I am super excited to introduce you to this week's Totally Awesome Woman because she is who I want to be when I grow up!
This is Keri Chittenden, co-founder of the not for profit, So They Can. This amazing organisation was established coming on 10 years ago with Keri's co-founder and CEO, Cass Treadwell.
Two more passionate and determined women you will be hard to find and what they have achieved in Kenya and Tanzania is inspiring, encouraging and well, just bloody amazing. They are the epitome of demonstrating that we can make a difference, one action can change a life and one vision can transform an entire community.
I am blown away that they translated a "someone should do something" thought into the organisation they have built, which has positively influenced so many lives both in Africa and for the people at this end who have benefited from their exposure and involvement.
In 2009, Cass and Keri left their families in Sydney on a mission to find a project that would enable them to make a difference. They had a clear vision of empowering communities through education and establishing sustainable programs that would ensure they were locally-endorsed and achievable.
Their objective was to help break the poverty cycle through education.
In a Displaced Persons Camp, some 150km from Nairobi, Keri and Cass found a community desperate to work together to improve the future of their children. Facing scepticism and no doubt an overwhelming amount of logistical challenges, these ladies negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding with the Kenyan Government to parcel some land and build a school.
I can't even imagine the courage and the leap of faith that took!
Just 6 weeks after their return to Sydney, a fundraising event was held which raised $150,000 and So They Can was born with the establishment of Aberdare Ranges Primary School.
Some 10 years later and the first round of students have graduated at Aberdare Ranges, a remarkable achievement in a country where secondary education to this level is rarely attained.
Over 1,080 children are now educated at the school, with more than 800 sponsored. Our family has sponsored young Monica for the past 5 years and I can attest to the wonderfully tangible program that allows you to interact and communicate with your sponsor child. Monica turns 15 this year and has big plans for the future, all thanks to the amazing opportunities afforded to her through So They Can.
But the ladies didn't stop at establishing a school - they have now:
- established a children's village for 120 orphaned and vulnerable children at the Miti Mingi Village, ensuring these children have a safe and nurturing home.
- helped the community through the Micro Finance Business School, educating women and providing loans to those facing extreme poverty and giving them the skills to establish sustainable businesses that contribute to their families and future.
- supported a community medical centre that contributes to the health of the broader Nakuru community.
- established the Mamire Teachers' College in Tanzania to help develop a pool of talented, educated teachers.
It currently costs around $2.5 million a year to operate the projects So They Can have underway and yet .... the team forges on and the latest project for So They Can is the recent establishment of an Education Collaborative, aimed at working with existing schools in Tanzania and Kenya to upgrade, upskill and empower them to deliver better education to over 7,000 children.
This includes children such as Chamkal (pictured below with Keri), a young girl in the terribly impoverished area of East Pokot, who was willing to risk her life in a quest for education. That So They Can is able to make such an incredible impact on lives just like Chamkal's just fills me with awe.
In recognition of their efforts, Keri was named as an AFR Westpac 100 Women of Influence in 2015 and Cass was in the running for New Zealander of the Year, also in 2015.
The ladies have built a great team around them, with similarly-minded, passionate people, helping with fundraising, sponsorship and the ongoing management and growth of the organisation, both here in Australia, New Zealand (where Cass is now based) and in Africa.
Their enthusiasm and commitment to their work is infectious and you can't leave one of their fundraising events without feeling wholly positive that the world could be a better place with more people like this.
There are heaps of ways you can be involved with So They Can.
They are currently looking for additional child sponsors to help support the education of an outstanding 200 or so students at Aberdare Ranges Primary School. This is a small investment of $50 per month that provides a quality education, two hot meals a day, access to clean water and all the support they need to succeed. It is a tangible program and the highlight is the sponsor letters - both giving and receiving to really connect with your sponsor child.
There are opportunities to buy beautiful items made by Sew Women Can (via this website - www.bibiandme.com), a business that allows women in the community to work and support their families while their children are educated, and plenty of other avenues to donate and also volunteer.
I would love to visit Aberdare Ranges and have put it on my wishlist for 2019, where you will hopefully find me, camera clasped in hand, capturing all the smiles that the So They Can team have enabled.