I was sitting in a hotel lobby one evening when a man in a flowing orange African gown walked up, introduced himself and, over the next quarter hour of conversation, left little doubt that he was a force of nature. His name was Vincent Kituku.
Kituku grew up in a mud hut in Kenya and went on to earn a PhD. from the University of Wyoming. You may recognize his name from the occasional Faith columns he writes for The Press. He is also a motivational speaker whose audiences have included, among others, the Boise State University football team.
More notably, he is the founder of Caring Hearts High School in his native Kenya.
Now, after years of growth and progress, the school could be in danger.
Caring Hearts has been a game changer for Kenyan girls who otherwise would be living in poverty and have no chance at getting an education. They live on its campus, where they have good teachers, nutritious meals and a safe, supportive environment. Some have gone on to college. Without the school, their likely options with poverty and ignorance working against them would be arranged marriages to older men, prostitution or working as maids.
I was fortunate enough to visit the school in 2016. It was remarkable even then. The girls were in class or studying from before dawn until bedtime. They were polite and respectful to their teachers. Even with the long hours and hard work required by their classes, they seemed happy. They smiled a lot, laughed a lot. They were beyond grateful to be there.
Impressive as it was then, the school has improved dramatically in the three years since. When it opened in 2015, it had 56 students whose tuition, room and board were paid by sponsors. Now there are 165 sponsored students. Almost all of the sponsors are from the Treasure Valley.
The original school had four classrooms and a small science lab. Today it has eight classrooms, a library, three science labs and a life-skills center where students learn to cook and sew. When the school opened, there was no reliable source of clean water. Now it has its own well and a commercial generator. A garden supplies not only vegetables for the students and staff, but produce to sell to help with expenses.
A new dining hall has replaced the corrugated metal shack where the students previously had their meals, and all of the buildings have been modified to make them accessible to students with disabilities. When a girl who is unable to walk was admitted as a student, Kituku bought her a wheelchair and built a stone walkway over the rough ground to make it easier for her to get to her classes.
Only 13 percent of students who graduated from high schools in Kenya last year qualified for admission to universities. At Caring Hearts High School, 47 percent qualified. The rest were admitted to government-sponsored vocational training programs.
All of this has been largely due to the aforementioned force of nature.
“It’s just amazing what Vincent has been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time,” Janet Benoit said.
You might recognize that name as well. Janet is the mother of Katy Benoit, the University of Idaho graduate student who was fatally shot in 2011 by one of her professors. It was a big story, and one that had a lasting effect on Kituku. He had lost loved ones himself, and the senseless loss of such a promising young woman – gifted musician, outstanding student and recipient of multiple Congressional awards for achievement in public service and personal development, affected him deeply.
“Katy’s successes in all she did and how she cared for others was inspiring,” he said. “… Her story inspires the vulnerable girls at Caring Hearts High School to believe in themselves and turn their dreams into reality.”
Last year, Janet Benoit, her husband Gary and some of their friends went to Kenya to visit the school and its center named for Katy.
“When we were there, we realized how perfect it was because of who Katy was,” she said. “She looked out for people. She loved other cultures and sought out and helped foreign exchange students. When I saw the girls at Caring Hearts, I thought, ‘Oh, my Gosh – Katy would love this!’”
When they returned from Kenya, Benoit and two of her friends, Doneta Stephensen and Susan Thompson, wanted to continue to help the students. One of the girls’ greatest needs was for sanitary supplies during their periods. They were either unavailable or the girls couldn’t afford them, meaning missed school days.
Working with Days for Girls and Stephensen’s seamstress sister, Margaret Sheirbon, the women began making washable, reusable supplies for the students. They started a team that now numbers some 50 women who have volunteered an estimated 55,000 hours to the project.
Want to help? The team has a constant need for materials (cotton and flannel) and volunteers. Financial donations also are welcome. Click on firstname.lastname@example.org or call Thompson at 208 599-1885.
The women’s goal is to start a sustainable business at the high school that will employ local seamstresses to teach the students sewing skills and produce salable kits of reusable supplies.
The high school’s overriding need at the moment, however, is to remove a potential threat to its students. A rental house has been built just outside the perimeter of its campus. Kituku worries that the school he and others have worked so hard to nurture could become a target of terrorist groups that have struck other schools in Africa.
“It is safe to say that a property like that could be rented by a member of Al Shaban, the terrorist group that attacked and killed 148 students in a university in Kenya in 2014,” he said. “Or kidnap the girls like Boko Haram did in Nigeria.”
A reference to the 276 secondary school students kidnapped in 2014 by militants pretending to be guards. Some of the girls have died; many are still missing.
The rental house’s owner has agreed sell it to Kituku for $60,000. So far he’s raised about a third of that. If you’d like to help, mail your tax-deductible donation to Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope, P.O Box 7152, Boise 83707.
Questions: Contact Kituku at (208) 376-8724 or Vincent@kituku.com.
“We are already renting all the apartments near the school for our teachers and support staff,” he said “The house would provide a needed facility for school functions and short-term accommodation for out of town guests who are there to help our school.”
Owning the house, of course, would also provide security for students, employees and school property.
“In Kenya, it’s important to know who lives near the school and what they do. We need that house. It’s critical.”
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com.