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A Life-Changing Experience For Our Family

When we opened apple seeds in 2007, our older boys, Sam and Ari, were 2 years old (Dov, our youngest, was not even a twinkle in our eye). My husband, Craig, and I were having conversations probably similar to many other parents...

How best to teach our kids gratitude? When should we really start to expose them to the world around them? Although we realized that Sam and Ari were probably still too young to internalize these life lessons, we did not anticipate that a chance introduction at apple seeds would build the perfect foundation for our entire family to organically learn so much about gratitude and love while appreciating the similarities and the differences in this world. 

Samantha Broder, and her boyfriend (now husband) Brandon Rigoli, both worked at apple seeds. They told us about a non-profit organization that Samantha’s brother, Brad, had recently co-founded called Kenya Education Fund (KEF). After college, Brad joined the Peace Corps and was struck by the fact that half of all school-aged Kenyans could not afford to continue their education after elementary school. He joined forces with Dominic Muasya, a local community leader, to establish KEF to provide scholarships to students across Kenya so that they could stay in high school to graduation, transition to university and gain meaningful employment.  Brad and Dominic strongly believed that the cycles of poverty and dependency could be disrupted with access to quality education for all.

Craig and I had visited South Africa before our boys were born and had witnessed firsthand exactly what Brad verbalized to us. He and Dominic were securing their first scholarship sponsors for students and based on what Brad knew about our family and what he knew about a KEF applicant named Winnie, thought we would be a great match. He gave us a picture and her first letter. In it, Winnie told us a bit about herself. It was filled with a list of the books she liked, her hobbies, her siblings’ names and ages, gratitude and joy.

Her letter said she was from Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa. It took awhile for us to understand that calling Kibera a slum is not an insult. It is a fact. The Kenyan government owns the land but does not provide Kibera's residents with basic services – like running water, proper roads or electricity. The area is overcrowded, with people living in extreme poverty - making less than $1 a day. The walls and roofs of homes are made of corrugated metal and wood, the floors are made of mud. Residents get water from 2 main pipes and then have to boil it for safe use. Bathroom areas have been set up by local entrepreneurs outside homes and are shared with approximately 100 other people...for a cost. There is no sewage system or garbage collection and both build up steadily in all the alleys between where people live. In Kibera, people struggle to meet their basic needs (shelter, water, food, clothing, education, sanitation, healthcare) on a daily basis. Despite these challenges, Winnie found her way to KEF’s offices, filled out an application for high school, took the entrance exam and thanks to KEF, she was entering her freshman year of high school and could not have been more excited. 

For the first few years of our relationship, I would write letters to Winnie and Sam and Ari would draw pictures. Winnie would send back letters and pictures of her own.

We sent details of our life in NYC and printed out photos of our family so that she knew what we all looked like. She kept us updated on her classes, and her family, and Brad would send us photos of Winnie in her school uniform.

As Sam and Ari got older they started writing their own letters – which now included details about their new brother, Dov. Sometimes it would take months to get our notes back and forth to each other. Winnie started to borrow the KEF computer to email us so that we could communicate more efficiently. During the first four years of being pen pals, we learned so much about Winnie, her family, her life, Kibera and her aspirations to be a nurse. She specifically wanted to work with children. As she got closer to graduation from high school, we spoke to Brad about her future. He said that he was confident Winnie could get into a university for nursing and that KEF could help her with applications and admissions. After years of hard work, filling out forms and taking her entrance exams – Winnie was accepted to Kenya Medical Training College.

For the next four years, Winnie worked her tail off in nursing school. She studied hard and took her field work extremely seriously. She spent 6 months working in a very rural area of Kenya within a tribe that did not speak English, Swahili or her mother tongue, Luhya. She learned to communicate with them, administered rabies and malaria shots and provided education to patients regarding both. During college, her favorite rotation was labor and delivery - helping to deliver babies. We kept up the letter writing, but at her university Winnie had more regular access to a computer so our communication became much faster and more frequent. She emailed us pictures of herself in class and in the field – really helping us to understand what her days looked like.

Sam, Ari and Dov would help write our emails back and attach family pictures of what we had most recently done. During those four years we made two attempts to bring Winnie to the US so that we could spend a summer together. Both of those attempts were denied by immigration in Kenya.

In December of 2016, Winnie graduated from college. We were so proud and sat in awe of all she had accomplished.

Around that time, our business partner and one of our closest friends, Alison Qualter Berna, was traveling to Nairobi. We connected her to Winnie so that they could meet. Our first face-to-face call with Winnie was during that trip, on Alison’s phone, using FaceTime at 3am. We sent Alison with a tablet to give Winnie so that we could use it to speak and (finally) see each other whenever we wanted. The first time that Sam, Ari and Dov FaceTimed with Winnie they were so excited they ran outside our apartment to show her all the taxis on 5th Avenue and the Empire State Building. Once Winnie had the tablet, and then her own phone, it took our communication with one another to the next level -- for the past 2 1/2 years we have used WhatsApp to text, send pictures or videos or just quickly check in on the day-to-day. 

