I am always blown away when I get to witness Daraja Academy an its environs through a visitors eyes – when that visitor is family, it becomes that much more meaningful. Maggie Gaughran is my 22 year old cousin, she was named after my maternal grandmother Margaret Higgins Doherty, who like many Kenyan women worked too hard and died too young. She is the daughter of my fathers younger sister. Her mother Kathleen and father Steve have been instrumental in the launching of Daraja Academy, their loving support is part of the reason the school was able to open in 2009 as opposed to 2010.
Though I was proud of the contribution that Maggie was making to the local community and a sucker for any cause that helps our battalion of 3 foot tall, smiling, snot covered balls of happiness – I was totally unaware of the impact she was making until I started eavesdropping on the conversations of my staff. “Maggie is doing God’s work,” Ruth told the other cooks as she paid special attention to her breakfast plate. “When I returned to the village after work yesterday, my neighbors all thanked me for bringing Maggie to Mara Moja,” Rhoda bragged to me before paying her one of the biggest compliments possible, “she is like a twin sister to Olivia.” (Volunteer Olivia Capra left campus over 1 month ago, but the marks she made upon it and all of our hearts are indelible.)
Enjoy Maggie’s account of her outreach to the special children of Pastor John’s orphanage. Though incredible, it is only a fraction of the impact she has made while at Daraja, in a few days please read about the 2 day American Heart Association “Heart Saver” clinic she taught to all 26 Daraja Academy students – C.P.R. dummies, certification card and all!
Enjoy, Jason Doherty
Maggie with the children at the Mara Moja Orphanage
Since arriving in Africa, I have found that the most memorable experience have been the unplanned. I knew when I got here that there would be a two week period when the girls would be away from Daraja Academy. I had planned on volunteering at a clinic or hospital while they were gone. Medicine is my passion, so it seemed the logical place to go. It was not until I crossed paths with the “pants less boy” that I realized what it was I really needed to do here. I saw him standing at the Daraja rock, a 3 foot high rock with “DARAJA ACADEMY” painted in big blue letters over a white background. This little boy was wearing a very dirty, faded red sweater and no pants. That night I dreamt about him and some of the other village children I had seen, covered in dust, with bugs crawling on their faces, I saw them every time I closed my eyes. I could not stop thinking about this child, so dirty, seemingly helpless. But to my surprise he screamed, “How are you” as we drove by. He was genuinely happy.
I decided maybe I should try volunteering at an orphanage. Someone mentioned that there was one only minutes from Daraja, so we made the calls and set up a time to meet. As Jenni and I walked up to the compound, we could see children running around. There were twenty-six children, between the ages of three and twenty-two. The orphanage is run by a man known as Pastor John. He and his wife take care of all the children, six who are his own. I was so impressed by his selflessness; I knew this was where I would want to spend my time.
The next morning I woke up early and tried to prepare myself. I was nervous to go alone, but I tried to remind myself that this was not about me. As I walked alone to Mara Moja Orphanage, I felt as if I was about to go on a first date. What if they didn’t like me? What if they didn’t want my help? My silly fears were squashed the moment I arrived. The children came to greet me, and immediately put me to work. First I helped to wash the breakfast dishes. The cooking is done completely with fire, and most of the pots were black with soot. I scrubbed as hard as I could but it still took hours. Then they told me to hop up on a donkey so we could go fetch water from the river. I thought they were joking, but they were not. So I hopped up on that donkey and got on my way. I was shocked that these children were going to drink water directly from the river, but they insisted that their bodies had adapted.
The most memorable moment came when a three year old girl was examining my hands. She looks so confused, and I asked someone to tell me what she was saying in Swahili. She said “why are your hands so clean and ours so dirty”. My heart sank down to my stomach, but at that moment another little girl bent down to grab some dirt. She proceeded to take the dirt and rub it all over my legs. She took a step back to admire her work, and a huge smile spread across her face. Situation rectified.
I had originally planned on staying for two to three hours, but eight hours later I found myself still rolling chapatti. I kept thinking that I could leave whenever I wanted. I could go back to my clean drinking water and warm bed, but these children had to stay. Everyday they worked this hard, so I told myself to suck it up. It is clear to me that my heart is no longer all my own. I have given a part of it to Africa, and I would never take it back.
Daraja has been alive and well on the internet for many years, but we’re trying to make it easier to allow supporters like you to learn about what’s happening on campus. As such, we’d like to point your attention to 2 noticeable changes:
-First off, Facebook. Facebook is a fantastic way to stay in touch with your friends, but it’s also a great way to learn more about your favorite organizations, like the Daraja Academy. So far, we have a “causes” page, a “group” page….but the new addition is our “Fan Page.” The Fan page seems to be the best way to stay in touch with our supporters, and it allows you easier access to learn about the updates we post there, such as pictures, videos, news items, events, pretty much everything. So, if you’re a member of facebook, please consider joining our fan page by clicking here. (Heads-up: clicking that link will take you to log-in to Facebook first, then you’ll be able to join our Fan Page.)
