You have perhaps at one point of your life worked a tedious job that sucked the life out of you every minute of the day. A job where the work needed zero creativity – in fact a computer could have done it. But even in this bleak situation, you had a chance to find that one activity that got you excited… that gave your life a sense of meaning.
Unfortunately, not all of us have the guts to follow where our inner voice is leading us. Maria Omare is one of those few Kenyans who took a leap of faith.
At 21, Maria Omare’s life changed forever, “My first encounter with disabled children was in university, when I volunteered as a nutritionist in a special olympics event. It made me question where I had been all my life,” she says.
“After that, I got to participate in an even bigger event in Mathare slums, where I discovered the big disparity for children with disability. I heard of kids with disability being locked up in a room (not a nice room with a television… most likely under a bed),” she says.
Most of us, after making such a discovery would probably shake our heads, blame the government and move on to address our personal issues.
But Maria with the energy and chutzpah normally associated with youth, decided to start an organisation to help children with disability in Kibera slum. “We started with virtually nothing, I had just finished my compulsory internship and I wanted to build something that would outlive me,” she says.
She then got together with some like-minded friends from Kenyatta University. “I shared my vision with the board and they asked how we were going to do this and I said, ‘Let’s just start.’ Then they asked how we were going to find the children and I repeated, ‘Let’s just start,’ “ Maria says, laughing, “they thought I was crazy but agreed to support the initiative.”
Just like that, The Action Foundation was born. The immediate problem was to find a premises in Kibera, which was easier said than done. “The community treated me with suspicion because there are many organisations in this area and not all of them do what they say they are going to do,” she says.
Eventually, Maria found a place, “We actually opened this centre with a Sh5,000 donation from myself and the other board members of the foundation,” she says.
They literally scraped together the little they had because some were still students while others had just graduated. “I remember looking at the empty room and thinking, ‘What the hell did I get myself into? What if I fail? Everyone will laugh at me,’ “ Maria says.
Luckily, she has supportive parents and siblings, who encouraged her to keep going. “I got two plastic chairs from my mother then bought a Sh50 padlock and locked the house. It was scary because I knew what I wanted to do but did not know how to mobilise the children.”
Then she got an idea to organise an art event, because it was April holidays, as a way of publicising the centre. “We had a budget of Sh60,000 for meals, art supplies, and volunteers’ stipends to run the art event for two weeks,” Maria says adding that they asked parents to register their children and within three days, they had more than 30 children registered, which meant they had to look for more money.
So everyone in the team sold stickers for Sh100, 200, 500 but less than five days to the event they had only raised Sh5,000. “I thought this is when the naysayers are going to feel vindicated.
Luckily one of our board members, Dalmas, a person living with disability, had shared the poster of the event with his networks and we actually got a call from the Marketing Manager of Village Market with just days to the event.”
It was Maria’s first pitch meeting. Unfortunately she had been walking up and down looking for cheap art supplies to make use of the Sh5,000. “So I showed up for that very serious meeting dusty, tired and with hardly any pitching experience. Surprisingly, the Village Market team gave us the rest of the money. That was our very first major funding,” she says. …continued on page 2