After graduation, while Winnie waited for her exam results and nursing certificate to come through, she volunteered at Coptic Mission Hospital administering medicine and giving injections and New Life Home Trust - rescuing and caring for abandoned and neglected babies. Once she was certified, New Life Home Trust offered Winnie a job. She is currently one of 7 nurses at the home. She rotates between the newborn unit, babies and toddlers. 3 nights a month she does an overnight shift in the NICU. Because of our 7-hour time difference this is a great time for us to video chat. During our calls, Winnie has toured us around the facility and introduced us to the babies. She fills out their medical forms with at least one of them on her lap at all times. When we speak, it is the middle of the night for her, but she is lit from within. She was born for her work. When her shifts are over she goes home to Kibera where she lives with parents, her siblings and their children.

This summer Craig, Sam, Ari, Dov and I took a trip to Kenya to visit Winnie. We had been intimately involved in each other’s lives for 11 years and we desperately wanted to meet in person and spend quality time together. We went to Kenya for 3 weeks and spent 2 of them non-stop with Winnie. The timing worked out for us to meet Winnie for the first time at New Life Home Trust.  We were all a bundle of nerves and excitement waiting for her to come to reception to get us. It was hard to believe it was finally happening. Seeing her for the first time was magical.

Once she stopped spinning the boys around she toured us around the facility and we got to meet all the babies we had heard so much about and seen during our calls. We witnessed in person how attached they are to her and she to them. After work we went to meet Winnie's family and see where they all live. Winnie walked us through Kibera to where her parents and youngest brother, Bradley Joshua, live. From the minute we walked in every single member of Winnie’s family completely embraced us. There was so much joy and love in the air. It was such a high to all be together after so much time. Over the next few days we got to spend time with 6 of Winnie’s 7 siblings, her 2 nieces, father and incredible mother. We got to hear about their lives, understand their goals, see their strength and the closeness they share. We visited a KEF school in Kibera and Winnie’s high school in another area of the city.

On our fourth day together, Craig, Sam, Ari, Dov, Winnie and I left Nairobi to go to Watamu, on the coast of Kenya, to spend a week’s vacation at the Indian Ocean. Our time there together was so special. We toured ruins, went fishing and kayaking and celebrated Winnie's 28 birthday. Winnie saw and swam in the ocean for the first time and we had the time and space to ask every question under the sun, removing any trace of distance created by living 7,350 miles apart.

Winnie is one of the strongest, most joyful people we have ever met. Sam, Ari & Dov say there is no one nicer. It has been one of the biggest gifts in our lives to have such a close relationship with Winnie. We have all been deeply affected in the best ways possible -- to know her experiences and her character, to be both moved and inspired by her achievements, to love her and to be loved by her. We consider each other family. Winnie calls Sam, Ari and Dov her brothers and, with the utmost respect for her real mother and father, affectionately calls me and Craig, Mum and Dad. We have learned so much from each other and like any other beautiful relationship, I think we would all agree that we have each gotten more than we have given. 

One of the things we have learned, through Kenya Education Fund and Winnie, is how vital education is. It is the only pathway out of poverty and into a life of hope and opportunity. We’ve also learned that affording education means more than getting past the first hurdle of being able to pay school fees. It means affording pencils, notebooks, school uniforms, exam fees and sanitary napkins for girls. These all become barriers to getting an education. Without education there is no chance to thrive – which should be every child’s right. Kenya Education Fund believes that. That is why they exist. KEF has been working for over a decade to make that right a reality for as many kids in Kenya as possible. So far they have provided scholarships for over 3,000 students. Thankfully, they are not stopping anytime soon - but it takes a village.

·       Provide a student like Winnie with an education - $750 a year ($63 a month).
·       50% of KEF students have sponsors but the other 50% are put through school from general donations making donations of any amount extremely helpful.
·       $50 helps provide school uniforms for KEF Scholars.
·       $75 helps 3 girls with a year supply of sanitary pads.
·       $100 helps purchase school supplies and textbooks.

If you would like to learn more about KEF or donate -- please visit their website at Kenya Education Fund. You can also follow them on FacebookInstagram or Twitter

Check out this special message from Allison 
Allison Schlanger is one of the co-founders of apple seeds and songs for seeds. Feel free to reach out to her at aschlanger@appleseedsplay.com for more info.


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  2. Alli....what a stunning story! Such admiration for how you have raised your boys and how much you've given and received in this family relationship.

    Much love and respect. Hugs forever.

    1. Missy -
      I LOVE seeing your name here. Thank you so much for your loving words. I really need to hear about your life adventure - take notes -- and go! You are amazing.