” If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
There are stories and then there is this story, one of the most remarkable journeys I have encountered in my nonprofit adventures. A beautiful tale of survival, love, goodness and hope. The setting is Kenya, where there are 2.6 million homeless children and sixty percent of the country survives on less than a dollar a day. Like any great tale there is a heroine, her name is Gift. The story opens when Gift’s mother died of AIDS. Gift was six years old and was carrying her six month old baby brother on her back to find food and medical help for him. A group of street children told Gift that the baby she was carrying was dead. These street children took Gift to meet their friend Anthony.
Anthony Mulango was a prominent journalist in Kenya and from a well to do family. He was doing a report on the street children in Mombasa and had befriended many of them when young Gift appeared. Anthony brought Gift into his home, hired a woman to take care of her, sent her to school and essentially raised Gift as his daughter.
The story takes a twist in 2007, when Irish journalist Thomas Keown was traveling to Kenya and met Gift and Anthony. He came back to the United States where he had a newspaper column published in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Thomas wrote a column about sacrifice and mentioned Anthony and Gift. The article’s response came with letters and checks which became the start of Many Hopes. I spoke with Thomas this week and I came away from our conversation in awe of what love, dedication and vision combined can achieve. Here is our conversation:
Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Many Hopes Does?
Thomas Keown: We rescue, educate and advocate for children. Fundamentally we believe that children who suffer injustice are the most powerful agents of change. We want children to defeat the causes of injustice that they survived. We work for Gift, she is the true founder of Many Hopes. Many Hopes is more than a school it is a long term strategic solution to the corruption and poverty that exploits the most vulnerable children. When the poorest children are educated along side children with means they help one another to have confidence and to build a network that will make them free to make their own choices and not need charity.
Growing up in Belfast during a time of termoil. I learned early and was privileged to witness that lessons that seemingly unsolvable problems can and do have solutions if the right ingredients come to bare. If you can transform a generation, you can transform anything.
Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew that you needed to start Many Hopes?
Thomas Keown:When I met Anthony I was struck by his life of sacrifice and I wondered what I would have done at 28 if I had seen Gift? I wasn’t sure if I would have been able to make the sacrifice that Anthony made. Would I have taken Gift into my home and arranged for the burial of her brother?
I had seen poverty in my travels before going to Kenya in 2007. I came home from my trip and wrote my weekly newspaper column and talked about what people need to do to have a useful and purposeful life. I mentioned Anthony and Gift in the last two paragraphs of the column, as an example of people doing that. I asked people to consider to use their lives and resources for good. I had never thought about a nonprofit organization.
The power of story kicked in and the reality is that every human being wants to be impactful. I had never seen letters before like we did from this article. An editor in New York began to forward all the emails she received and reached out to me. People wanted to do good, to meet me and to help Anthony. In the beginning we were just trying to help Anthony and raise some money. I knew he was very smart and that I had access to resources living in the States so I volunteered trying to raise funds and became part time and six years ago came on full time for Many Hopes.
Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?
Thomas Keown: Most fundamentally I’m a a Christian, this is what I am on earth to do. My driving motivation is my faith. Growing up in Northern Ireland during a violent time I have always been driven by work that supports justice. I believe the work that we are doing is transformational. I see results in the lives of individual children. I am fueled to keep doing this work when I see students who should be dead are now in college instead. When you get tired you just need to look at the individual milestones.
Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?
Thomas Keown: To be honest, sometimes I don’t know we have made a difference. You don’t always know the love and education that a six year old child receives will do to them, you do know it will do something. We see girls are afraid who become trusting. We see children find faith. We see the worst of what humans can do to one another and the best. Then you see one of our first students like Brenda. Brenda told us from the time she was little that she wanted to be an attorney. She said, ” I hope I can become an attorney to defend someone’s rights because someone defended my rights.” Seeing Brenda graduate with her law degree and then to use her degree to advocate for other children, like herself, that is when I see the work we have done.
I also see the people who support our work. The favorite part of my job is inviting people to partner with us and to feed their souls.I get to help people discover or rediscover the joy of generosity and the pleasure of changing other peoples lives. We get to change these donors lives and our children in Kenya’s lives as well.
Charity Matters: Tell us what successes you have had?
Thomas Keown:We have built girls’ homes, built a school for 900 boys and girls where students of priveledge and poor students are educated together. We are reservoir of aspiration that is narrow but deep. We are not trying to educate millions of people. Rather we are focusing on love and education on these few, we are creating leaders and influencers who will create great change.
Charity Matters: how has this experience changed you?
Thomas Keown: I have learned to overcome. I am much more committed and persistent than I used to be. I know that I am doing the thing that I am supposed to be doing. I am more optimistic than ever having seen donors and children’s lives changed. I have no unmet needs.
Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this journey?
Thomas Keown: Life lessons, I’ve learned so many in the past eleven years. I have learned self care and to rest. This work is so important that often we keep pushing on overdrive but I have learned to rest. I have learned that I don’t need to worry about rejection or failure but to simply overcome.
I used to need tangible success but have learned that you don’t know the immeasurable lasting impact you have on someone’s life until years later. We don’t always know who we will carry so when in doubt be kind.
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