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Kenya kids can: “feeding and teaching the world changers of tomorrow”

An interview with Steve Peifer and Mark Daubenmier

Recently I read A Dream So Big: One Unlikely Journey to End the Tears of Hunger. The book is Steve Peifer’s memoir about how God led him and his wife Nancy to found Kenya Kids Can (KKC) in Kijabe, Kenya. My interest was piqued. I wanted to share his story with Christian Courier readers. While interviewing Steve, he asked me to contact Mark Daubenmier, the current director of the program, since he and Nancy moved back to the United States a year ago.

Steve, in your book, you share a pivotal family event that caused you to leave your job in the United States in 1998 and go to Kenya. What happened and how did God work through your circumstances?

Steve: One of my children died. My wife and I were struggling. I felt like the Lord said, “Make your wife’s dream come true.” She had always wanted to go to Africa. We had friends working at Rift Valley Academy (RVA) in Kijabe, Kenya, and they invited us out for a year to be dorm parents. It ended up being 14 years. Africa can get a hold on you.

Upon arrival in Kenya, one of your e-mails to friends back home mentioned that “the poverty here puts such tremendous pressure on folks” (p. 33). What did you mean by that?

Steve: Most people in Kenya make a dollar a day. If a child grows out of shoes, there is no money to replace the shoes. If a child gets sick, there is no money to go to a doctor. Most Kenyans only eat one full meal a day. Every day brings pressure — the pressure to survive.

Once in Kenya, how did you begin your “unlikely journey to end the tears of hunger,” as your subtitle says?

Steve: Along with other RVA staff members, I was visiting a school during a drought and we had brought some food along. We went into a classroom and the kids were lying on the ground. There were dirt floors. The Kenyan schools are so strictnthey would normally beat a child for lying on the dirt floor. When I asked why the students were lying on the dirt floor, a teacher said, “It is Thursday. The children haven’t eaten since Monday. When they sit up straight, they faint.”

That changed everything for me. We got donations to start a lunch program at one school. At the end of the school year, the dropout rate went from 50 percent to less than one percent. On the national exam, that school had always been at the bottom of their school zone. At the end of the year, they were first. The only difference was the food. The lunch program grew to almost 20,000 students at 34 schools, but I will defer to Mark who can clarify the latest numbers.

Mark: At one time there were 34 schools and 20,000 students. We are now focusing exclusively on primary schools (preschool to 8th grade) and are working in 25 schools with a little more than 16,000 children. We are grateful to God that we have been able to maintain the feeding program in these 25 schools for the last year despite higher food prices in the country right now due to the poor short-rain harvest.

One of the things I love about the feeding program is that it is a true partnership with the local community. The local community builds the kitchen, buys the pots, provides a secure room to store the grain, hires the cooks, and either buys the fuel for the fire or has each child bring a stick to school every day for the fire. They do what they can do, which are just the things we would not be able to do easily. KKC provides the maize, beans and cooking fat — items that are too expensive for the local community. So by working together, we can accomplish something for the children that neither KKC nor the community could do on their own. Because of the community support, the cost of a hot lunch served to a child is only eight cents (US).

Steve, besides the lunch program, you helped establish computer labs for students. How did God lead you to do that?

Steve: I was at a school, and the head master told me his goal was one book for every four students; presently, it was one book for every 14 students. When I left, the presidential caravan went by with 15 new Mercedes. I realized that aid to the country would never get to the school, and I spent the whole drive home hitting my fist on my steering wheel. By the time I got home, I believe God had given me the idea for a solar computer center. Watching kids who live in mud huts do spreadsheets has fed my soul in ways I can’t quite articulate, but it certainly has given them more hope for the future. Mark can give an update on what is happening today.

Mark: The tag line for KKC is “Feeding and Teaching the World Changers of Tomorrow.” These children will not be able to be the future leaders in their communities, in Kenya, or in the world if they don’t know what a computer is or how to use one. The world will simply pass them by.

Providing a computer education to children who go to a school where there is no power is a remarkable thing. In the last center we opened I asked an 8th grade girl what she knew about computers. She said, “We have heard of such things, but we have never seen one.” Now she knows how to use one.

But the benefits do not stop there. One young girl told Steve that she loves computer class because it makes her think. The education in our centers is inherently hands on and problem solving in nature. Another benefit is that we can essentially provide a library to the schools with computer centers. None of the national schools we work in have a library and the children don’t have things to read. We are now distributing the RACHEL project to our centers (rachel.worldpossible.org) which brings wikipedia, Kahn Academy, and a host of other educational materials to the school in an offline format that can be used in our centers. Not only is this great for students, teachers in the schools are especially excited about this because they now can come into the computer center to read about a topic that they will be presenting in class.

What are some of the long-range impacts of the two programs?

Steve: If we can get a generation through high school with good nutrition who learn computer skills and who know that it was Jesus who gave them the opportunity, I think the country will change.

Mark: “Look at these children,” a teacher said to me as he waved his hand broadly. I was standing in a school yard observing the students taking their lunch. Since there is not a cafeteria, I thought he may have been referring to how they spread out over the school grounds to eat. “Look at how they run and play. This is what children do when they have food.” He knows better than I what it was like before the feeding program came to the school. Children were hungry. Hungry children don't run and play . . . or learn. Instead, they often leave school to look for food or don’t come in the first place.

It is hard for me to know the long-range impact of having children in school and learning, but I suspect it is large. It is also significant for them to know that people from around the world who love Jesus also love them enough to help their communities provide a lunch so they can learn.

In your book, Steve, you discuss the challenges of providing aid, and ask, “How can you help without damaging what is precious in a culture?” (p. 153) How would you answer your own question?

Steve: It is a question that you have to ask often. So much aid can create dependency and run contrary to what is important in that culture. We feel clear that our work is with students and providing them with tools to equip them to be successful as adults. We have had many opportunities to branch out, but we have stayed focused on our calling.                                             

When I read A Dream So Big, I was particularly struck by one quote. In an e-mail to supporters, you wrote, “There is a weird dichotomy in the Christian life: We are called to excellence, and to give it our all. And yet, at the end of the day, we know that it is all in God’s hands. Some Christians err on the side of not doing anything, and being presumptive of God’s will. Others feel like they need to do it all, and God becomes an afterthought to their effort” (pp. 290, 291). How have you dealt with that dichotomy as you’ve sought to feed hungry children?

Steve: When you are around huge need, it’s so easy to respond to need rather than to respond to God. For me, when I was called to something, I felt the freedom to give it my best shot, but realized that if God didn’t move, it would be an abject failure.

To learn more about the ongoing work of Kenya Kids Can, visit their website at KenyaKidsCan.org or contact them at moc.liamg@nac.sdik.aynek.

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