October 1, 2009
It wasn't supposed to happen. It was by accident, or maybe providence. Truth be told, I never liked children all that much. Or, more to the point, they never liked me. But it all started with something I like enormously: a holiday.
During eight years working at the Irish Immigration Center in Boston, I was awarded the title 'Director of Vacations.' It was obviously tongue in cheek, but I decided to rise to meet it nonetheless, petitioned for a month of unpaid leave, and headed to Kenya in August 2007. I went with no plans to help anybody but myself and no aims beyond getting some nice shots of animals my father couldn't raise on our 30 acres in County Down.
Instead, I met a Kenyan journalist, and an eight-month-old set of twins – an encounter that led to the birth of 'One Home Many Hopes' in Boston. And thanks to the subsequent response of dozens of Bostonians, 32 orphaned and abandoned Kenyan street girls who were once left in the streets to die or worse, are today in school. Tonight they will sleep in a bed. Tomorrow they will wake up knowing that they are loved. It has been miraculous, humbling, and inspiring.
While reporting a story in Mombasa a few years earlier, Kenyan journalist Anthony Mulongo met seven-year-old Gift Hawa, and her nine-month-old brother. Shortly thereafter he learned that their mother had died of AIDS and so he resolved to find them. But he was too late. By the time he found Gift, her brother had died, too, clutching her back as she carried him around the streets scavenging for food.
The 30-year-old Mulongo moved Gift into his home, put her in school and informally adopted her. Then another and another and another. He gave up his house, his income, and his career because he was seeing children die around him and realizing that if he didn't do something, nobody would. Then I came along.
I met Mulongo in Mombasa and was instantly struck by him. Big booming laugh and a handshake as warm as the sun. And a vision as big as the sky behind it: To raise up a group of 35 or 50 or 100 children who had suffered the worst of poverty and corruption and pain but who would do something about it if they could get into the position to.
We talked. We talked and talked. Over long lunches of boney chicken and watery soup, we realized our ideas on how development work could most effectively be done were it perfectly aligned. As Director of Vacations, I had seen orphanages all over the world but was never moved to do anything but feel bad for a bit. I thought, 'We could build homes for the rest of lives but to what end? What's the point? When does it stop? What changes?'
What we need to do is partner with children now so that in 15 years, they will be the Kenyan doctors and teachers and journalists and lawyers and nurses who sit around a table asking, "How are we going to build the schools and dig the wells and construct the toilets so as people in Boston don't have to."
I knew Anthony had the ability to do this if only he had the funding. And I knew that there are people in Boston who want to make a difference. People who want to help but don't know how to in a way that works and is value for their generosity. People who would respond if I presented our vision to them in a personal way. So I did.
We filled a room at IIC one night and decided to make Anthony's sacrifice worth it. People held parlor parties, church events, and sports teams did fundraising campaigns. Someone held a St. Patrick's Day party and people gave up wedding presents and birthday presents. A law firm established us as a 501c3 charity. Friends in New York and San Francisco and London held launch parties for OHMH chapters in their cities. A lot of people did a little and big things are happening. This autumn, we are looking for volunteers to help us raise $70k to build a proper home for the girls. Currently all 32 children and three 'house mothers' live in our solitary four-bedroom house.
Every week, people sympathetically nod and say, "It's a tough time to be raising money." And every week, I remind myself and them of an eight-month-old set of twins called Agnes and Macharia. We rescued both from the streets of the slum. But Macharia didn't make it. So severe was the damage this young boy had endured that we couldn't save him. I hadn't held many children in my life, and so to have outlived one that I did hold impacted me very deeply. That was tough. Asking people in Boston for ten bucks a month to stop it from happening again is easy.
Gift saw her mother die and felt her brother pass. She's now 15 and I leave you with her wish: "I pray that you will have a long life, so as you can come and see me graduating as a doctor." If you would like to, please get in touch.
Thomas Keown is the founder and director of One Home Many Hopes. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 617-230-2574.