From when I was very young growing up in a wonderfully diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY to the present I have always been both challenged by those around me, and encouraged by them to use my creative talents freely. My education led me through engineering, math, physics, medicine, and psychiatry I was taught to explore the world “at the edge” and discover what was “outside of the box”. I was in a solution focused work environment and my training taught me how to bring out the best in people that surrounded me. My current work and passion with community artists and their work has expanded my ability to see more beyond my preconceived limitations. This combination of influences has opened up “invitations” to the unfamiliar. I was mesmerized and soon adopted Kenya and all it had to offer. I accepted the challenge to learn again what was before me and at the same time give back. The challenges to find what lies hidden in the Kenyans we work with and to bring out a creative spirit which has proven to be of lasting value for both them and myself. As usual it has been a road of constant learning and mistakes but full of inspiration and gifts I would have never conceived of.
Karen W. Smith--
This is a lifelong dream that started back in 1998 while I was visiting Ghana as part of a mission team and was amazed by the African people doing all that they could with nothing; they always did it with a smile. As I stood in a concrete block building watching children sit on the dirt floor doing their math problems in the dirt with sticks, the thought ran through my mind that if I was ever unencumbered, I wanted to come back and do what I could to help. A year and a half later I went to Kenya on vacation with a good friend to see the animals of Africa and again those same thoughts ran through my mind.
FAST FORWARD TO SEPTEMBER OF 2011-I was up late one night watching "Oprahs' Most Memorable Guests". A story was introduced about a woman who lived in Botswana who had 5 children and lived with an abusive husband. She had 4 dreams and wrote them down and put them in her “GOD” can. She buried that can in the jungle outside her village and when things got tough she would go to that can and pray that she would be able to accomplish those dreams. The dreams were to go to high school, college, get a master’s degree and then a doctorate... she did all of that and was introduced by Oprah on that show. I was dumbstruck as to how she had ever accomplished all of that. She wanted to build a school in her village and Oprah understood that very well as she had constructed an academy in South Africa 4 years before. Oprah donated 1,000,000 dollars for her to do that. This is where it gets interesting. She showed a picture of the school that she went to and the chills ran up my spine as it was a twin of the school I had sat in 13 years before in Ghana. That statement I had made came rushing back in to my head and that was the beginning of the journey. I left in September of 2012 for a yearlong volunteer experience in Kenya.
I spent a year I Kenya which was the change agent of my life: I taught financial literacy to local women, trained teachers, constructed athletic equipment out of parts, writing and editing newsletters, taught US history and current events, did first aid every day and did troubleshooting in whatever village I was in. Oh yes, I also raised a baby lamb named Oreo for 6 months who is still with us as of summer 2017. In Ranen I did some of the same but also trained 70 women in basic office skills as they had to maintain files on 3000 AIDS orphans, paid to have an orphanage wired for lights so the girls could study at night. I fought the Kenyan Government for 4 weeks and finally got the container released that my community had help fill with all sorts of supplies. My last village was a orphanage /school where I constructed a volleyball court cut out of a hill, replaced 317 windows in the buildings and set up a clinic in the school.
I returned to the US in September of 2013 and Phil and I started Sawa Sawa and we have been going strong ever since. We have been back every winter for varying times of 1-3 months and now we are focused on Angiya where the Medical Mission Sisters Maternity Hospital and Rural Clinic is.
My experience in Kenya has been the highpoint of my existence on this earth. I have learned more about compassion, patience, family and love than I ever thought possible.
Kathleen Gideon is another of our “founding mothers” nurturing that which grows well in all of us. She brought to light in the most difficult of circumstances her skills in creative art therapy with children in the rural primary schools and the slums of Nairobi. She valued and celebrated the potential in all of them. She kept alive the value of play in the creative process by using found materials and was fully absorbed in the adventure of it all. She never let language be a barrier to exchanging ideas, learning, and a smile. Always ready for everything and operated with no fear was a point of light that “Kathy” showed us all..