Jennifer Musick Wright is the “mum” to more than 45 children in Kenya.
It all started 10 years ago when she traveled to Kenya as a sophomore at Wagner College. Wright volunteered at a government-run orphanage that was severely understaffed. The children were not well cared for. “I knew it could be better for the children at the orphanage in Kenya, and it was this knowledge that inspired me to start my own children’s home,” Wright said. When she returned home from Kenya images of the orphanage haunted her. She started researching ways to raise money and formulated a plan. Seven months later, in 2007, she founded HEAL, a faith-based, not-for-profit organization committed to raising our world, one child at a time. “We recently celebrated our 10th anniversary,” she said. “It’s definitely been quite the journey, with many challenges, but I’ve learned so much, and I’m grateful for where we are, and the direction in which we’re moving.”
Currently, through HEAL, Wright provides complete care for 45 children in Kenya. This includes education, housing, food, etc. Primary aged children are sent to a local day school. Secondary aged children attend HEAL’s onsite secondary school. An additional 80 children attend the onsite secondary school from the nearby community. While most of the 80 children who attend the onsite school are commuters, some do board there. Wright notes that the community is impoverished and many families struggle to pay school fees. “In other schools in Kenya, if you can’t pay school fees, then you will be sent home until you are able to return with money. We do not send students home, which means we rely on donations to keep the school running,” she said. “We have added many of our students who are living in difficult situations to our sponsorship list so they are able to continue their education.”
Education is one of four components of HEAL. The other three are Health, Ample Nutrition, and Love. “We believe that every child has the right to good healthcare, access to quality education, to be fed a nutritious diet and to be loved. Our homes are developed to include these components, and much more,” she said. Wright explains that some of the children have been through some very traumatic experiences. “They didn’t choose the life they have, but with nurturing care, and access to education, every child in our home has the opportunity to follow their dreams and to break the cycle of poverty into which they were born,” she said. “It is our hope that our children will feel empowered to create positive change for their community and the world.”
Wright is reliant on a cast of volunteers from around the world and donations from strangers to help spread HEAL’s mission. HEAL’s orphanage and school are located near the town of Nyahururu. “Thankfully, we have a group of local staff who are able to operate the home and school. They do a great job, which means I’m able to spend more time in the US raising funds and expanding our operations. It’s a lot of work, but I have a great team, so we’re able to reach more people in need,” she said. In addition to the local staff, volunteers from around the world will each spend two-weeks with HEAL in Kenya to help fill the yearly staff roster. “This short-term experience is just enough time for them to witness the work we’re doing, and to bring the stories back to their families and friends. In most cases, our volunteers end up sponsoring children, and often help us to raise funds throughout the year,” she said. The goal, Wright said, is to have volunteers at the children’s home throughout the year for short term experiences (2-3 weeks) or long term experiences (3-6 months). “The more people we have to witness our work, the larger our network will be, which is crucial for fundraising and the expansion of our mission,” she said.
HEAL is getting noticed. Many of its volunteers are college students. A group of students at Castleton University in Vermont have started a HEAL Kenya Club as a result of their volunteer experiences with HEAL. “I think it’s incredibly important for college age students to travel internationally and to volunteer either at home or abroad,” she said. “It’s such a formative time, and a volunteer experience abroad can completely change the direction of their life, just like it did for me!”
None of this would be possible without the generosity of people from around the world. The annual operating budget of HEAL is $125,000. This amount does not include capital projects. “We still have a lot of construction to do at Rapha Community Center. We need to build new classrooms, another dormitory, a dining facility and much more. Every year, we make progress, but the more we are able to raise, the more we will be able to do for the children at Rapha,” she said. While HEAL is developing income generating projects to help sustain operations, the organization relies on donations to continue its work.
As Wright looks to the future there is so much more she wants to do for the children that call her “mum.” She said, “We support them until they finish secondary school, but we are currently organizing a continuing education program to assist those students who would like to continue with their education either in a college or technical school setting.” She said she hopes to setup a scholarship program that would be open to partnering with college organizations to offer opportunities in higher education. On the docket is building a health clinic at Rapha, a primary school, and a micro-finance program. The ultimate goal is to build similar children’s homes in other countries, using Rapha as the blueprint.
She also hopes that she can connect the United States and Kenya. “It’s my dream to start a leadership institute which would connect students from the US to students in our various schools around the world to promote a cross-cultural awareness and global minded thinking,” she said. “Planning for this program is in the works!”
The majority of the children at HEAL’s home are orphans. “In most cases, their parents have died of HIV/AIDS. Children are often left in the care of elderly grandparents, who are not able to provide for basic needs and school fees. Usually the eldest girl or boy will have to stop going to school to help care for younger siblings. Many girls will become prostitutes and the boys will end up living on the streets. We do have some children who were living in abusive situations. We care for young girls who were raped and infected with HIV,” Wright said. The children at the home, who refer to her as “mum,” are her constant reminder of why she fights so hard for them. Children like Hannah and Elias. Hannah, Wright explains, lived with alcoholic parents that never sent her to school and instead brought her to the stone mines where they both worked. At the age of 8 Hannah was raped by a miner. Her parents were sent to jail for child neglect. Her rapist was also jailed. Hannah was rescued by the local children’s office and brought to HEAL. Jennifer was at the children’s home when the young girl arrived. She remembers the trauma and hurt in the girl’s eyes. Wright knows it will take Hannah years to heal from the trauma she has endured, but she hopes that HEAL will offer her hope for a better future through education, family, love and extended services. Hannah is thriving in school and can be found giggling with her girlfriends. Elias was about 3 years old when he was found wandering by himself in the streets. He had been abandoned. He didn’t talk. The government run children’s homes in the area are unable to care for young children due to additional money needed for care. The law enforcement housed the toddler in a jail cell having no other option. “It was a desperate situation for the boy,” Wright said. “We offered him a home because he needed a safe place.” Wright said that Elias connected with Rose, the manager of the children’s home. She cared for him like a mother. The boy calls her mum to this day. He is 6 now and in his first year of primary school. He is safe and loved.
“Once they become a part of our family, they will always be part of our family,” Wright said. “The origin stories of these children are sad, but there is hope for them. They have a chance to learn, to heal and to have new beginnings.”
For more information on HEAL, including giving and volunteer options, please visit its website: http://healraisingourworld.org/.
Emily Marcason-Tolmie, a Saratoga native, is a writer, researcher, wife and mother. Emily and her husband, Ryan, are the parents to two wonderful little boys, ages 4 and 1.