Friday, September 18, 2009

Humble Hearts, Electrified Intellects

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Wow! That was my reaction when first seeing Humble Hearts School in Nairobi, Kenya. After walking through a market of nailed-together vegetable stalls, dashing across a traffic-clogged roundabout, walking down a dirt path through some concrete works, passing by rag pickers salvaging scraps from trash, stepping across some rusty railroad tracks with the slum rooster crowing back over our right shoulder, and gingerly stepping across the puddles formed by old water and recent garbage, Humble Hearts (HH) was in front of us.

Upon walking through the front gate, I knew that HH has a student enrollment of about 300 pupils from pre-school through high school. I knew that it had grown from about 150 students three years ago when it moved to this site, and I knew that its managing director is a quiet, unassuming dynamo of a lady named Beatrice Anunda who grew up in Nairobi. But what popped the “Wow!” into my head was the small size of the place and the fact that it is constructed entirely of used corrugated iron sheeting nailed with a decidedly "can do!" attitude over frameworks of 2-3" poles that were saplings not so long ago.

Yes, the roofs leak when it rains and the tiny courtyard of stones and dirt undoubtedly turns to mud, but, oh, the spirit! It's palpable when you walk into the courtyard and hear the enthusiasm emanating from within each classroom and see the learning taking place therein. At recess, we felt like rock stars as the smaller kids welcomed us by bouncing on our arms, laughing, and enthusiastically embracing these strangers.

Humble Hearts has no electricity, at least of the conventional kind. Lighting is entirely by solar—whatever filters into each classroom through an open door or window or through the occasional crack between roof and wall. But HH does have electricity of another kind—that of the human spirit being awakened by learning!

For, you see, it was immediately apparent that it's not the buildings that make a school, but the quality of the people and HH has it in spades! During subsequent days, getting to know the teachers, staff, and students, that initial reaction was confirmed again and again.

Humble Hearts began in 2003 as a school for the deaf with nine students ranging in age from 4-1/2 to 13 years of age. Founder Beatrice Anunda (affectionately called "Teacher Beatrice" by the kids), who has an education degree from Nairobi University, somehow found out that there were numbers of deaf children in the poorer areas of the city who never attended school. In many cases, it was even worse than that: because of the shame felt by the families of the deaf, they are often kept at home, out of view of the community, and allowed only very limited social contact. And deafness is more prevalent among the tropical poor because of the ravages of diseases like malaria, meningitis, and encephalitis.

So Beatrice decided to do something about it and started Humble Hearts School for the Deaf, initially funding it out of her own pocket. In 2004 she began accepting siblings of the deaf so they could learn to communicate with their deaf brothers and sisters. Soon after, she began accepting other children from the surrounding slums who were unable to attend school, so today HH has grown to about 50 deaf and 250 hearing students.

So, how is it that my wife and I were walking in the front gates of HH one Tuesday morning in September? Well, that's where Angel Covers (AC) comes in. AC is a small NGO (non-government organization or non-profit) headquartered in Westminster, Colorado. It’s mission is “caring for orphaned and destitute children around the world”.

AC raises money through local fundraisers, online donations, grants, sales of child-related products on its website, and a child sponsorship program. Profits from website sales cover unavoidable overhead costs (for example, fees on credit card donations), so it operates with 0% overhead on all donated funds: every penny goes to supported programs. (Director Kari even pays for AC’s phone line into her home office!)

Coincidently, AC was founded about the same time as HH and after about a year somehow got introduced to Beatrice; AC has been supporting HH ever since. Once a year, Kari travels to HH for a week and takes along any volunteers who want to pay their own way and work in a slum for a week. So we signed up.

In addition to Kari and us (Jill and Byron from Arvada, Colorado), Ivan from Barcelona, Spain, joined us in our volunteer week. Ivan had found AC on the web, has been sponsoring a student, and decided to take three weeks in Kenya, about half of which he spent working at Humble Hearts with us. We painted desks and dorms and shot school photos of each student for their permanent record and for sponsorship on the AC website. Jill is a nurse, so she did medical and eye exams of all 300 students with able assistance from Ivan and administered medical treatments as needed. Byron started a database to hold all the school records on three donated laptops and Ivan taught the kids some soccer (“football” outside the U.S.). And we took about half the kids on a morning outing to downtown Nairobi, sponsored by Chris, Kari’s brother from New York, who happened to be in town on other business.

Angel Covers isn’t a religious organization. It’s just a bunch of people who think all kids should be given a shot at success, regardless of historical or geographic accident. It’s a “virtual” organization enabled by the internet with volunteers scattered around the world who work together as a team, each doing their part. There’s director Kari in Westminster, Colorado, Ida in Texas who coordinates with sponsors, Angela in California and Nicole in China who coordinate AC’s Tibetan program, Jane in the UK who heads Angel Covers UK, Karen in Illinois who heads the Mama’s Wish program, Judy in western Colorado who handles the finances, Chris in New York who is helping to start an accounting apprenticeship program at HH, Diana in Fort Collins, CO, Lucy in New York, and all the people around the world who contribute small amounts and who sponsor children at HH and the other schools and orphanages in developing countries that AC supports.

AC runs a website ( on which people can select a child to sponsor at HH (only $20/month, Visa or MC autocharge cheerfully accepted). We had found Meldon about a year ago, a very serious, perhaps even sad-looking second grader, judging from her on-line photo, and signed up as sponsors. We sent her a couple
of small books for Christmas and, before too long, received a photo by email of Meldon holding the two books! (Still looking very serious!). Last spring, at the end of the school year, what should appear in our email but her report card and a short, very neat, hand-written note from her thanking us for our sponsorship. And the report card was all As and Bs. Somehow, I felt like a proud father all over again! Meldon wants to be a pilot

But--the real payoff was in meeting Meldon in person. Yes, she’s somewhat serious and shy, but over the course of a few days, that hidden smile began to appear more and more. And, strangely, at recess time as we were doing work at the school, I'd turn around and there was Meldon with friends sneaking a look at these strange-looking foreigners. Well, needless to say, even though we don't speak too many words of the same language, we became friends, exchanging communication with eyes and smiles.

