Although we did not do an outreach this year, I took the time to travel to Kenya and scout needy communities in preparation for the 2020 trip. A friend of mine Kim Simi had introduced me to a man with a heart of gold. Meet Peter Linneman, who has been supporting the education outreach at Lewa conservancy for about 15 years. Peter is from Philly, and has supported the education campaigns of Lewa's surrounding communities,
overseeing and funding kids education from elementary to university. I was curious how he got started. He shared how he visited Lewa as a tourist and learnt through his safari driver how impoverished the communities were and immediately wanted to make a difference. Tall with a purposeful brisk walk and untiring voice, he provided for the children, spoiled them with shopping sprees and expensive luxurious hotels- taking the kids to Maasai Mara and flying them back to Lewa. His love for the children was contagious and he knew all of them by names; careful to spend some alone time with each of the many kids in his program. I learnt that he and the kids exchanged letters and texts and meet every year. He made all of them feel loved, valued and that they mattered, something they did not get from their communities. He assured the kids of his support so long as they needed it. They can pursue their education as far as they wanted. It was an audacious promise, but a promise Peter has no intention of breaking, no matter what it takes. What a miracle he is to these communities!
Peter sharing a meal with some of the kids in his program
To be honest, when I first heard about the conservancy, I had little interest in the partnership. I serve the local communities that openly display their resentment over conservancies raising money in the name of helping the communities, when in reality, very little goes to the locals. For example, there is this conservancy that I won't name that raised money for an ambulance for the local community clinic. However, the ambulance is always packed at the conservancy's resort probably to assure the tourists that they can get transported to a hospital in case of a medical emergency. In the meantime, the locals who need the ambulance the most has no access to transportation when they need it. But Kim and her friend Christine Kwak urged me to meet Peter and I am so glad they did. Clearly, not all conservancies are created equal and Lewa is different in so may ways and their community engagement is obvious through their efforts in their clinic and the surrounding clinics they support, as well as Peter's superb educational program assisting the poor local communities. So I made plans to meet Peter in Kenya and see the local clinics.
Lewa's beautiful landscapes
When I told my family that I had meetings in Lewa, they were quick to inform me that this is where Prince William became engaged, something I did not know before then. "Oh, you didn't know? This is where the royal family stay when they visit Kenya", my sister excitedly shared. "And where an annual fundraising marathon is held every year in June. You should take Sean" (referring to my 15 year old runner son). "He will get to run with the wild animals". The image of my son running with buffaloes and other wild animals....okay, I won't go there. But now I was even more curious about this conservancy. The five-hour drive from Nairobi took us to a massive gate where vegetation immediately changes as soon as you drive through the guarded entrance towards another gated entrance. Outside our tents, we were greeted by zebras, gazelle's, impalas, monkeys and baboons, and as we enjoyed a cup of tea, as if on cue a giraffe walked by looking at us curiously as if to say hello to the new guests.
And I loved Lewa. The wildlife, the mesmerizing landscapes, the unparalleled natural beauty and their invaluable community outreach-it was the kind of place you never want to leave boasting such peace, serenity and tranquillity. The following day I met Peter and some of the kids he supports. In the group, some kids were just joining the program while others were graduating from colleges across Kenya. There were alumni who were already employed and giving back to their communities with some graduates even employed at Lewa. I was impressed by the education program and its ripple effect which has a potential of eradicating poverty in these communities. It is here that I met Faith, a Kenyan young lady who was responsible for the recruitment, retainment and the success of the education program. All the kids referred to her affectionately as mom and they sought her day and night, for small and big needs, mostly just for reassurance that the school fees will continue to be paid. Her bond with the kids was strong and they depended on her as the bridge to Peter. She was warm, compassionate with a calm reassuring voice-an angel, and I liked her immediately. When I first called her on arrival with my Americanized urgent need of planning, wanting to know my schedule for the few days I was there, she calmly responded, "don't worry about anything. A driver will pick you up after your breakfast". And so I let go, and Faith delivered, planning my meetings and everything went smoothly. During the safari, I was joined by two young cousins (Abdi & Amina), who were in the university and I got to know their background and how they joined Peter's educational program.
A selfie with Abdi right and his cousin Amina left
Abdi shared how his father abandoned his mother, and as the first born of the family, he had to skip school to look for manual labor to provide food for his siblings. He had always been top of his class, but his grades suddenly dropped and therefore he did not qualify to get into the education program. Choking tears, he shared how he decided to commit suicide and end the desperation as his last hope of a future faded. He attempted to jump in-front of a speeding truck but thankfully, that suicide attempt failed. Desperate, he tried again to join the Lewa's education program and he was finally accepted by Peter. I cried as I listened to similar stories of resilience against such desperate circumstances. I was sold. I knew I wanted to help.
Peter (mid back with sunglasses) with some of his education program's students
The next day I woke up early for my meeting with the clinical officer who was in charge of the Lewa clinic and also the liaison for the 2 other clinics in the communities. We visited the Lewa and the Ngare Ndare clinic which was another hour away. It was clear that these communities were underserved and one clinic had no running water when we visited. The elephants tampering with the water pipes is pretty common. That night, I had dinner with Ruwaydah, Lewa's donor's liaison. She is another incredibly smart young woman who was passionate about her job. We discussed MMK and how we can help Lewa in 2020 and the logistics of mobilizing the communities around Lewa. What an asset to Lewa!.
And the safaris in Lewa were exhilarating. Lewa has the largest population of both black and white rhinos, as well as the largest population of grevy zebras in the whole country. Their conservation of endangered animals is enviable and very strategic. That is why they only allow a small number of tourists at the site to ensure the animals are not necessarily distracted. I left Lewa yearning to return and serve the communities in this area.
My next trip was to Mully's children's home in Ndalani where I was sent by David Melnick, our MMK board member. Mully is another hero who started this organization with only a few kids in his own house. Now they have several facilities across the country and the facility I visited have 735 children ranging from toddlers to 26 years. Mully became a father to the fatherless kids from across Kenya providing orphaned kids food, clothing, a place to stay and a chance in a decent education. His facility is huge and have dorms where the kids sleep as well as an established school from elementary through high school. I got here over lunch time and watched the kids enjoy their meal of ugali (corn meal) and sukuma (collard greens).
Children at the Mully's Ndalani facility.
Mully's huge facility is a testimony of humanity. One man, one vision- and look how he is changing the world. It was truly inspiring. Finally, it was time to see John. John was the young boy who was blind and MMK sponsored his corneal transplant last summer during our trip. It was amazing to see that he is able to see and has learnt how to write. What an incredible miracle! I was just so happy to see him and his mother. I made plans to take him to his follow-up clinic for an eye exam. He brought along a hand written letter for his sponsor, Dr Pandiri. It was an emotional reunion and a harder goodbye. But I take comfort in the knowledge that God continues to bless him and his family despite the challenges he has encountered since his surgery.
John at the clinic after his follow up eye exam
I am excited for the coming year. I am excited to be a part of Lewa and extend MMK's health services to their communities. I know that God takes us to wherever His people are, and I can't wait to come back here.