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on street children and how we CAN help

God bless them for still being able to smile. I wish I could hug them now, those men
they have become, and tell them how proud I am that they made it to the other side.
I can only pray they did make it. (circa 2002)

Today I’m sharing a topic near to my heart. There are orphaned children all over the world, so you could say this post centers upon the plight of all parentless children. I’m focusing particularly on African countries and the organizations that assist their children because I feel a special connection to them. It all began when I was in my early twenties and traveled to Kenya twice; the trips changed the direction of my life and my career goals. Stick with my lengthy introduction, as I will eventually arrive at the point.

(Note: I wrote about the following experience about a year ago, but I thought it was worth sharing twice). Upon first stepping foot into downtown Nairobi, the morning after my arrival in Africa in the spring of 2001, I stopped in my tracks at the oddest sight. We were in a local park, and some of my study abroad companions had purchased peanuts to feed monkeys that inhabited the park. I was supposed to be laughing and taking pictures of monkeys along with my mates; instead, a disturbing scene caught my eye. Children with no shoes and tattered clothes appeared to be following after the monkeys. Their eyes displayed not the carefree joy that American children would express at being allowed to chase such a creature, but they were rather focused precisely on a task at hand. I continued to watch them closely to see what they could possibly be doing.

I would soon learn, much to my dismay, that they were picking up peanuts after the monkeys dropped them. So they could eat them. AFTER the monkeys. To be even more clear, these children were eating monkey leftovers. I immediately paid for (what I now hope was 10 or more, but was probably 2) bags of peanuts and handed them to the grateful children, whose faces finally broke into smile as they ran off to devour their score.

Still not quite understanding the scene that had just unfolded, I began to quiz my professor when we came back to the vans. Where were these children’s parents? Perhaps more immediately important, where were their shoes? Streets of Nairobi circa 2001 weren’t the clean streets of America. Broken glass and excrement could readily be found on many curbs during that time.

I listened intently to my professor’s explanation and only became more confused as he spoke. Looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine a version of myself, college-educated no less (I had almost graduated at that point with my aptly titled “BS” degree), who had no clue what being an orphan really meant. Sure, I had grown up loving the musical Annie and had seen the Christian Children’s Fund commercials, but somehow the point had never truly been driven home. From that moment on, I simply had to learn more.

Then and there I changed the topic of my study abroad research, which prior to that point had been turned to the psychology of Kenyan runners (and interesting subject, to be sure). Luckily, one of my meetings with the famous runner Kipchoge (known to Americans as “Kip”) Keino was still able to continue as planned given his post-Olympics work with orphaned children. I was so fortunate to be able to tour his home and Lewa Children’s Home in Eldoret and ask him a myriad of questions about his work. My mind and heart had been opened up to a new world, and there was no going back.

A wall at Lewa Children’s Home. Seeing those little handprints makes my heart burst today. Praise his kindness.

When I came home to the states, I couldn’t stop talking about all I had seen. Suddenly I understood for the first time what mattered to me. I wanted to work on children’s health, but in a much broader scope than I had been considering previously. After all, who could focus on a child’s brain when that child has no food in her belly or shoes on her feet? It would be a few years before my own brain caught up with my heart, but I would eventually switch my “major” from psychology to public health. That’s a story for another day.

I begged my family for the money to go back to Africa again, and they generously obliged. I was able to return to Kenya the following spring to study the aid groups (called NGOs or “Non-Governmental Organizations”) that assist the orphaned children. These children are known more commonly as street children or unfortunately even “street urchins” for their reputation as a drain on society. I wanted to find out if this name bestowed upon them was actually the perception of the locals. I wanted to find the compassion I was certain the media didn’t give them credit for having.

I am happy to report that I found the compassion I sought. Of the many people I met and interviewed, I was able to find plenty of compassion, including the most humbling examples of people sharing what little they had with those who had even less. With rare exception, I also didn’t come across the “crooks and thieves” I was told would be on every corner of the aid missions. Most aid workers were warm-hearted, giving, and exhausted.

The hardest part for me to discuss, over ten years later, is what I learned about the children themselves. Perhaps this is the reason I’ve been silent about this situation on the blog up until now. But lately a few of my favorite bloggers are writing about the cause, and they give me strength to share what I know. I will provide summaries of two of their stories in snapshots I took during my second trip. I sincerely hope it doesn’t come off as exploitative that I am even sharing pictures and stories; I struggled with the decision to share but ultimately feel they deserve to have a voice.

These two boys sniffed glue, as much as they could find or steal, to fight hunger pains and so they could imagine
a life better than their own. They stared at a torn picture of the ocean one boy kept in his pocket, longing to visit
the sea once before they died. They had no plans for the future, hoping on a daily basis only to stay warm and that
they would not be separated by aid workers hoping to help one of them. They barely smiled at the food we gave them.
This young girl had her daughter at the young age of twelve. Her parents forced her into prostitution to make money
for her family, and she was routinely beaten and raped by police. She lived for her daughter.

What I discovered that year made me realize just how complicated tough issues like caring for vulnerable populations can be. Maybe that’s why I’m a centrist, politically speaking. I can rarely be found (with the large exception being health care) far on one side of the fence or the other because my experience opened my eyes to the vast array of factors leading to this–and thus as I see it, any–issue as heart-wrenching and challenging as this one.

Fortunately, I’m not here to discuss politics with you today. Instead, I want to share some great organizations that are attempting to help. The first organization, which I mentioned above as having a connection to a few favorite bloggers (e.g. Design Momchookaloonks, etc.) is ONE Moms. It’s a part of the ONE organization started by Bono, and it currently has a mission trip in Ethiopia happening today through October 13th (follow along at their #onemoms hashtag). According to the website, they are “a movement of moms everywhere using their extraordinary power to spread awareness for the fight against extreme poverty and preventable disease.” Find out more about how you can help (it’s easy! just spread the word) here

Below are two videos made by other organizations doing great work too. Even if you can’t donate money, often you’ll find they need other kinds of assistance as well. When in doubt, ask! They will be happy to answer the call. Will you?


The video above is about street children in Kenya and this great organization (again in Eldoret, a town I am closely connected to after having spent a collective month there) that assists them. I learned about it through this blog

The Awassa Children’s Project is another organization, again in Ethiopia, that is dedicated to helping children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.

Do you have another organization you’d like to highlight? Please feel free to mention it in the comments. The more the merrier. Let’s spread the word about how we can all make a difference.