Our unique positioning as a social business allows us the privilege of learning about some exceptional organizations that are really moving the needle on a host of issues around the world. Why should we keep our discoveries to ourselves? We’re launching a new series today, which will highlight like-minded brands, whether NGO or businesses, that are truly making strides. Today, we’re talking to Leila Chambers, the founder of Flying Kites, one very special school based in Kenya.
Let’s jump right in. How did you end up the director of a school in Kenya. I started Flying Kites in 2007 with two friends during our senior year of college. Nine years later, I feel really lucky that I still get to do something I love every day.
I first traveled to Kenya in 2004 to volunteer at an orphanage, and I quickly became troubled by the level of care that was available to the children I met. Institutions that were funded by the US were sending over waves of volunteers, but the children lacked any sort of sustained care or formal classes. I began to feel like my presence there was part of the problem, rather than the solution. Around the same time, I became inspired by other organizations that were working to raise the level of care, as it relates to services to poor and vulnerable communities. It was then that our team started to wonder what it would take to provide these orphaned children with the same opportunities that we would want for our own children. Almost a decade later, that question still supports the overall vision, shapes our goals and drives us forward.
Our school is in Njabini, Kenya in the foothills of the Aberdares Mountains, situated at about 8,000 feet. Our US office is in Boston, a city that has really embraced our cause on the other side of the world. I live just outside Boston with my husband who runs Summits in Haiti.
We are so inspired by what you're doing with Flying Kites. I'm sure there were some hurdles in the beginning? There were so many hurdles that if I listed them all, you would think I was making them up to be dramatic!
Who are the kids coming to school? What communities are they coming from, and what does a typical home life look like? The children typically fall into two categories: boarding students, who live on-site, and day scholars, who live in the wider Njabini community. The students who live on-site are either orphaned or abused, and without a safe option for shelter and care. Most of them stay at Flying Kites year-round, but we try to reintegrate them with extended family members whenever possible. The day scholars are academically advanced yet critically-poor, meaning that their parents or caregivers are casual laborers and struggle to meet the basic needs of their families.
Are there any particular stories of kids that stand out to you? A few weeks ago, I found myself at the home of Everline, one of our day scholars. I was there to find out from her mother why she had requested that Everline repeat eighth grade (she had just graduated from eighth grade with one of our highest scores). Everline and her four sisters live in a one-room home in a very rural part of Njabini. Their house is made of split-timber and mud, and gaps in the walls are filled with old milk cartons. They don’t have electricity or running water. Yet somehow, Everline and her sister arrive everyday for school in perfectly pressed school uniforms, bright and ready to take on the day. I have to admit, I don’t get to spend a ton of time with families in the community these days, so I was really taken back to be reminded of how hard life can be without access to basic amenities.
I was making small talk with Everline and her sister Vivienne while waiting for their mom to come back from work. I told them that my sisters and I used to fight a lot and asked them if they ever fought. They both sort of looked at each other, unsure of whether to be honest or not, and finally Everline said, “It’s true, sometime we do fight.” I laughed and asked, “What do you fight about?” They both answered at the exact same time, “Food.”
Everline explained that towards the end of the month, when there isn’t much money for food, they fight if it feels like one sister is taking more then her fair share.
I would imagine that we would be very sad to see what a “fair share” of dinner looks like in this loving household at the end of the month. I’m embarrassed to say that it can be so easy to forget when I see our eager, earnest students that many times they are coming to class hungry. I mean really, really hungry.
A few months ago we added breakfast to our school community feeding program because lunch just wasn’t enough.
On the subject of free breakfast, what are your plans for the future of school feeding at Flying Kites? One of the reasons we chose our first site in Njabini was for its fertile land. We currently grow about 70 percent of what we eat on-site, everything from potatoes to beets and kale - and we are constantly trying to increase that number. We also have access to fresh eggs from our chickens and milk from several dairy cows. We are currently raising money to plant avocado and plum trees and create a tilapia fishpond. A couple from Abu Dhabi recently bought us a stove so we've been able to bake our own bread (and birthday cakes!).
In previous years, we encouraged children to bring lunch to school, but it became very clear fairly quickly that the children who lived in our community lacked access to nutritious food, particularly protein. A handful of cold rice just can't get a ten-year-old through the school day.
Now, we serve a hot lunch onsite, in addition to breakfast. As we expand our farm, we will be able to add more and more fruits and vegetables to our meals, which is so critical for children, especially in the early years.
Looking back over the years of all you've been able to accomplish, is there one thing you're most proud of? Oh goodness, anyone who works with kids knows it’s really the small, seemingly everyday things that can feel the biggest. I remember a little girl, who was about three-years old when the police brought her to Flying Kites after she had been found on the streets. While we were filling out her paperwork, I gave her a crayon and a piece of paper. The police officer commented that she was too young to draw, but she took the crayon and began drawing these tiny little circles - over and over again - until the entire page was full of them. A few months later, she came into my office and handed me a painting she had made of an enormous heart with a rainbow inside. I felt like it was the most treasured gift I had ever been given, especially when I hung it next to her first piece. It was so bright and hopeful. Of course shortly after she gave it to me, she asked for it back and then re-gifted it to someone else. Kids are sneaky like that. Good thing I made sure to scan it first.
In terms of looking ahead toward Flying Kites’ future, I would say one of my most recent sources of pride is a partnership we've just secured with Alex and Ani. I've dreamed of having them do a collection for us for years. The possibilities for expanding our campus from the collection are so exciting.