Regents chair Paula Meyer '76 brings hope to AIDs orphans in Kenya

March 06, 2009

by Tiffany Choi, student news writer

In the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, every day is a struggle to survive. Families pack into one-room corrugated iron shacks, few have electricity, running water is scarce, and pit latrines serve as bathrooms.

Amidst these devastating conditions, the ones who suffer most are the children, especially children whose parents are infected with of have died from AIDS.

But a few of these children are being given an opportunity to rise out of their poverty through the support of Friends of Ngong Road, a nonprofit organization founded by Luther College Regent Paula Meyer. Friends of Ngong Road, established in 2007, is a sponsorship program that connects donors in the U.S. with AIDS orphans in Nairobi, providing them an education, safety and well being, and a supportive community.

Meyer first encountered the plight of Kenya's AIDS orphans in the slums of Nairobi while vacationing with her family in 2005. Before she traveled to Kenya, her friend and Luther classmate Sue Tjornehoj (both are 1976 Luther graduates) encouraged her to visit Rev. Peter Ndungu, a Lutheran pastor who was helping AIDS orphans in Nairobi.

Ndungu, born in Nairobi, was orphaned at the age of 11. He found support in a nearby Lutheran church to pursue a formal education and eventually became a Lutheran pastor. After studying at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, he returned to the impoverished Nairobi streets.

From Ndungu, Meyer learned of the thousands of Nairobi children whose parents have died or are dying from AIDS. These orphans often go hungry when caretakers are unable to provide meals, and they frequently miss school to care for family members.

Mary Gathoni, one of the orphaned children, expresses her situation through a poem titled "Someone Crying."

"To whom do I belong in this world? Nobody wants to listen to me because of my dirty and hopeless place..."

Deeply moved by the orphans' stories, Meyer responded immediately. When she discovered the cost to support a child for one year would be only $400 a year, her visions for a sponsorship program began to emerge.

"I knew they needed help and that it should start with me, so I emptied my wallet, she says.

On the airline flight home, Meyer began formulating her plans to start a sponsorship program. She returned to the United States full of enthusiasm and recruited her friends Keith Kale, also a 1976 Luther graduate, and Tjornehoj to join her. They applied for nonprofit status in the U.S. while Pastor Ndungu established a nongovernmental organization in Kenya.

In 2007, Friends of Ngong Road became a reality in conjunction with its sister organization Ngong Road Children Association in Kenya. Today more than 215 donors contribute to the program.

Friends of Ngong Road owes much of its success to the dozens of dedicated volunteers who have collaborated on this project and to its network of supporters, says Meyer.

"When you include people in the Decorah community, Luther alumni, Luther regents, and Luther faculty and staff, about 10 percent of our supporters are somehow connected to Luther College," says Meyer.

Kadra Abdi, 2008 Luther graduate, currently serves on the program's development committee. While at Luther, she initiated a campus fundraiser generating almost $1,000. Leah Jensen, Meyer's niece and Luther sophomore, organized a fundraiser for Friends of Ngong Road as a senior in high school. In addition, Ellie Meyer, Luther senior and Paula Meyer's daughter, raised money for the organization as part of a class project.

The premise of the organization is simple: by donating $62.50 a month, a donor can provide a child with the resources for survival and for school. This donation pays for school fees, tutoring, a uniform, books, supplies and two daily meals. The program also supports Saturday activities and basic health care. Recently, the organization has launched a Student and Senior Sponsorship for $25 a month.

Twice a year, Meyer visits Nairobi to review the program's progress. She can affirm its positive effect on the children through first hand experience.

On one of her first visits, she met Elijah Mwathi and Amos Njenga, brothers whose mother is blind and albino and whose father died of AIDS, leaving the family in extreme poverty. The two boys, their mother, their sister and the sisters small child all live in an eight-by-eight foot house with no electricity. Some mornings the brothers would drink only a cup of warm water for breakfast.

Friends of the Ngong Road has given the boys an opportunity to escape poverty. Elijah no longer dreams of his next meal but rather of becoming a doctor so that he can "treat his mother's struggling eyes."

Susan Wanjiru is one of the oldest children in the sponsorship program, and her story is one of the most inspiring. In the second grade, she dropped out of school because both her parents had died. Yet Susan never gave up her dream of becoming a teacher.

With the support of her sponsor, she returned to school after 10 years, entering the third grade at the age of 17. She earned high marks, was moved up to the sixth grade, and continues to work towards the completion of her education.

"The power of education is transformative," says Meyer, "and when you live in the most abject of conditions, the only way to get out is through education."

The majority of the people who live in the slums are day laborers, constantly struggling to make ends meet. An education provides an opportunity to pursue skilled employment, which is key to the development of the individual as well as to the development of the nation, Meyer says.

"There is no such thing as a well-educated poor country," says Kale, co-founder and head of marketing of Friends of Ngong Road program.

Kenya, a democratic nation located on the horn of Africa, southwest of Ethiopia and Somalia, has inherited a history of poverty and political corruption. Now the AIDS epidemic has exacerbated the devastating conditions, simultaneously damaging the education sector.

As fewer people are able to get basic education, the rates of poverty and illness, especially AIDS cases, increase, continuing the cycle of poverty and disease.

The success of Friends of the Ngong Road reveals that through mutual and compassionate relationships the cycle can be broken. One child at a time, the Friends of Ngong Road is transforming the poorest of children into contributing members of the global community, helping to bridge the gap between wealthy and poor nations.

For more information about Friends of Ngong Road, visit www.ngongroad.org. Contributions are tax deductible.

About Paula Meyer

Paula Meyer graduated from Luther College in 1976 and holds the master of business administration degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. She previously served as senior vice president at Ameriprise Financial, senior vice president at American Express 1998-2001, president of Piper Capital Management in Minneapolis 1993-98, and executive vice president with SECURA Insurance Companies, Appleton, Wis., 1988-93.

She is the co-founder of Fox Cities Children's Museum in Appleton, Wis. and was the recipient of the Fox Cities Pinnacle Award for community service in 1993. In 1996 she received Luthers Distinguished Service Award.