Cornwall woman moved by plight of children in East Africa

Published on March 4, 2017

JIM DAY/TC MEDIA Gaylene Smith of Cornwall took hundreds of photos while doing work last month in East Africa on behalf of Island-based Mikinduri Children of Hope. In this image, students line up for lunch at one of the school feeding programs sponsored by the P.E.I. charitable group.

CORNWALL, P.E.I. - The second visit was jolting. Gaylene Smith of Cornwall first travelled to Mikinduri – a dirt-poor rural area in Kenya – in 2013.

For the most part, Smith, who had taught dental assisting at Holland College for 28 years, stayed put in a clinic as people came to her for dental care.

Her exposure to the severe and widespread poverty of these people was quite limited.

Not so this time around.

Smith made the multi-purpose trip on her own last month as a project co-ordinator with Mikinduri Children of Hope, an Island-based charity established to help relieve poverty and sickness and help raise the standard of living in the Mikinduri area.

Smith encountered meager conditions at every turn.

There was a hospital that had no running water.

Nurses delivered babies by the light of cellphones chomped between their teeth.

Mud huts served for schools. Up to 80 children crammed into a single classroom, many forced to sit on a clay floor.

Large cracks in the walls of classrooms suggested they could come crumbling down at any moment.

And there was that one family Smith visited in the Mikinduri area towards the end of her trip.

The father had mental health issues. He was not able to support his family of seven.

Their home was simply beyond belief.

“Their house – it wasn’t even a house – had literally fallen down, and they were still living in it,’’ says Smith.

“You couldn’t even call it a frame. It was just rubble and they had nothing else, so that is what they were living in.’’

Schools in Mikinduri are often simply mud huts with cracked walls. As many as 80 students cram into a single classroom with many students forced to sit on clay floors.

Smith’s visit to Western Province in Kenya was also an unnerving eye opener.

There she met with a group called the Caregivers Group, a collection of widows, widowers and grandparents tasked with looking after many children.

Among the children were about 150 orphans who had lost their parents to AIDS, which is rampant in the area.

Collectively, the experiences weighed heavily on Smith.

“Emotionally, you are raw,’’ she says.

Smith was in anger and disbelief that a government could leave its citizens to live in such deplorable conditions, largely to fend on their own.

“I found that I was mad at the government,’’ she says.

Still, she marvelled at the strength of the people. Deeply religious, they soldier on without complaint.

“They keep believing tomorrow is going to be better,’’ she says.

“I don’t know how they do it.’’

Mikinduri Children of Hope has helped improve the lives of many. Since forming in 2003, more than $1 million has been raised to fund numerous education, health care and agriculture programs, as well as other special projects.

Smith delivered 450 feminine hygiene kits to six schools in Mikinduri during her productive three-week trip.

The purpose of the kits is to enable female students to remain in school. When girls reach puberty in Mikinduri, they consistently miss up to five or six days a month because they cannot afford feminine pads or tampons.

Smith also spent time visiting Mikinduri Children of Hope project sites to assess water projects, classroom construction, scholarship programs and feeding programs in seven schools.

She is heartened by the impact her group is making.

“There’s still a need – definitely there’s a need there,’’ she is quick to add.

Smith has returned to P.E.I. determined to work to get more help for Mikinduri children.

She is making presentations to churches. She is rallying support.

“We’ve got to sponsor those kids and do what we can to help them,’’ she says.

“It’s just something that once you see it, you feel it and you can’t walk away.’’

Gaylene Smith, project coordinator with Mikinduri Children of Hope, poses with female students in Mikinduri after distributing feminine hygiene kits. Submitted photo