Monday, 21 October 2013

A remarkable model

Management consultants, Andrew and Amy Dickinson volunteered at the Happy House as part of a three-month sabbatical.
Now back home in London, Andrew, who grew up on the Fylde coast, has written this blog about their experience.
"Amy and I have spent a memorable three weeks in Watamu volunteering at the Happy House as part of a three- month sabbatical from work. 
Our time at the Happy House has been a truly unforgettable experience and has surpassed all of our expectations. The tone was set by the warmest of welcomes received as soon as we walk through the Happy House gates.
Children, teachers and all the staff greet you with a warm handshake and a beaming smile that immediately makes you feel at home.
We have been part of Musyoka's sponsorship family for the last 12-months but it was difficult to fully understand the amazing work being done at the Happy House until we spent some time here. 
A couple of themes really struck me that makes it a particular special place.
Firstly, it is a family that love and cares for each other. This is clearly evident among the children who care and support each other. If one child falls over there is always someone else there to pick them up and dust them down.
Secondly, it is a place that is not content with merely providing a stable home for the children but is striving for excellence and aims to set these kids up for long and bright futures.
The model itself is remarkable, combining a home for poor and vulnerable children with the best school in the area that attracts the most talented and financially secure day pupils from the outside. A great example of doing things differently is that the children set their own academic achievement targets. This immediately empowers the children and is really paying off with the results being achieved.
Mama Sue's vision for the Happy House is ambitious and still a work in progress. Longer term plans include building a secondary school and also building supported living units for the children to use once they have left school and are starting to make their way in the world.
The current project underway is to relocate the library and computer room to a new purpose built resource centre. This will free up space for the older kids to live in more independent dorms whilst also allowing the family to grow beyond the 75 kids currently living at the Happy House.
These projects alongside the day to day running of an ever expanding school and children's home bring huge challenges for the entire Happy House team. Mama Sue is quick to point out that the Happy House is more than just smiles and cuddles from the children. Capital funding is a major issue for the future plans, as is the cash flow required to keep 30+ full time staff employed 365 days a year.
Successfully managing a business on this scale would be a challenge back in the UK, however, it is that bit more difficult in Kenya.
Resources are more difficult to come by and there is a tendency for local tradesmen to try to inflate their prices.
Mama Sue is wise to their ways.  She insists on getting only the best value for money and makes every penny go as far as possible to positively impact the kids, which means a constant battle with suppliers, builders etc over the price and quality of work.
The good news is that this battle is paying off as the facilities at the school are consistently improving. Just the the last couple of months, and thanks to the efforts of fellow volunteer, Frankie, a football field and play area have been finished.
 The contrasting reality to these improvements is that day to day resources remain in desperately short supply, for example, whilst we were there the school had run out of pencils. It sounds a cliche to say that every penny donated to the Happy House makes a difference but after spending some time here I can honestly vouch that it really does.
Our own experience was very special. We immediately fell in love with the children and the more time you spend with them the more rewarding it is as you get to know the individual characters.
That said, it didn't mean the children didn't push their luck with us as they looked to get the measure of the new volunteers. When they did something naughty it would be greeted with the cheekiest of knowing smiles and our hearts would melt.
Another observation is the children's overwhelming desire to learn. One of my favourite classes was library where I would sit with children from class 1 and 2 whilst they read stories to me. Each day I would ask who wanted to read for me and I would then be besieged by children wanting to read and learn.
With Musyoka and Francis
The desire to learn transcends into music and sports as well. They love to learn songs, especially with actions involved. Amy managed to teach the kindergarten "Swing low, sweet chariot" plus actions. Dancing is another natural talent for the children and  they will be up dancing as soon as the music starts. 
Unfortunately my own attempt to dance like a Kenyan was not too successful - us English boys were not born to move our hips.
I also loved spending some time with them playing sports. Football is a natural passion for the boys and girls but I was also struck by how quickly and naturally they picked up news skills. One example was that we dug a long jump pit in the gardens in preparation for the Happy House Olympic Games. As we were completing it the children started to wander over to see what was happening. They immediately recognised the challenge and after one or two practice attempts were jumping great distances. I think it will need to be made longer soon otherwise they will be jumping out of the pit!
We have also learnt a lot personally from spending time in the Happy House. Life does run at a different pace in Kenya and this has brought a need for patience that is not required and easily dismissed back home in the UK. Putting on the Olympics has also tested our organisation and communication skills. Having said that it was worth it to hear the cheering and see the smiles on the children's faces.
I hope this provides some insight into our time spent in the Happy House. Finally, what we will take back home is that the Happy House vision is clear and inspiring and we feel a small but important part of making it happen.
 Most of all we are eager to see what the children will achieve in the future. In our hearts we know it is significantly more because of the opportunities presented to them from being in the Happy House family.''