Tim Woodward recently returned from Kenya, where he spent time with students, their sponsors and teachers at Caring Hearts High School. The school was founded by a Boisean and is largely supported by donations from Boise people. This is the first of two stories from his time there.
NGLUMI, K enya – Brenda Muinde wakes up every weekday to the ring of her dorm matron’s bell at 4 a.m. She has half an hour to bathe, dress and get to a study hall. Of the the next 17 hours, all but three will be devoted to study and classes.
She’s grateful for every one of them.
At home, the first sound she heard would have been her grandmother telling her to get up and gather firewood. She’d have had no daily bath, no medical supplies or modern sanitation, not enough to eat.
“I don’t know what I would do without Caring Hearts High School,” the 16-year-old sophomore said. “I would have no future. I would have to work as a maid or a prostitute.”
Most of the school’s 137 girls have similar stories. Details vary – some are orphans, some victims of abuse or other family tragedies – but the common denominator is poverty.
Juliet Mutua’s father is dead, her mother mentally ill. Prior to coming to Caring Hearts High School, where she lives in a dorm neat enough to satisfy a drill sergeant, she lived in a house made of sticks and slept on a bed of sticks. The Caring Hearts Foundation built a home for her and her mother so she’d have a place to study. Painfully shy but exceptionally bright, she passed her entrance exam the first time and has the highest grade point average in her junior class of 30 students. She wants to be a doctor.
The school year lasts 11 months. The newest student, Grace Kimeu, doesn’t want to go home between terms because there is virtually nothing there for her. An abusive father, not enough to eat, not enough of anything.
“Thank you with all my heart!” her mother, Caroline Kimeu, tearfully said to student sponsors visiting from Boise. “Thank you for saving my daughter.”
Winfred Nduku didn’t have enough to eat at home and suffered from malnutrition. She passed the public high school entrance exam three times, but her family couldn’t afford tuition. Now, with her tuition funded by donations from Boise, she’s a 19-year-old freshman at the high school.
“It breaks my heart to think of that,” Vincent Kituku, the school’s founder, said. “I have a son the same age who is a junior in college.”
One student was trying to care for her mother, who died of AIDS. Caring Hearts transferred her from another school following her mother’s death to give her a better chance to succeed. Such stories are common in rural Kenya, where few can afford medical care.
Public high schools are available, but they cost from $350 a year for the bottom tier to $3,000 a year for schools only wealthy families can afford. Most families can’t afford $350. Daughters of families too poor to send them to high school face bleak futures. The luckiest end up doing menial labor. Those not as fortunate can be sold at puberty to older husbands – polygamy is legal in Kenya – or become prostitutes. High school makes all the difference, leading to relatively good jobs or university educations and professional careers.
Caring Hearts is the only high school in the country where donations, virtually all from Boise, pay the fees of students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend high school.
Dollars go a long way in Kenya. Large donations – a $100,000 donation from the Morrison Foundation helped get the school up and running – but a $500 donation pays for a year of school, including room, board and school uniforms. (University tuition is about the same.) It’s the first time in many of the students’ lives that they’ve had nice clothes, a good bed, enough to eat and adequate medical care.
Kituku, a native Kenyan who has lived in Boise since 1992, started Caring Hearts High School two years ago. He remembers the night that led to its creation, and that changed his life:
“It was in 2010. I came to Kenya to visit my wife’s sister whose son had been kicked out of school for an $80 balance. Eighty dollars! His family couldn’t afford to pay it, and that was exactly what I was paying for a hotel. What I was paying for one night would have kept him in school. I left that hotel and never went back. From that time on, I have been working to help these kids go to school.”
A writer and public speaker, he raised enough money through donations and speaking engagements over four years to pay for 240 needy students’ tuition at public schools. But he was convinced that he could help more students more effectively by opening a school himself.
By 2014, Kituku had raised enough money to purchase a school with eight classrooms, a dormitory, athletic field, garden, kitchen, dining hall and a duplex on an eight-acre compound near Nglumi town – 90 bone-rattling minutes from the capital of Nairobi on roads more than generously supplied with potholes and speed bumps.
Boisean Carrie Barton became a major donor to the school because she “liked the fact that Vincent was so intimately involved and that there were almost no administrative costs. Virtually all of what you donate is used to help the kids. That, and I could be involved. I help with some of the administrative work, and I can go to Kenya to help at the school and interact with the students.”
Barton spent long days at a desk in the school parking lot last month, interviewing students about their younger siblings.
“All of the siblings who pass the entrance exam will go to school here,” she said. “I only asked the girls about their siblings, but they kept throwing in cousins, nieces, nephews … It was touching.”
When the Caring Hearts Foundation purchased the school in 2014, Kituku said, it “was run down and overgrown with weeds. The teachers weren’t qualified, there was no discipline and the dorm was dirty and messy. There was no library, no computer lab or science facilities. Seven students shared one book.”
Most of the students, he added, were from wealthy families and lacked motivation. Some were selling drugs. One tried to burn the dorm down because he wanted to quit school and go home.
The difference between then and now is night and day. All but one of Caring Heart’s nine teachers are college trained, and the ninth is working on his degree. No books are shared. Every student has textbooks and access to a library, a science lab and a computer lab with 40 computers. A new well supplies the school with safe drinking water.
Students are attentive in class, respectful to teachers. Infrequent disciplinary problems are referred to Principal Pamela Atieno Ndongo, a commanding figure who teaches math and business and nips unacceptable behavior in the bud by merely raising an eyebrow or changing her tone of voice. She lives in the campus duplex.
“It’s more than a full-time job,” she said. “I need to be here all the time for things that can come up after school hours.”
By American standards, the campus is modest. The classrooms are spartan; the study hall is a converted chicken coop. But the classrooms are airy and well lit, the grounds and buildings neat and tidy, the students hard working and unfailingly polite. They speak softly and tend to look away when addressing grownups. In their culture, loud voices or looking directly at a person while speaking are considered disrespectful.
In addition to studying physics, geography, biology, chemistry, math, reading, history, government, English and Swahili (plus electives), they do their own laundry and grow their own fruits and vegetables in the school’s garden.
A sign outside the classroom building encourages them to “think big; it doesn’t hurt.” Another cautions, “Silence! Learning taking place.” The girls study hard, but smile easily and often. They’re clearly happy to be here.
Though their backgrounds may be all the motivation they need, the administration isn’t shy about reinforcing their work ethic.
“Work twice as hard, three times as hard,” school treasurer Bernard Kivuva admonished them during an assembly. “The way you can repay your parents and your sponsors is to be successful. If you are, they will be happy. If you are not, they will cry.”
The school slogan, “Youth empowered to serve, lead and influence,” is meant to be taken literally. Graduates are expected to go on to universities and use their educations to improve lives in their communities and beyond. A majority of students interviewed hope to become doctors, engineers, scientists or teachers.
Improving the community doesn’t wait for graduation. On a hot day in July, the schedule included a rare break from classes to pick up litter in Nglumi, the nearest town. It was hard, dirty work, but there were no complaints. The girls sang, chatted and giggled like teenagers everywhere.
The contrast with their former lives couldn’t be greater, but for Kituku it’s just a beginning. He plans to add another floor to the dormitory, build another classroom building and add a Life Skills program and an improved kitchen and dining hall. A typical day’s fare: bread, porridge, corn, beans, fresh vegetables and tea.
He’s also negotiating for land to build a school for boys. Using education to alleviate poverty in his native country, with help from caring hearts in his adopted country, has become his mission in life.
It extends even to a Massai village inhabited by the poorest of the poor, where a lucky few students now have a chance to escape poverty that can reduce visitors to tears.
“Caring Hearts has introduced me to human suffering I never knew existed,” Kituku said. “And to caring people I never knew existed.”
Next Monday: The poorest of the poor. Schools that make Caring Hearts High School seem like an educational paradise.