So, back to Humble Hearts. From its humble (yes, no other word would do!) beginnings, it has now grown to educating kids with three pre-school classes (baby class starting at age 4, nursery, and pre-unit), classes 1-8 which correspond to grades 1-8 in the U.S. and Forms I-III which correspond to grades 9-11 in the U.S. In January (school years begin in January), HH will add Form IV (senior year in the U.S.) to accommodate about a dozen form III students being promoted. All primary students wear mostly-matching purple uniforms which the school has had sewn by local tailors and which have become a widely recognized trademark in the neighborhood. Secondary students (Form I-IV) wear white and plaid uniforms. Most kids only have one uniform which is used throughout the week. Teachers all dress smartly with some of the male senior teachers in crisp shirt and tie and occasionally a vest—professional all the way!

Now, with very limited resources, is an education from HH second-rate? Absolutely not! Kids attend school from 8:00am to 5:00pm Mon-Fri with a half day on Saturday. Students who finish class 8 take a standard government exam to be sure they’re ready to begin Form I (high school freshman), and Form IV graduates must pass a government-standard exam to get their diploma. And, HH stacks up well nationally, too. When we visited, it had just had one of its students (Sarah) place second in the Solo National Verse competition in Mombasa and a delegation of HH’s deaf students had placed second in a category called “choral verse” where the deaf students sign a verse of poetry to convey meaning and emotion. No, even though located in the midst of poverty, there is no poverty of the spirit at Humble Hearts!

To give a further idea of the astounding amount of value for money being created at HH, the school has an operating budget of less than US$50,000 per year. That includes a school lunch program (usually rice and beans with some vegetables) so the kids get at least one hot meal per day; every kid also gets one serving of Ensure each week to prevent nutritional deficiencies. There is at least one teacher per class with several being qualified to teach the deaf. One is nearly moved to paraphrase Churchill: “Never has so much been accomplished for so many with so little.”

HH benefits from a big oversupply of teachers in Kenya, so it is able to attract highly-qualified individuals willing to work in the slum for about a third the salary paid by government schools. So, here’s the situation: oversupply of teachers, oversupply of children not getting an education, undersupply of schools; HH is helping to fill the gap, and is doing so with excellence.

But, that’s not all! Some 35 of the deaf students come from other parts of the city and have no means of transportation, so they’re housed by HH in dormitories. How is this possible on almost no budget? Here’s the really amazing part. Beatrice’s mother, Dorene, has built girls’ and boys’ dormitory buildings in her back yard from used corrugated iron and saplings. With the help of a couple of staff members, she houses and feeds these kids year-round. Yes, it’s very crowded with double and triple bunking, but it works. The dorms are called Angel Cottage.

Relief is on the way, though. For the last several years AC has been raising funds to build a proper dormitory facility and it’s steadily been under construction as funds allow. We visited the construction site which is in a much better neighborhood than HH and, again, it blew my socks off!

Total cost when complete will be about US$90,000 and fundraising and construction are about 85% complete. There are two buildings, one for dorms and one for kitchen and dining facilities. They total more than 8500 square feet in area which works out to a construction cost of just over US$10.00 per square foot, very cost-effective in any country! In keeping the costs low, much credit must be given to Nixon Anunda, Beatrice’s brother, who has been functioning as general contractor and has worked closely with the contracted engineer in design. He has hired, fired and supervised laborers on a daily basis to assure no shortcuts have been taken in the quality of work. Construction, indeed, appears to be very sound.

Buildings are of cement block with smooth plastered walls on the interior; the exterior will be finished to resemble finished stone block in the same manner as the middle class housing rising all around it, very attractive. Initially, the facility will have space for about 80 students. Foundations have been engineered to support the addition of as many as nine more stories, so there is the possibility for it to house classes in the upper floors and become a major institution in the area. This facility is also called Angel Cottage which will replace the old one in Dorene’s back yard.

Word was received at posting time that the last $13,500 has just been raised with a grant, so the first kids are expected to move in in November!

We spent a day at the new Angel Cottage site with about 50 upper class students to apply the first coat of paint to the interior plaster surfaces, and we got ‘er done! It was really heartening to see so many young people working so hard. After we had been at it for several hours, I walked into one of the large rooms and here were a dozen or so boys up on makeshift ladders sanding and painting and enthusiastically singing a resounding chorus of “I Have a Good Life”. Next door three girls were harmonizing in another song, truly beautiful.

So, in walking back across the dusty railroad tracks for the last time on this trip, what is one to make of all this? Well, certainly one lesson is that seemingly impossible things can be accomplished through the dedication of one or two talented individuals and help from many others who share the vision. Another is that with a supportive learning environment, even kids from very marginalized backgrounds can have that spark of intellect ignited and achieve astounding levels of achievement even with almost no physical resources.

And, in a larger sense, it validates what the rest of the world is just beginning to learn about aid to developing countries. Some trillion dollars has been poured into African aid by governments over the last 50 years and it has produced no discernable increase in living standards because of corruption, incompetence, and waste. The UN, IMF, and NGOs of the world are beginning to see that it is the tiny grass-roots efforts of organizations like Humble Hearts, Angel Covers, Kiva, and Vipani that produce results. Now, where do we go from here?

Additional photos at