When Birch Bay resident Jeana King told her friend Debra Akre about a
possible job for her, little did she know that a journey of a thousand
miles begins with a single sentence, to paraphrase Lao-tzu. Nor did she
know that she would also end up on the journey.
A sponsor of a
Kenyan child for many years, King had read in a newsletter produced by
the child aid organization that it was looking for a person with a Ph.D.
who could volunteer seven months of their life to open up a college of
“When I read that,” she said, “I thought
Debra was the perfect person for the job.” Her friend Debra didn’t
agree, not at first. But after thinking it over, she decided to apply
and four days later learned she would be flying to Nakuru in the central
That was in December 2003. During the assignment,
she met a little boy who desperately needed surgery. “I turned to
Marta,” she said, referring to Dr. Marta Kazymyra, well known to the
people of Blaine and Birch Bay. “Marta took it upon herself to arrange
for the boy to come to Washington to have the surgery done, all the
costs of which were paid for by the doctors,” she said.
still in Africa, the King family visited Akre and fell in love with
Kenya. Following her return, Akre and King started talking about what
they wanted to do. They had previously worked together in Southeast Asia
and decided they wanted to work in education.
While in Kenya,
Akre had discovered that the students were unable to think for
themselves. If she asked them a question they would not reply. Finally,
one student confided that for 12 years if they spoke out in class they
would be caned. “I was appalled and I shared that with Jeana. It was
rote learning and Third World countries can’t advance without proper
The two women decided they would start a non-profit
secondary school because secondary education was not free, unlike
primary school. Consequently, there was a huge drop-off in students
after free schooling ended.
Recognizing the difficulties their
students faced in all spheres of their lives, they employed a
psychosocial model of education, which sought to improve all aspects of
students’ lives from health to nutrition to poverty. “In our naiveté, we
decided we would tackle the entire thing,” said Jeana.
receiving their non-profit status, they held a garage sale, which led to
a larger fundraiser that raised nearly $6,000 that was matched by the
Clay family in Lynden.
Debra subsequently flew to Kenya to the
village of Ngomana to meet with villagers and ask if they would be
interested in working with the group.
On March 7, 2005, the
school opened with 30 students, two teachers in two buildings lent to
them by the village.
Ngomana is located in one of the most
poverty-stricken areas of Kenya. The women decided that it was important
to recognize that donors wouldn’t always be there and that whatever
they developed would have to become self-sufficient.
at a lot of the other (aid) models out there and decided if they were
still doing the same thing after 40 years, then there had to be a better
way. ‘Let’s be bold,’ we said, and try something different,” King said.
“We didn’t go into the village and tell them what we were going to do
because we can’t fix it. That’s not our job, that’s the villagers’ job.
If we go in and fix the problem, who fixes it when we leave?”
conditions were stark. No electricity or running water, temperatures in
the high 100s. Meeting with the village elders, the two women were
surprised by their insistence that they recognize how poor the villagers
“We couldn’t understand it at first until we realized
that they equated poverty with a lack of intelligence,” said Jeana.
two women assured the elders that it wasn’t lack of intelligence that
was holding their children back but the lack of proper schooling.
they warned the elders that if they agreed, they needed to understand
that it was likely that their newly educated children would move away to
seek opportunities. They also promised the elders that they would
undertake to build one of the best schools in Kenya. With that, the deal
From these first steps, Project Education Inc (PEI)
has come a long way. Since then, 25 acres have been bought with the Clay
International Secondary School campus having grown to 21 buildings, two
wells and a medical dispensary serving 135 students and eight teachers.
A new library and conference center has started construction
and, even more exciting, its first high school students graduated on
March 5, 2010.
Of the 27 students who graduated, 25 of them have
been teaching at local schools. The students have demonstrated high
levels of achievement and have been attracting attention throughout the
region and country.
Twelve students made it to the national
levels in math competition and out of 100 schools competing at the 12th
grade level, Clay students ranked 17th overall.
are 42 women taking adult education courses. It is also the women
villagers who have eagerly pursued the economic development that PEI has
fostered. The women are producing handcrafted bags, sandals and
hand-painted cards. These are currently for sale in Whatcom County in
Haggen Foods on Meridian, Terra Organica and the Community Co-op stores.
Distribution is expanding to Oregon and California. Around 3,000
handbags have been sold with an average retail price of $35-55.
a lot has been accomplished, much more remains to be done before these
local women can achieve their goal of having worked themselves out of a
job. Dr. Kazymyra can attest to that having just returned from her first
trip to Ngomana a few weeks ago.
While she previously had been
active collecting and sending medical supplies to the village, she saw
now first-hand the medical needs of the villagers. In two and a half
days, she gave physicals to 137 people in a steady flow that kept on
coming virtually to the point where she was getting in the car to leave.
Kazymyra brought nearly $15,000 worth of medical supplies
donated by GlaxoSmithKline, supplies that will be put to good use by the
nun who arrives weekly to provide medical care.
The hard work
and conditions does not appear to have fazed Kazymyra one bit. “This
trip and these two amazing women are so inspirational, that I will be
making more trips.
“I have never seen anyone as dedicated to a
cause as those two. They work 16 hour days, adopt kids from abroad, live
and breathe this project. They are no less than totally amazing!” she
said. She added, “They go back to Africa two - three times a year, they
are out there pounding the payment looking for donations, it is
all-consuming, they don’t get paid for this, they are going all of the
time!” This comes from a woman who has a full-time general medical
practice, a husband and two kids.
It’s not as if Akre and King
had a lot of spare time on their hands, either. Akre is married with one
son, daughter-in-law, two grandchildren and a mother who lives with
King is married with two grown sons and an 11-year-old who
has been to Africa with her on six trips.
It’s interesting to
observe how dominant the women are in this tale. From the Whatcom County
residents who saw a need and felt compelled to contribute their time,
skills and intelligence to the women of Ngomana who have taken advantage
of the opportunity to start businesses from micro-lending to tailoring
to weaving handbags.
Asked about it, Akre laughed ruefully.
“When the men earn money, they buy beer. The women use the money to
educate their children,” she said. Then her face brightened and she
said, “But it’s changing. They see what’s happening and they want to be a
part of it.”
If you want to be part of it, too, visit www.peikenya.org
As well, go to www.thenorthernlight.com
more photos of this important humanitarian effort being undertaken by
Whatcom County residents, people who are your neighbors and people who
are making a difference.