Thursday, 24 January 2013

A model of charitable enterprise

The first day of 2013 was dawning when Layla Hamadi arrived in Kenya ready for a month volunteering with our Happy House family.
A graduate from Belfast and Oxford universities, Layla has been ready to turn her hand to anything  - from washing up to teaching.
She has also seen first hand, with our social worker Uncle Billy as her guide, the complex way children's services work in Kenya.
Layla, 27, who grew up on the Fylde coast, has also been getting to know her sponsor child Peninah and her mum Karen's sponsor child Sauma.
Here Layla,  a nursing assistant  working with adolescents with severe mental health difficulties at a specialist unit in Oxford  who is also a member of an Oxford University research team investigating adolescent-onset schizophrenia with nasal stem cell technology , writes about her Happy House experience which is now drawing to a close.
''When I boldly announced the decision to my friends in Oxford that I was planning to take time off work to spend a month volunteering overseas during January, the feeling was that this was a slight overreaction to a classic British summer of truly appalling weather.
 But it was something I had wanted to do for a while and I originally planned to go to Fiji where they were asking for support in a centre for children with mental health difficulties. This seemed perfect as I work in a psychiatric hospital for adolescents at home and love my job.
 But my mum suggested that I come to the Happy House instead, where I have sponsored the lovely Peninah for a while.
The idea sounded very appealing and, after some consideration, I got in touch with Mama Sue. After this, I was convinced I wanted to come and things began to happen quickly.
With many promises to my mum to  take lots of pictures of Sauma who she sponsors, I booked a complex flight to Kenya with stops in Istanbul and Kilimanjaro (selecting the Hindu meal option out of curiosity), booked in for some outrageously expensive vaccinations and reserved a room nearby.
I flew on New Year’s Eve, arriving early in the morning at Mombasa airport in jeans and nearly passed out from the heat. 
Shortly after I arrived at what would be my home for the next month and, after a cursory application of Deet, I was on my way to the Happy House. 
The warmth between the children and staff is apparent to visitors from the moment they come through the door. The fact that the children are so excited to see new people and so affectionate speaks volumes about they way they are cared for.
A number of the girls were grimly determined to braid my hair and whenever I sat down, they flocked around. Undoing a full head of braids took me the best part of three hours as I sat back in my room.
Happy House has an ethos and reputation which has captured the interest of many visitors in the area.
A group of American volunteers who took me for the day to Gede school for children with cerebral palsy and deafness expressed an interest in visiting as they heard about its set-up and how it is respected in the community as a wonderful success story. 
We also had some representatives from the US Navy come to visit who are stationed here working with local government and NGOs who were particularly impressed and are coming back to meet Mama Sue.
Many  people fear donating to charities in Africa because they worry  their money will not get to those they wish to support and various people I have met while here in Kenya have spoken about corruption as a problem. There is no question that this is an issue globally, but the opinion seems to be that a lack of transparency and accountability here deepens the problem. The fact that the Happy House is somewhere where people can be confident that everything they give goes to the children and where the staff so clearly love and care for the kids makes it a model of charitable enterprise.
This trip has certainly taught me plenty. It has been interesting to make home visits to families to discuss possible cases as well as visiting the Children’s Department when going to pick up little Moses. These, plus Moses return to his mother, have helped me to understand more about the legal system here, with Uncle Billy patiently answering all my questions.
Taking the children to the clinic and the hospital has reminded me of the gulf in healthcare between here and home. 
The moment where the doctor told me the anti-malaria drugs I had been prescribed in England were useless was a bit of a low point as I held a squirming toddler in my arms. He brightly followed this gem up with a request to send him an Arsenal top when I got home as they don’t post to Kenya.  
Teaching a couple of English classes has increased my respect for primary school teachers across the world. A group of young children can take 10 minutes to locate their pencil, open an exercise book and write the date.
 I possibly lack the sort of tranquil patience that marks out skilled teachers, but there is no question that those that work at this school are dedicated to the children and passionate about what they do.
I am always so encouraged when I see the children reading, something which I have always loved. Margaret is currently in possession of the first volume of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials which I am giving to the kids in instalments and I hope they love as much as I did.
I hope to wean them on to Harry Potter shortly. Today I have brought my Kindle in to show them which I hope they enjoy trying out (and don’t break, otherwise that Hindu meal is going to be the highlight of my flight back).
Some of the most enjoyable moments I have had so far have been while spending free time with the children. Playing with the babies, watching dvds, sitting with the kids at lunchtime and pushing them on the swings in the garden.
I have found it heart-warming how wonderful 16-year old Lucinda is with the younger children and enjoyed chatting to some of the older ones, notably Rukia whose good English reveals a razor sharp wit. 
As I hurriedly type this out , aware that it is tea and biscuit time in a few moments, I realise I am more than halfway through my stay.
I sometimes idly wonder if I could take one of the smaller children back to Oxford with me without Mama Sue noticing - but I suspect this is unrealistic!
I will have to take as many photos as possible and,maybe,return one day.
To anyone considering coming out here themselves I would warmly recommend it.''
*To find out more about volunteering at the Happy House please visit: