When Paul Miller, a TV producer and director in the US, his wife Shelley Miller together with his two children Trevor and Tess settled to tour Kenya for the first time in 2005, they didn’t know that something deeper than just travels would bring them back to the country. As Paul describes, the thought of travelling for 22 hours from Los Angeles and seeing elephants and lions was not his description of a perfect safari.
“I had seen elephants and lions in the zoo. I had no idea that this trip would change my life forever,” says Paul.
His wife, a psychotherapist, and their two children Trevor and Tess, then 21 and 16 years old, did the typical tourist things. They first went to Tanzania and then to Kenya on safari, and saw lots of game and beautiful scenery. As their trip was about to end, she requested the managers of The Giraffe Manor, where they were staying, to take them to visit a local orphanage. It is while spending time with children at St Francis Integrated School in Karen that something struck him.
“As I watched my children relating so easily with these beautiful children from another culture, I could not stop asking myself, ‘Don’t these children have as much right to a good life as Trevor and Tess?’ I knew I had to find a way to give them that opportunity,” narrates Paul.
They returned to the US and Paul began reaching out to people from Australia, England and Norway, who had also been to St Francis, and they agreed to work together to support the orphanage by sending clothing, medical supplies and money.
Sadly, disaster struck in 2007. They got word that St Francis was being closed by the Kenyan government because of overcrowding and safety issues. Children were getting sick and were also not receiving any education.
“None of us were aware of the conditions that the orphanage was facing. Some of the partners, who could, returned to Kenya to see what we could do,” he says. They attempted to buy land to build a new home for the children, but there were too many obstacles. It was obvious that St Francis would soon be closed. “We were told that the children would be taken back to their villages and be left in the hands of their relatives,” he explains.
As Paul returned to Los Angeles, he felt restless and had to look for a solution to save the orphanage. With no background in running a non-profit organisation, he formed African Kids in Need (Akin), with the mission to save the orphanage by raising money to educate the children.
To get things started, they got a copy of a spreadsheet indicating where each child from St Francis had been relocated to. The Thomas Barnardos Agency in Nairobi assisted them find the age of the primary school children and a social worker helped them find the first eight secondary school-aged children. Consequently, they found two schools willing to admit their students, despite the fact that it was April, during the school holidays. This became their first Akin class.
Besides providing education at the secondary level, their two staff members, Sophie Omutanyi, the project manager and David Oketch, the outreach director make home and school visits throughout the year to provide couselling services to students and their families. They also hold semi-annual retreats in Nairobi to connect their students and offer peer to peer mentoring.
“A grant from another NGO in Australia made it possible for us to offer scholarships to qualified students with the desire to study science and medicine. We have a micro loan project that provides low interest loans to graduates of Akin who are trying to start their own small businesses,” explains Paul.
In addition, every Form One student receives a pair of goats when they enter the programme. These goats usually multiply by the end of the student’s four years and they can can be sold to pay for further education or kept to help start a small business.
So far, over 300 children have been sponsored in primary, secondary, vocational as well as colleges and universities.
Their students come from across the country including Nairobi, Maasai land and Kisumu. Recently, they founded a company dubbed, Mobile Foods of Kenya Limited, and their first food truck, Munchies, which aims to assist the Akin graduates become independent.
“In January we trained seven Akin graduates for one month, and taught them how to cook, manage and market a mobile food business,” says Paul.