat or a cow as a dowry. They sell it and use the money to send a son to high school. Girls are given away so boys can go to school.”
High school makes all the difference. CHHH is helping both boys and girls attend high school, but the bleak futures awaiting many young girls in his hometown touch Kituku more deeply.
“Going to school is a protection for them,” he said. “They are less likely to be dehumanized. They learn different values; they learn about different cultures. They’re less vulnerable to things like forced marriage and female circumcision. They learn to practice family planning. We teach them about clean water and hygienic practices. We teach them skills to help them escape the cycle of poverty. And, much more than fathers do, they teach their children. It’s said that when you educate a boy, you educate an individual. When you teach a girl, you educate a community.”
He says he’ll never forget a girl in his own grade school who was sent home in shame because her family couldn’t afford to buy her underwear.
“From time to time female teachers would inspect the girls for cleanliness while male teachers inspected the boys in a separate classroom. A girl in sixth grade was wearing torn underwear, and the teacher lifted it up for the other girls to see. … I still see her humiliated face as she walked home alone. She was summarily dismissed until she could wear decent underwear.”
CHHH helps needy students attend high school by providing tuition and fees, room and board, school and hygienic supplies and, if needed, clothing.
The results go far beyond educating individual students. In Kenya, children who graduate from high school are culturally obligated to help their families and their communities.
“Having a high school graduate in the family is like having retirement, Social Security and Medicare,” Kituku said. “And some of those who graduate help other students go to school. They are happy to do this. It helps break the cycle of poverty and desperation.”
A $500 donation to CHHH pays for a year of high school. Donations are tax deductible, and 100 percent of the money is used to help students. To donate, make checks payable to Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope and mail to: CHHH, P.O. Box 7152, Boise, ID 83707.
CHHH currently pays for its students to attend public schools. But because of tuition increases and other disruptive factors, it’s purchasing its own school for girls. The Harry Morrison Foundation has donated $50,000 and pledged another $50,000 toward the $1.3 million CHHH is raising to buy the school.
In addition to academics, girls who go there will learn practical skills from computer technology to sewing. A girl who graduates but doesn’t go on to college can earn ten times as much making school uniforms as she would doing unskilled labor.
It’s not for nothing that Kituku is devoting his own time and money to help students in his native country. His stories about Kenyan children who are disabled and/or have lost their parents and have little hope of escaping lives of poverty are heartbreaking.
The most telling may be that of a mother of six who committed suicide because she couldn’t afford to send her children to school.
What does he get out of helping? On one of his trips to Kenya, a student asked him his net worth. He answered by telling the story of a disabled boy named Alex. CHHH paid not only for his education but for surgery that alleviated his disability.
“My net worth is the smile on Alex’s face,” he said. “… There is nothing like transforming a life. I don’t have to read the Bible to know that miracles happen. I see it daily.”
Tim Woodward’s column appears in The Idaho Statesman every other Sunday and is posted on http://www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com.