-Secondly, Daraja Academy is on Twitter. We’ve actually been there for almost a year, and in that year, Twitter has really taken off. We imagine that many, many more of you readers are now on Twitter than there were a year ago, so if you’re there, you can follow us! Our account is not the type that will overwhelm you, but instead we’ll just occasionally post updates about the girls that are a bit off-the-beaten-path. Our name is, simply put, @daraja. We’ve created some amazing relationships through Twitter, most recently a connection with Rocky Turner, aka @headmutha. Rocky runs Mothers Fighting For Others, an excellent organization that is (to quote their mission statement) “dedicated to providing orphans and vulnerable children with opportunities their parents would have provided, if they only could; a loving and nurturing environment and a quality education, so they can learn, thrive and achieve their highest potential.” Today we here in the States noticed that Rocky had posted this tweet about a phone conversation with Jason:
And now we’re siked to know that we have another enthusiastic visitor heading to campus. What a cool way to connect with people, and we hope to also end up connecting with you there too.
Check us out as our presence on the internet continues to spread. Thanks, as always, for keeping an open ear and an open heart to all of the updates from Daraja.
It is close to 7pm, that time when the campus glows a warm and golden, after the sun has dropped over the western horizon and I am totally unaccustomed to the quiet.
Generally, the students would be scattered across campus, trailing into the classroom block or the library, from their dormitory, tdhe dining hall or points beyond. Study hall runs from 7pm to 9pm every night except Saturday, and just before it begins girls can be heard laughing and singing and chattering, packing the noise they will be unable to make during study hall, into these last minutes of daylight. But this evening only a quiet breeze in the acacias disturbs the silence… the girls have gone home for their end of term break.
The last six school days at Daraja Academy were totally dedicated to finals, and the tests were attacked with campus-wide team effort. Similar to many African nations, a Kenyan secondary school student’s entire four years of high school are judged by how well they do on a cumulative national examination (in Kenya, the K.C.S.E. exams). In the United States that would mean taking a series of HUGE subject specific tests on information the student learned AND retained over all four years of high school.
Knowing this, one of my objectives as a principal is to make these young ladies as comfortable as possible in a test setting. Daraja’s students are smart and driven, they will have learned the information, but stories abound of teenagers freezing when the go to take the K.C.S.E. It’s not melodramatic to say that for many students their future life hangs in the balance of their tests results.
Over the course of almost two weeks Daraja Academy was hitting top speed in the evenings as opposed to revving down by that point. Teachers, administrators and volunteers all fell into roles assisting the process. Long term volunteers Andy and Kayla were great, overseeing study hall as a whole, making sure that the girls were in the right spots and had all the materials they needed (paper, books, flashcards etc.) Peter and Carolyn Gilbert, a father daughter team from Vermont, passed through campus for a few days and helped with the studying as well.
One of my closest and oldest friends from the U.S., Anthony Van Moppes and his girlfriend Kelly Chang – both teachers by the way, English and Math – dove in head first prepping the students. At one point I walking into a math study session that Kelly was leading and was shocked to hear the students belting out a song about integers to the tune of “Row, row, row your boat…” Anthony, a natural English teacher truly showed his mettle by preparing our girls for, of all things, PHYSICS! Though on his summer vacation he spent hours learning, creating questions and preparing the girls for an examination they were fearing, and it worked!
When the last of the finals were scored and term grades were tabulated, I was genuinely blown away by the results. I’d been preparing for the Term II grades, expecting to see a significant slide compared to the grades from Term I for two reasons. First, the students were so amazed and grateful to be attending secondary school at all during Term I that they produced like 26 mad scientists, working and studying at all hours of the day. I expected them to slide into a more relaxed pace as they became more comfortable within the Daraja Academy environs. Secondly, Term II was nearly 3 times as long as Term I. The Kenyan curriculum is much more demanding than the public schools I have taught at in California, with 3 times the material, I was truly nervous about how our students would balance the information and perform. I expected grades to fall, by an entire grade point for some of the girls without an already strong academic foundation. I would have been overjoyed to witness students whose averaged grades slipped by only 1/3rd (A- to B+). Considering the rigor and amount of information they were required to have mastered any student who maintained their letter grade (B to B) would have made incredible strides in my mind.
