Readjusting to life after our field trip to Kenya’s beautiful coast is proving harder than I anticipated. It’s not just the fact that I miss taking a mid-afternoon nap in the shade, by the pool, to the sounds of shrieks and splashes, or that I wish my schedule for the day included water polo, a beach BBQ and honey-lime drinks and rare moments of downtime with our team in Kenya. It’s all of that, but it’s more. I think it’s the lightness that I miss. As I sit in our Boston office preparing grant applications for the end of the year, I’m dragging my feet pulling together stats on the heaviness of our work. The prevalence of HIV, the rate of chronic malnourishment, the effects of stunting and our efforts to move the needle on these critical issues. Sure, these grant requirements paint a picture of our challenges and impact, but I find myself - this week - yearning for an additional line on funding applications that asks, “Is there anything else you want us to know about your students, before we consider your grant?”.
Yes. There is so much more I want to tell you about my students, and none of it involves homelessness, rape, measles, hunger, kwashiorkor or pain.
I want to tell you about this absolutely wild idea that our nutty social worker Pip cooked up. Pip and I meet on Skype on Fridays to go over her case notes for the week. She is usually in her office in Njabini, running her computer off of solar power and using her phone to get a “hot-spot” for wifi. Needless to say, our Skype calls get dropped at least every 20 minutes. And every time I loose Pip, she comes back onto Skype and asks (completely earnestly) if “we’re having trouble with our internet in Boston.” That should give a sense of the sort of irrational person we are dealing with here. About two months ago, before Skype dropped out, Pip pitched her “Get the Kids to the Coast” (GTKTC) idea/mission. In her work with our students, there was a reoccurring theme — about half of our students had traveled to the coast a few years ago by train, and the rest (who had arrived at FK since) had not. According to Pip, those students who had been to the beach recalled, in their therapy sessions, the trip as the happiest they’ve ever felt, and those who had not, felt like they heard the sounds of waves every time they closed their eyes (Pip has a tendency to exaggerate to get what she wants). Could we find room in the budget, she wanted to know, for a trip to the coast?
I closed our Skype tab and signed into our Bank of America account… quick cursory glance at our budget: 80 students, 31 staff, medical bills, legal bills, livestock maintenance, secondary school fees, rent on our halfway house in Nairobi, Joseph needs a hockey stick before the start of term (these are not cheap, have you ever bought one?) and the Land-rover needs repairing.
Sorry there is no room in our budget for sand and sea.
But Pip wrote a letter to 20 of her closest friends in Australia (Aussies believe that access to the beach is a human right) and came back with a pretty decent chunk of money. We only needed a few more contributions to be able to afford a weekend at Diani Sea Report, a fully-catered family hotel that provides guests with all inclusive full-board for only $45 a day, per person (*they might be reevaluating this policy after how much we ate).
Even though I didn’t have to raise much money to close the gap, I knew we couldn’t take it out of general operating and that fundraising for a holiday wouldn’t be easy — a lot of our donors make big personal sacrifices to be able to contribute to our work, I was worried about how would they feel about us taking a vacation, when next month we will be asking for help with school fees. Of course, our family of donors never seize to amaze me with their generosity. I wrote to five individuals and all five gave, that same day.
We gave Pip and her posse the green light and I started to collect bathing suits from sponsors. Several weeks before we were set to depart, Pip sent me an email that read, “the bus will be a twelve-hour ride and cost about 50 USD per student, and I found this insane airline sale whereby a flight would be 70 USD per student. "
I hesitated on this one, for longer than I’m proud of - not because the 20 extra dollars would be a factor, but because I really worried about what people would think. Flying Kites on a plane?
But, spending an extra twenty dollars to completely BLOW OUR STUDENTS MINDS was not financially irresponsible, and more to the point, if we pride ourselves on being an organization that doesn’t trade in the currencies of pity, suffering and desperation to do our job, then why shouldn’t our students be able to experience something that so many other kids take for granted.
Just for good measure I called my friend and asked her how much she spent to take her family of 5 to Disney for a week. Conscience settled. In comparison our vacation was: free.
There is really no way to describe what it meant to experience this trip through the eyes of our students. I'm embarrassed to say that the best holiday I have ever had happened in an all-inclusive resort. If a foundation asked me today why I think we deserve funding, I would want to say because we do the hard work, we go to the scary places where others have failed, we take the most desperate cases and we heal and thrive and on top of all that, we dream. Like a bunch of carefree Australians, we know how to extend a day at the beach until long past sunset. We make so much space for laughter and light. Seriously, people stare.
Here are the parts of the week that I need to get down on paper, before I can do back go heart-heavy grant-giving lists:
Our teenage boys had the Nikon all weekend and took 4 memory cards full of selfies. You don’t know selfies like we know selfies. On the plane, on the plane looking out the window, getting off the plane, on the tarmac, at baggage reclaim… there was a group selfie for every 5 minutes of vacation.
Tiny Peter Thogu shared a hotel room with Grace and apparently he climbed onto the bed, turned on the TV and announced, “look who's got the remote control now” (you can imagine access to the remote at home is basically impossible if you’re six).
I always saw older students carrying plates for younger students at the buffet, stopping to bend down and ‘sell' each dish to their tiny counterpart, the way parents do, “steamed green beans? they look pretty good? yes? just a few?”
Lucy O and Lucy W shared a hotel room, and Lucy W. figured out how to call between rooms and called my room non-stop. “What time is it?” “My electric kettle isn’t working” and then just “hi”.
After dinner (and the bad hotel entertainment), guests seemed shy to get up on the dance floor, until the FK kids started a congo line and absolutely brought down the house. Imagine the Von Trapp family and then un-imagine Von Trapp family.
The hotel staff approached us numerous times to comment on how “remarkably respectful and well-behaved our students were.” Even the maids were surprised that they made their own beds and hung their clothes on the balcony.
When checking in at the airport, the woman behind the counter motioned for Michael to put his suitcase on the scale, but he got confused and climbed up to be weighed, like he was at the doctors.
Some of our kids were invited to meet the pilot and acted like they were staring into the face of God.
Daniel fastened his seatbelt so tight that I was legitimately worried he might never walk again.
Miriam smuggled a full size bottle of Nivea through airport security.
Everyone pitched in, and we had so much fun. Whether it was early morning swim sessions, soccer on the beach, dance parties, a walk in a rainstorm under a rainbow, watching Mike, Becca, Pip and Paige skydive and land outside the hotel, collecting shells, falling asleep at the dinner table. I’m sure, if you’ve had a family and been on vacation, you know what I’m talking about. But for us, this was all a very big deal.
I kept waiting for something to go wrong. For someone to run and slip, for a plate to break, for a door to slam…. and it wasn’t until the very last day, after a long swim, I wrapped myself in a towel and walked up to the steps to see the kids all sitting, on their own, eating lunch and laughing. The manager approached me looking serious. My heart sank. “Is there a problem” I asked. “Yes, you need to wear a shirt in the restaurant, m’am, it’s our policy.”
What an awesome awesome week. Thanks to the Bests, the Aussies, the Swifts, the Adlers and the Besses for making it possible and thanks to everyone else for not judging us, too harshly.
Back to work :)