When I heard the news that I'd been given the opportunity to join Free The Children on their Me To We trip to the Masai Mara as part of AOL's annual CSR initiative, I had no idea what to expect. This was an experience I had heard so many positive stories about from colleagues that had taken part in previous years, all of which recounted how the experience changed their lives and altered their perspective on the world. As with most bold claims, it's hard to empathise with statements like that and I found it hard to feel the full weight of that enthusiasm until I immersed myself in the experience first hand.
During the past three years at AOL, I've seen the remarkable work this charity is doing through their international development model. What's always resonated with me personally was Free The Children's mantra that impoverished local communities are impacted the most through 'a hand up', not 'a hand out' approach. This is exactly what I found to be true in Kenya and I was moved by the sense of pride that results from this self sufficient mentality. A mentality that is sure to serve people well no matter where in the world they come from or what kind of background they've grown up in.
Whilst staying at the Me to We camp we learnt a lot about the charities sustainable pillars and how they're working towards creating solutions. We met the parents from the local community, the children, young adults, teachers and elders that hold the village together with their hard work, infectious positivity and traditional values.
At the Kisaruni Girls Secondary school, I was mesmerised by a group of ambitious young women that take their education so seriously that they created their own school timetable. Every day they get up at 5AM to begin their chores and help maintain their school, followed by a day of academic studies and then finally debates and book clubs before lights out at 10pm. They do this by choice and as a result, the girls are self sufficient. Not a single janitor is employed to maintain the school and they repeat this routine every day, seven days a week - three months at a time.
Self-awareness, self-esteem, assertiveness, friendship, family and respect are the pillars that uphold their community and I could see with my own eyes what a powerhouse they are creating. Supported by a team of teachers that not only value academic excellence, but mental wellbeing has served these girls well. I was so pleased to have been proudly shown a guidance and counselling room on a tour of the school lead by the students.
These girls' commitment day in and day out is the product of not just ambition, but genuine love for their community, respect for their families and the drive to improve the lives of others around them. The hard work I thought I put in for my degree was nothing compared to the efforts of these young women and I felt genuinely honoured to be in their company and learn from their discipline and passion. These are the future engineers, doctors and journalists of Kenya - bright minds, hungry to learn and not afraid to pursue their dreams.
I also learnt a lot about the individuals I travelled there with from both the UK and Canada - we were 14 personalities in total, living together for ten days, being guided through the Kenyan culture by two infectiously funny and well-natured Masai Warriors, Jim AKA Jimbo and Jackson. Sharing a tent with an awesome colleague and mum of three with a passion for Drake and Led Zeppelin - I won't forget. Seeing their reactions to the community was just as insightful as realising my own, and we all helped each other push ourselves out of our comfort zones every day. Break dancing in front of the girls at the Kisaruni school was a personal highlight and probably the only opportunity to put those street dancing classes to use.
We were lucky enough to visit Rongena, where we met the children from a local primary school and Elenerai, where we joined the Mamas for a water walk - a task these women undertake daily. And of course, visiting the Baraka Health Centre was a personal highlight as this is where AOL's funding went for their volunteer tip the year before, helping support the construction of the new surgical wing.
Despite the poverty I encountered, it was an incredible sense of positivity that I took away from the people I was lucky enough to meet. Their ambitions to succeed and ingrained discipline I have the greatest amount of respect for. Since Free the Children began working in the community, the school population has almost doubled and the vast majority of students attend class every day. It's an incredible feeling being part of such a force for positive change and seeing the results. I'd encourage anyone who is lucky enough to get involved to do so. Just getting involved in your own community can make a difference.