I should not have been nervous. Only one Daraja Academy student slipped more than 1/3rd of a letter grade between Term I and Term II and that was only a slide from A- to B. Eight students matched the A they’d received during the shortened 1st term with another in Term II – mind you that would be like getting a 4.0 in the USA, but doing so while taking 12 subjects. In case you are curious: English, Swahili, Geography, Math, Business Studies, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Music, Religious Studies, History and Government, and P.E – as a Freshman.
Eleven of our students maintained the same letter grade or only slipped by a few percentage points, which earlier I would not have thought possible considering the reasons listed above. AMAZINGLY, five of our girls: Relina, Christine, Lillian, Esthere and Florence, improved by at least 1/3rd of a letter grade – with Florence making the biggest leap, B to A-! It has always been very important to creators of Daraja Academy, that the student body be a cross-cut of the country and resemble the population and its tribal and religious make up as best as is possible, it is interesting to note that those girls who improved… are a cross-cut of Daraja’s cross-cut. One is from the urban slum of Kibera; another is from a pastoralist, Maasai family from the rural countryside. They are five girls, from five tribes and five distant locations of the country, but Daraja Academy is working for ALL of them.
We knew these young ladies had strength inside of them, it is part of the reason why they were admitted to Daraja Academy, it is their resolve that amazes me. Everyday they wake and decide that they will improve themselves and be better when the climb in bed that night, and then they do it. It is incredible and it is inspiring, personally I cannot believe that I get to be a part of it.
World, thank you for believing in these girls, this school and our dream.
Ladies and Gentlemen, allow us to introduce you to Will Laughlin.
If Will looks a bit tired here, it’s because he has every right to be tired. Will ran the Wild West Relay from August 6-8, a 200 mile race that winds through Colorado. And although the race is a “relay,” Will, or “UltraWill” as he has been rightfully nicknamed, ran the entire relay ALONE.
He didn’t stop. He didn’t really take time to sleep. He instead “sleep-walked” through the nights for a few hour stretches, and persevered to accomplish this astounding physical feat.
It is hard to quantify in words how remarkable of an accomplishment this is. He ran for 59 hours straight, through 2 nights. And to top it off, Will did the whole thing to help raise awareness and funds for Daraja and our girls. He created a website, designed t-shirts which can be purchased here (with 75% of proceeds going directly to the school), and has gotten excellent news coverage recently, with a story in the Steamboat Pilot and a television interview on Colorado’s 9News.
To quote the Steamboat Pilot article,
“All these things start with a little ‘wouldn’t that be great if,’” Laughlin said, admitting he was on the brink of passing out. “This was the hardest race I’ve ever had mentally. But in this you learn to be in the present, which is always good in life.”
Please click through all of the above links to learn more about Will’s remarkable race. The more you read, the more impressed you will be.
Will’s current plan is to keep on running. His ultimate goal is to run across the country of Kenya, and stop by campus along the way. As such, you’ll be hearing much more about Will and his training from this blog.
Congratulations Will, and a most sincere “Thank You” from all of us at Daraja. This school started as a dream, and it has taken the blood, sweat, and tears of countless volunteers to turn this school into a functioning institution, one that is changing the lives of Kenyan girls. We are honored to have you contribute your own sweat, 200 miles worth of it, to Daraja’s cause.
So what are the rest of us waiting for? Go get a t-shirt, get off the couch, and go for a run!
Gratitude does not even come close to describing the emotions that have coursed through me during the past few weeks. After a tiring, but extremely fruitful 2 months in the US, building new and nurturing old relationships, raising awareness for the school and funds for it operations… I AM HOME!!! Back in Africa, back at Daraja Academy.
I am home and last week, while sitting in the back of physics class, observing Mr. Charles weave his magical web of scientific information, it struck me… I am literally the luckiest man alive. I am “that guy”, who got to watch his dream of dreams come true.
There I was sitting behind 26 girls in beautiful, blue and gray uniforms, being asked questions by a talented instructor and ALL had their hands high, reciting the eager, “… teacher me. Teacher, teacher me,” that only pupils who’d mastered the material would dare murmur… IT HAD WORKED!
We did it. The dream is a reality and incredibly this dream has 26 amazing young ladies, who’d otherwise have been forgotten dancing through it. And, should all fund raising efforts go as planned, if supporters continue to appear and join the growing family of believers and workers, we too will grow. If watchers become joiners, in January of 2010 we will dive deeper into Kenya and find the next 25 Daraja Academy students.
Thank you World for believing in Daraja Academy. What would it take for you to become active? What would it take for you to help the dream real for the next group of girls?
PS – Due to a flux in volunteers and one giant effort getting our students and staff through finals, there has been a lull on the Daraja Academy Blog. I assure you the lull is over. We are back to full steam and ready to bounce down the happy road that is Daraja.