07/16/2012 05:19 EDT | Updated 08/05/2014 02:59 EDT

Kenya Changed My Life, But It's Hard to Say How

People have been asking me about my "life-changing" trip to Kenya. Questions have ranged from easy ones such as "how was the weather?" to tough ones such as "how has it changed your perspective on life?" I've failed miserably at answering the latter question and two weeks later, I'm still struggling to describe the experience.

Dawn Cuthbertson

From the moment I got home, people have been asking me about my "life-changing" trip to Kenya.

Questions have ranged from easy ones such as "how was the weather?" and "what was the food like?" to tough ones such as "how has it changed your perspective on life?"

I've failed miserably at answering the latter question and blamed jet lag for not being able to express myself. But now, two weeks later, I'm still struggling to describe an experience that smashed my heart to smithereens in one second and then in the next, filled it up so quickly that it threatened to explode.

I was in rural south-west Kenya in the Maasai Mara district at a groundbreaking ceremony witnessing impoverished people dance, sing and rejoice because they'd been adopted by Canadian-based charity Free the Children. Over the next few years, the Kipsongol community will receive new classrooms, get access to clean drinking water, learn alternative income programs and take advantage of health care initiatives.

Along with six other AOL Canada colleagues and three members of Toronto's Alpha-Group, I spent a week travelling through the Maasai Mara's savannah building at the school AOL employees raised more than $26,000 to adopt, meeting with community members and seeing other ways our fundraising dollars are being used.

But nothing could have prepared us for the moving ceremony that awaited us at Kipsongol. We'd heard that the community had had a meeting to discuss how they wanted to greet us but when our truck pulled up, between 800 to 1,000 children, men, women and elders were waiting. At that point a large lump formed in my throat as I knew I was about to be treated to something I was entirely unworthy of.

As we walked through the crowd, two children threw small pink and purple flowers at our feet. Other kids in tattered school sweaters sang and clapped while their parents and teachers shook our hands and gave us larger-than-life smiles.

It was a traditional ceremony that saw the Alpha-Group, whose fundraising dollars made the adoption of Kipsongol possible, receive two goats as thanks and the rest of us showered with beaded jewerly that we'll cherish forever.

According to Marc Kielburger, Free The Children will spend the next few years putting the four pillars of its adopt-a-village program -- education, clean water, alternative income programs for adults and health care initiatives -- in place so that they can leave Kipsongol and move on to the next community in need.

"The greatest gift we can give somebody is to not need our help," he says, adding Kipsongol will be left with the tools and knowledge they need to flourish on their own.

Kielburger and his brother Craig started Free The Children as teens and have seen it grow to include international development projects in Kenya, India, China, Haiti, Ecuador and Sierra Leone as well as domestic programs in North America as school children attend their "We Day" events hosted across Canada to learn about social change.

It takes all four pillars to make a community sustainable and anything less is a handout, not a hand up, says Kielburger.

"It boggles my mind that billions of dollars in the aid world is spent addressing one of those things, and very few groups have the desire, ability or capacity to actually put them together," he explains.

"We talk about this cliché about breaking the cycle of poverty but we actually believe it and we've come to understand that it's possible to do this, and it's possible to do it in a relatively short amount of time with a relatively small amount of resources."

One of the many challenges facing rural communities in the Maasai Mara is access to clean drinking water. It's the job of young girls to fetch water for their family and since water sources can be hours away on foot, many miss out on going to school. Free The Children provides clean drinking water at schools its adopted so young girls can do both but in order to give us a sense of what it's like to haul heavy water jugs, we're taken to the nearby community of Emori Joi to visit mamas Jackline and Judy.

As they lead us down to the river under the hot sun, we realize we're in for a rude awakening. They won't let us near the river's edge because of potential danger. At least one girl is killed in these parts each year from a hippopotamus defending its territory. Jackline and Judy fill the jugs with 50 lbs of dirty water and tie coarse rope around them so that we can hoist them onto our backs. Cool water trickles down my back but it's a welcome distraction from the skull-crushing pressure I'm feeling in my head as the rope digs into my forehead and the weight tugs on neck muscles that simply aren't there.

I manage to walk up a steep hill and about halfway back to Jackline's home before I have to hand my jug over to a colleague. It's a 15-minute trek that the mammas make at least five times a day before sanitizing it, says Kim Plewes, one of our Free The Children trip facilitators.

"It's one thing to teach a woman why they should boil their water, it's another for them to change their routine and make it viable," Plewes explains, adding mama Jackline's three children will suffer from fewer waterborne illnesses now that she provides them with clean drinking water. "It has altered the future path of their family because people are healthier."

Back at her home, mama Jackline proudly shows us how her life has changed since being introduced to Free The Children. She now has chickens and goats as well as a garden and bee hive to feed her family. Whatever is left over will earn her extra income.

She's especially grateful for her home's new chimney, which took her a month to save up for. While smoke used to collect inside her home whenever she cooked -- causing respiratory issues and a higher chance of her children getting burned -- the new chimney releases smoke externally. Free The Children has subsidized 125 new chimneys to families in the community and employ local men at the nearby Baraka Medical Clinic to build them.

Sebastian Ndungu is the project manager overseeing the charity's 15 building sites and spends his day criss-crossing the region in his truck to make sure everything is running smoothly and on time. The job entails long days but Ndungu is passionate about giving children an education.

"I'm very honoured to work with Free The Children," he says. It's everything for me."

He was at the school groundbreaking ceremony we attended and when asked how the Kipsongol community feels about their future, Ndungu pauses for a long time before answering. "No one can explain in mere words how they feel," he says.


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