Helping Kenyan Women Dream Big

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From Newport to Nairobi

 

A Newport Beach based charity is helping pave the road to success for college girls in Kenya.

Agano with Kenya, a charity in its debut year, has sponsored its first 10 girls their first year of college, an opportunity they otherwise probably wouldn’t have gotten if it weren’t for the organization.

“They’re walking a fine line,” said Jene Meece, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Agano with Kenya. “Either they go to college or they’re back in the streets… Living in poverty.”

(left to right) Meece’s daughter, Breanna, a senior at UCLA, Agano with Kenya students, Miriam and Pascaline, and Meece in front of Catholic University School of Nursing.

Meece just got back from Africa, where she met the girls in the program, started some new community service projects with them, documented her trip and conducted video interviews, and visited the universities the girls were attending.

“I am watching Agano with Kenya change lives,” Meece said. “And that has changed my life.”

Meece plans on being there at least once a year and will probably take groups of donors to visit as well.

There are 10 girls currently in the program, six are in college already and four will be starting in the next few months.

“Ten young women who had no hope of continuing their education in Kenya are now attending five different universities,“ Meece wrote in an email. “These young ladies epitomize the New Face of Kenya.”

They’re studying law, finance, business, information technology, nursing and more. One wants to be a member of parliament, one wants to work in anti-corruption, another wants to open a medical clinic, Meece said, and they all have big dreams.

“They’ve got this burning drive,” Meece said, and Agano with Kenya will help them achieve their dreams.

The word “agano” means covenant, pact or agreement in Swahili. The use of a Swahili word is significant because in ten years, operations of Agano with Kenya will move to Kenya and be run by Kenyans, according to the organization’s website.

The organization started as an idea last September, Meece said. The organization started raising money through founding benefactors earlier this year. Her goal was to raise $5,000 from each of the 10 benefactors in order to fund the girls through the first year.

The founding members also donated enough money to pay all the administrative costs.

She met some of the girls through another organization she’s been involved with for many years, the African Child Foundation. The ACF is jointly based out of Kenya, Africa, and Newport Beach. The organization supports Father Henry Simaro in his efforts to transform the lives of Kenyan orphans and vulnerable children through education, clean water, shelter, nutrition and medicine.

Father Henry and Meece planting trees in Kenya.

The African Child Foundation has built four elementary schools and Mount Olive Girls Middle School.

Mount Olive gives them a safe haven, Meece said, where the kids can have food, clean water, shelter and an education.

It’s important to Meece and Father Henry to keep the schools private and keep the government out of the program. Accepting anything from the government, like money or a teacher or anything, can compromise the integrity of the program. It’s important that the school is self-sustaining.

About 50 percent of the students at Mount Olive are sponsored while the other half are paying students. The tuition helps the school pay for itself, Meece said. Father Henry also grows all his own vegetables and owns farm animals for food.

Father Henry working in the garden at Mount Olive. The girls stay here when home from college. They work in the kitchen and harvest the vegetables during their time off.

“Father Henry is the rock in Kenya that makes this program work,” Meece said.

He helps them find housing, get schoolbooks or school related material, deal with any issues that arise, and supports them in every way possible.

The African Child Foundation is also providing private boarding school education to high school girls.

“ACF raised money for the kids up through high school,” Meece said.

The first group of girls from the foundation were testing for college and there was a new need for money to help give the girls a college education, and Agano with Kenya was started.

“I didn’t just want to throw money at girls to go to college,” Meece said. “I’d give them the money if they give back. There had to be some kind of partnership [between the organization and the girls].”

They sign the agano and agree to stick with the program for ten years, Meece said.

Agano with Kenya commits to the decade-long agreement with orphaned college aged girls, sponsoring their education, offering internships and helping kick-start their career. The organization’s leaders also offer encouragement and guidance. In return, the girls do community service and help “pay it forward” to the next generation of girls entering the program.

The first four years the girls go to college and do community service.

After college, Agano with Kenya will place them into internships in the U.S. that are in their field of study and transferable back to Kenya.

“The goal is for them to get U.S. experience for a year,” Meece said. “It’s not easy to get a job in Kenya, even with a college degree. But if you’ve got experience in the United States, that’s going to open up a lot more job opportunities.”

The company taking the intern has to pay for the airfare for their girl and Agano with Kenya takes care of the rest, Meece said. She will also ask each company that takes on  an intern to give Agano with Kenya $5,000 to sponsor the next round of college girls.

Meece and Agano with Kenya student, Miriam, before she returned to nursing school.

For the next five years, Agano with Kenya will help them get a career going and the girls will pay 10 percent of their salary back to the organization to help fund the next generation of girls entering the program. The career women will also need to find one donor a year in Kenya and begin to do some administrative work for Agano with Kenya, so the organization can begin to move over there.

“I’m trying to get them to be a part of the organization,” Meece said.

There is also an incentive program for the girls to stay in the program after college. They get $100 put into a bank account for them at the end of every year, but they can’t touch it until the end of the 10-year agreement.

“It’s almost self-savings because they’re giving us 10 percent and we’re giving them $100,” Meece said. “Basically, they’re getting two messages there: To stick with the program and to give back.”

A gala event to celebrate the organization’s debut year and raise money for the upcoming college year for the girls is planned for Nov. 5 at Shady Canyon Golf Club in Irvine. It will be a great event, Meece said.

Meece brought back hours and hours of video of her experience in Kenya. She is putting together a video for A Gala for Agano.

She is looking for lots of fun fundraisers next year. In 2012, she will be focusing on raising money to help get the girls through the rest of college.

In Kenya, more often than not, Meece said, if there is any money in the family that can go toward education, it goes to the boys in the family.

That’s why Agano with Kenya is focusing on the girls, she said.

“If you educate the girls, you educate the family,” Meece said.

They’re breaking the cycle of poverty, they’re changing their lives, they’re ultimately changing the lives of their future family, and they’re going to change Kenya, Meece said.

But they’re not excluding the boys, she added, but for the moment the program is focusing on creating future professional, educated and successful women.

“[After meeting the girls,] I’ve discovered something you’d never find in the states,” Meece said. “And that is that college is life or death [in Kenya,] living a life or slowly dying from having no hope.”

A Gala for Agano will be held at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 5 at Shady Canyon Golf Club in Irvine. The event will feature cocktails, dinner and a silent auction. The event is to celebrate the organization’s first year of success and to raise money for the current girls’ sophomore year and the next generation’s freshman year. Tickets can be purchased online at www.aganowithkenya.org.

Visit www.aganowithkenya.org to donate to Agano with Kenya or to find out more information.

Read the Indy’s first story about Meece’s trip here, and the second story about the rest of her trip here.

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