Los Altos couple partners with Kenyans to send children to school

Photo Courtesy Of Jon And Caren Mccormack

Caren and Jon McCormack of Los Altos, above, have helped hundreds of children in Kenya attend school through their Kilgoris Project.

The Kilgoris Project, a non-profit group founded by Los Altos residents Caren and Jon McCormack in 1999, supports the children of a Masai village in southwest Kenya, operating schools, providing daily food and clean water and fostering economic development.

In partnership with the town of Kilgoris in Kenya, the McCormacks’ work has enabled hundreds of children to attend school; a tea farm manager to marry and raise a family because he now has a house, built onsite to better perform his job; and a mother of five to use her teaching salary to buy sheep, repay loans and save for college courses.

“We didn’t start with any intent to build to what we have now,” Caren said.

Four schools, a tea farm and a women’s cooperative grew from a friendship between the couple and Kilgoris resident Willie Lemiso, a waiter they met while at a safari camp.

A shared Christian faith first brought the McCormacks and their Kilgoris friend together.

“The motivation is living out God’s love,” Caren said. “We see our involvement as partnering with friends and family to do what blesses them. Kilgoris has become a second home and family.”

Keeping in touch with Lemiso over the years, the McCormacks learned of the village’s desire to build a church, which would serve as a preschool during the week, and they contributed.

Fast-forward 10 years, and Caren finds herself working daily on The Kilgoris Project. Her guiding philosophy is partnership.

“It’s easy to want to do everything for the village, but the huge thing we’ve learned is improving how we work together as partners,” she said.

The growth of the projects comes from Kenya. As a result, all major community leaders are “involved, bought in and engaged,” Caren said.

Los Altos residents Sally and Mike Forster traveled to Kenya last summer as part of a Peninsula Bible Church mission.

“The trip was a double joy – working with the children and also being able to share Caren and Jon’s reception by the people for the work they do,” Mike said. “We saw firsthand the results of their dedication and effort over the years to build and develop with the Masai community.”

The primary school opened in 2009 with 90 students and will expand by a grade every year – families are clamoring to get in. Construction on another block of classrooms and drilling for more clean water, which has prevented a doubling or even tripling in size, is under way.

Even so, for Kenyan parents with little education, recognizing the value in enrollment is a constant challenge. To get more parents to send children to school, The Kilgoris Project provides meals and encourages the schools to draft a parent agreement. And the schools are benefiting, according to Caren.

“Kenyans do a lot of testing,” she said. “Our schools are now testing at or higher than private schools in the village.”

Caren attributed the high test scores to the teachers, materials and smaller class sizes. The McCormacks visit once or twice a year to meet with teachers and other board members, learning of needs and planning for growth.

“What grabbed us is seeing how much you can help with so little in our terms,” Caren said.

Examples of annual costs include $1,200 for a teacher’s salary, $3,500 to feed all preschoolers and $400 for the staff’s health insurance. When working toward funding operating expenses, Caren said she personalizes – donors funding teachers’ salaries learn their names, about their families and how their salaries are improving their lives.

The Kilgoris Project helps the town create sustainable income sources. By partnering with a nongovernmental organization, an employee is now trained to grow and harvest tea crops. Many villagers maintain subsistence gardens, but most crops are boom or bust. Tea plants live longer and are more drought-tolerant. While it takes three years for the crop to mature, it yields a continuous, weekly harvest.

A second income source is a women’s crafts cooperative. The Masai are known for their beadwork, usually created for ceremonial purposes, and are adept weavers. Caren brought crafts to teach the women to produce and sell in Kenya. The Kilgoris Project has provided seed money, determines product mixes and pursues sales channels.

Linda Orandi, the McCormacks’ neighbor and business manager for the women’s cooperative, joined the growing effort.

“A lot of people think about helping, but the McCormacks are actually doing it,” Orlandi said. “They are making a difference with hundreds of children in Africa.”

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