It was two years ago to the day on the Christian calendar that my family landed in Kenya – my wife, daughter and son for the first time. We landed with hopes of getting a rescue center for children who lived on the streets up and running. We had prayed and worked hard to make this center a reality, finding partners, donors, and a board of directors who could help sustain the project long-term. Later that month, our incredible staff recruited our first cohort of 34 children, and we launched the grand opening of Watoto wa Ahadi Rescue Center. It was meaningful for me that the first time our family should arrive in Kenya was on an Easter Sunday, though unplanned signified we were a part of God's effort to create something new – to create a way where there was no way.
In the intervening period, we have graduated that group of boys and 4 more. Thirty-four of the 38 who have gone through are successfully placed in homes or boarding schools. Four boys are back at the center, as their family situations presented more troubles than initially anticipated. We have now taken in an additional 40 children, who are in the process of rehabilitation and family retracing. All of the new children are aged 7-13 years old. The government of Kenya has a foundation – the Street Children Fund – that provided $20,000 to Sodzo International to begin a drop-in center where staff could get to know children. Through this center, we met boys older than 13 years of age – boys too old to return to school. The local leadership of Watoto wa Ahadi, comprised of Methodist synod leadership, and local tribal elders, collected funds to purchase for the older boys push carts that can be used to sell food. These older boys now alert our staff when younger boys have newly arrived on the streets, and our staff commence to conducting direct reintegration – retracing the families the children have left and working to sort out their problems. All told, we have had 78 children come through our rescue center, and even more benefit from out direct outreach on the street. Staff attended a workshop for recipients of the Street Children Fund, and government panelists voted that our model was the second best out of the 80 organizations that attended. We are hopeful we'll be able to continue getting funding to do direct street outreach with the children.
Our family strengthening program has continued to grow exponentially. We started with one group of 30 families in February 2017, with the hopes we might be able to improve the well-being of families of origin for children who come through our program and decrease the chances other children would leave for the streets. The model brings families together to share money each week, which is dispensed to other group members as a low-interest loan. The interest and corpus are paid back to the group, who then use the funds for other families. Families purchase livestock, clothes, seed and pay for school fees. Simultaneously, families learn to trust one another, and rely on each other for various hardships they go through. Groups make their own decisions about how to improve their lives. One group, for example, requires all group members to enroll all of their children in school. Another group pays for the school fees of one of the boys who returned home from the streets and our rescue center, and is helping to clear his mother's hospital bill. Another group learned to bake little breads when a member of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas came in September 2017 and taught them how to do so. This group has been baking and selling breads successfully ever since. We have grown to 3000 families in the program in the past 15 months with only 3 social workers organizing the program. We did not intend to grow this fast, but community members saw the difference happening with family strengthening groups, and eagerly asked that we help them begin their own group. Through a generous donation from Moody Methodist Permanent Endowment Fund, we are able to hire 3 more social workers and 5 resource officers. The resource officers will help family strengthening groups develop resources in 5 different areas – family conflict reduction (positive parenting + family communication skills), business development, crop production, maternal and child health, and early childhood development.
The plan for each of these 5 different "resource areas" is to train a core group of representatives from the family strengthening groups who belong to "resource committees." This core group will take back the knowledge and skills they learned in the resource committee from the resource officers to help disseminate skills, attitudes, and behaviors that will help strengthen the families even more. The model adapts another approach called "train-the-trainer" to help transform communities. Honestly, we have no idea if the intervention will work like we'd like. We've never seen this model exactly, but it makes sense to us. At this point, we're asking the question – how do we deepen the impact we can make with 3000 families (which grows every week) without paying for overhead we can't afford? We know the areas we want to make impact – food security, income growth, reduced family violence and stress, healthier lives from cradle to the grave, and a head start on academic success for the most vulnerable children. Keep us in your prayers, and we'll let you know how it turns out.
This Easter is special in its own way in the life of Sodzo International. We are making two new additions to the Sodzo family. First, Clark Early Childhood Development Center has been operating in Meru County, Kenya since 2012. They provide quality education to over 400 children ranging from 3 years up through 6th grade. Because of our similar mission to advance the well-being of the world's most vulnerable children, we have made the decision to merge our organizations. Clark ECD is now a full part of the Sodzo family, and we are honored to be able to serve these beautiful children and help them get the best start on life possible. Second, Aleisha Elliott joins us for at least a year. Aleisha is working on her PhD in Epidemiology and is a committed disciple of Jesus Christ. Out of her reverence for Christ, she is coming to serve the families in Meru County as our Director of Research. She'll be conducting her dissertation while she works with us, helping us understand and improve the quality of our programs. Please remain in prayer for Aleisha and Clark ECD as we move forward together.
One thing we remember as we celebrate Easter is God's faithfulness. Darkness, despair and destitution do not hold sway over the power of Christ, giving birth to light, hope and restoration in the most surprising circumstances. Thank you for continuing to journey with us as we seek to express God's undying love for the most vulnerable children and families we can find. Happy Easter. The Lord is Risen!