|Marie and some of the foundation’s beneficiaries. [PHOTOS: ELVIS OGINA/STANDARD]|
By LYDIA LIMBE
At first glance, Marie Omare seems like any other 25-year-old. Her shoulder-length dreadlocks sway from side to side as she chats, giggles and gesticulates on our drive to Kibera.
But when we get to the slum, and see the results of Marie’s labor of love, it is evident that she is an extraordinary young woman. Her Action Foundation supports children with special needs.
“We started this project in 2008, when I was at Kenyatta University (KU). Together with my classmates and campus friends, we would visit less fortunate communities, mainly to educate them on nutritional issues. Along the way, the project took on a life of its own,” says the bubbly girl.
What started as a part-time activity has become a life mission. Members of the original group fell off one by one, leaving only Marie to follow through on her home visits.
“After graduating with a degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from KU, I tried to get employment, just like everyone else, but I felt drawn to doing something more for the children. That is how Action Foundation was born.”
As simple as that. Marie accepted her destiny and set to work, providing a long-lasting solution to some of the health problems she had seen among the Kibera children. She was particularly pained by the way some special needs children were treated.
“During one of my home visits, I met a child who had cerebral palsy, and had been subjected to the worst form of treatment. This child was being kept under the bed so that no one would see him; he had sores all over. That is when I decided to do something for children with special needs,“ says Marie.
Armed with her unwavering love for children and a sense of purpose, Marie set about getting premises within Kibera, where parents would have easy access to information, training and help. She set up the centre three years ago.
With nothing but support from well-wishers, Action Foundation began to take root. This has become her full-time job — negotiating for support in various forms, as well as coordinating the increasing number of volunteers.
“We mostly handle children with cerebral palsy and autism. They come to our centre on a daily basis, and are taken care of by volunteers. We work with volunteers from the Special Education Professional (SEP) network, who assess the children, and train parents and guardians. Corporates and individuals also support us by donating food, equipment and toys.”
Personalised therapy, either speech or physical therapy, is administered once assessment has been done. The foundation admits children between the ages of two to 12.
Word of Marie’s work has spread fast in Kibera. Selina Kiminza is one of the many parents who are full of praise for Action Foundation.
“One day, while having my hair done, I mentioned to my hairdresser the challenges I was facing raising my daughter, Linnet Awinja, who has cerebral palsy. She introduced me to Prisca, from Action Foundation, who assured me that my daughter would be taken care of at the centre,” Selina says.
Three months down the line, the six-year-old is showing remarkable improvement. Initially, Linnet had not achieved many of the development milestones expected of a child her age; her fingers were clamped together, she could not sit, and she did not have variations of facial expressions. Her mother would hold her in her lap, and feed her the same way you would a six-month-old baby.
“Now she can grab and hold something, sit and even respond to music by nodding her head or flailing her arms,” says a smiling Selina.
Jemima Adhiambo has a similar story. Her eight-year-old son, Evans Otieno, also has cerebral palsy, and has been going to the Action Foundation centre for one year. Evans has received speech therapy, and undergone an operation on his leg. He is now able to walk, albeit a bit stiffly due to the wound.
Elvis is also among the five students that Marie was able to negotiate scholarship opportunities for at The Little Rock School — also in Kibera.
“Early intervention is important in helping children with special needs to become independent,” Marie says. “I chose to work in this community after seeing how the lack of information and money were contributing to the deterioration of the conditions of these children, and frustrating their mothers.”
Of course, working in a slum like Kibera has its fair share of challenges. One day, while Marie was escorting a group of volunteers from overseas, they were pounced on by a gang and robbed of their valuables. Luckily, a Good Samaritan came to their rescue before things turned ugly.
This angel was Nicholas Igara, who is now Action Foundation’s field officer. Being a resident of Kibera, he is conversant with the area, and doubles up as a guide and security guard for volunteers.
Prisca Akumu is also a resident of Kibera. She is a paid staff member and has been at the foundation since its inception.
“I’m physically challenged, too, so I understand what these children go through. Plus, I love children and derive immense pleasure from working with special needs children,” says Prisca.
At the centre, parents are expected to pay Sh20 a day or pay back in kind. Some offer to volunteer and help care for the children during the day, while others bring foodstuffs.
Parents are not only taught how to care for their children, but also how to make educational toys for them. You might think that these children need special, expensive toys, but Marie shows us toys made with locally available materials, such as beans, pegs, cardboard boxes and rope.
The place is neat and tidy, with a kitchen separate from the play area. On the wall in the kitchen is a Monday to Friday purely vegetarian menu. Initially, Marie used to do everything that appertains to running the centre, but she now has volunteers working with her in various capacities.
Prisca and Nick double up as mobilisation officers in Kibera. They speak to parents who have children with physical and mental disabilities and tell them about the centre. There is even a volunteer specifically for fundraising.
Marie hopes to open similar centres in other underprivileged communities in Kenya.