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How success is directly tied to inner peace


You have perhaps at one point of your life worked a tedious job that sucked the life out of you every minute of the day. A job where the work needed zero creativity - in fact a computer could have done it. But even in this bleak situation, you had a chance to find that one activity that got you excited... that gave your life a sense of meaning.

Unfortunately, not all of us have the guts to follow where our inner voice is leading us. Maria Omare is one of those few Kenyans who took a leap of faith.

At 21, Maria Omare’s life changed forever, “My first encounter with disabled children was in university, when I volunteered as a nutritionist in a special olympics event. It made me question where I had been all my life,” she says.

“After that, I got to participate in an even bigger event in Mathare slums, where I discovered the big disparity for children with disability. I heard of kids with disability being locked up in a room (not a nice room with a television... most likely under a bed),” she says.

Most of us, after making such a discovery would probably shake our heads, blame the government and move on to address our personal issues.

But Maria with the energy and chutzpah normally associated with youth, decided to start an organisation to help children with disability in Kibera slum. “We started with virtually nothing, I had just finished my compulsory internship and I wanted to build something that would outlive me,” she says.

She then got together with some like-minded friends from Kenyatta University. “I shared my vision with the board and they asked how we were going to do this and I said, ‘Let’s just start.’ Then they asked how we were going to find the children and I repeated, ‘Let’s just start,’ “ Maria says, laughing, “they thought I was crazy but agreed to support the initiative.”

Just like that, The Action Foundation was born. The immediate problem was to find a premises in Kibera, which was easier said than done. “The community treated me with suspicion because there are many organisations in this area and not all of them do what they say they are going to do,” she says.

Eventually, Maria found a place, “We actually opened this centre with a Sh5,000 donation from myself and the other board members of the foundation,” she says.

 They literally scraped together the little they had because some were still students while others had just graduated. “I remember looking at the empty room and thinking, ‘What the hell did I get myself into? What if I fail? Everyone will laugh at me,’ “ Maria says.

Luckily, she has supportive parents and siblings, who encouraged her to keep going. “I got two plastic chairs from my mother then bought a Sh50 padlock and locked the house. It was scary because I knew what I wanted to do but did not know how to mobilise the children.”

Then she got an idea to organise an art event, because it was April holidays, as a way of publicising the centre. “We had a budget of Sh60,000 for meals, art supplies, and volunteers’ stipends to run the art event for two weeks,” Maria says adding that they asked parents to register their children and within three days, they had more than 30 children registered, which meant they had to look for more money.

So everyone in the team sold stickers for Sh100, 200, 500 but less than five days to the event they had only raised Sh5,000. “I thought this is when the naysayers are going to feel vindicated.

Luckily one of our board members, Dalmas, a person living with disability, had shared the poster of the event with his networks and we actually got a call from the Marketing Manager of Village Market with just days to the event.”

It was Maria’s first pitch meeting. Unfortunately she had been walking up and down looking for cheap art supplies to make use of the Sh5,000. “So I showed up for that very serious meeting dusty, tired and with hardly any pitching experience. Surprisingly, the Village Market team gave us the rest of the money. That was our very first major funding,” she says.

The event was a success because some parents who always kept their children locked up fearing they could not relate were seeing their children for the first time interacting with people. While others were seeing their children, performing simple tasks like holding a pen also for the first time.

“It was very powerful for both the parents and the kids. They saw the changes that had taken place in just two weeks and wanted to see what would happen over a longer period, so they asked if the children could be coming daily,” Maria says.

Maria’s initial idea was for the kids to come once or twice a week but since the parents wanted something more regular she agreed but with no idea how she would raise the money to keep the centre functional. So to reduce the costs Maria tried a bold move, “I told the parents to volunteer to look after the children and that’s how the daycare services started.”

Even though the parents were volunteering, the costs of keeping the place open were still high. “It was an extremely difficult time of my life. The board was very young and could not afford to donate huge sums of money so we were just able to pay rent and I had to buy milk and bread for the children daily,” Maria narrates.

“Some kids also needed medication and physiotherapy because some parents were relying solely on me. So I got extremely broke. I had asked everyone in my phone book to the point people were afraid to answer my phone calls. Sometimes, I would just turn up at their office. I was that crazy. But ultimately I could not sustain it,” she says.

Then literally at her wits end, Maria decided to close the centre just for a few months. She called the parents and broke the news.

“They did not allow me to close the centre. All the parents were in agreement. They said they would donate their meagre resources... so one donated maize meal flour, another beans and yet another volunteered to come in everyday to cook,” Maria says. She gets tears in her eyes, still deeply touched by the generosity of these people who have very little.

Days later, fortunately, a cheque came in from a well-wisher for exactly the amount needed to pay the rest of the expenses. So the centre stayed open.

After this experience, Maria decided to apply for funding. “The Akili Dada programme gave me the expertise to run the organisation in a more professional manner and it also gave me seed funding so we were able to get more supplies like special chairs for the kids. It also gave me a stipend to survive and increased my confidence as a leader by exposing me to different opportunities.”

Apart from the daycare centre, the foundation also has a rehabilitation and care programme for children living with disabilities.

“The economic component came up when we realised it was difficult for some parents to meet the basic needs of their kids so we got them together and formed a group. Now they are doing table banking where they save and lend money to one another,” Maria explains.

Now, Maria is trying to raise money to build a bigger centre. “Through generous donations, we were able to secure land for the centre in Kibera. The goal for having the new space is to help even more kids access the daycare, therapy and medical services.”

“I don’t do this because I could not get a job. I am a book worm, I went to Kianda High School and was actually on the Dean’s List at Kenyatta University, so I could have got a really good job,” says the Moi Educational Centre alumna.

“So I had to ask myself what success means to me, and after a lot of soul-searching, I realised success for me was not about the car I drive, the phone I have. It’s not a world based on material things; success means being at peace with myself and inspiring change in others and The Action Foundation does that for me,”  she adds.

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