When people in Lake Wylie think of Kenya Orphanage Project, they probably think founder Monique Boekhout. But for folks in Kenya, the face of the group is Sharon Odemba.
Odemba, 30, is the first KOP college graduate since Boekhout founded it in 2002 to provide educational and other resources to children in Nairobi, Kenya. Odemba now works for KOP after receiving a degree in counseling psychology from Kenyatta University in Nairobi. It’s an opportunity she wouldn’t have had without supporters in Lake Wylie, where KOP began.
Odemba, in turn, assists KOP with efforts that wouldn’t be possible without her.
“Sharon is really the point between everything there,” Boekhout said.
Odemba arrived the week of April 4 in Lake Wylie for a three-week stay. It’s her first time in the U.S. and first time on an airplane. She will visit the beach and shopping malls, and taste local barbecue. She also has a host of speaking engagements to explain what impact KOP still has in Kenya after more than a decade there.
“There’s a lot of need in Kenya,” Odemba said. “Helping orphans and children in need is a worthy cause.”
Odemba finished high school in 2004, two years after Boekhout and others began making trips and working with a Nairobi orphanage. The women first met in 2005. When problems arose between KOP and the orphanage it worked with in 2009, Boekhout needed a new arrangement.
“We had 32 kids who were pretty much on the street,” she said.
Odemba had her own concerns. After her mother died, she needed a job. Odemba had worked as a dorm attendant. She became a KOP staff member in 2009, a liaison between efforts here and there. She watched and worked with the dozens of students as she continued her own education.
“It was very difficult,” Odemba said. “While I was going to school I was also taking care of people who were also going to school.”
With so many young people having little or no family support at all, challenges arose.
“There were lots of emergencies,” Odemba said.
Plus, the KOP bylaws restrict how money can be spent in Kenya. Boekhout had to reach out to supporters with the idea of adding Odemba into the fold.
“KOP could not pay money for her, because she was not a child,” Boekhout said.
Supporters, like Boekhout, quickly saw the value.
“She was like a mother for those kids,” Boekhout said.
In 2010, KOP began partnering with House of Hope. The 15-acre Nairobi campus has primary through high school, boarding and day schools, even a vocational school. KOP efforts help supply the school including its skills training area. There are plans for a bakery.
“Money is, of course, the issue,” Boekhout said.
Students have to keep high marks to progress from one school to the next. They have to report their progress to KOP. They have to take classes on a given trade. All under the eye of Odemba, who five years after joining KOP and four years after the House of Hope partnership, received her university degree.
Despite plans in June for her 11th trip to Kenya, Boekhout knows she can’t always be there for students. She would like to see them turn to someone who can, as inspiration.
“The ones who are smart enough, they realize where they come from,” Boekhout said. “When they see Sharon and what she has accomplished, they become motivated.”
Odemba didn’t always dream of overseeing so many young people, providing support for those who often lived a lifetime without it.
“At first I didn’t know that it was something in me,” Odemba said. “It’s something I began to enjoy.”
Like anywhere else, some students are more motivated than others. Some are more driven.
“They’re different,” Odemba said. “They come with different personalities, different goals, different dreams.”
What they have in common now is an opportunity. Orphans in Kenya are susceptible to abuse in a variety of ways, Odemba said. Jobs available to them may involve drugs. KOP offers another way.
“It’s giving them hope,” she said. “They learn to dream and dream big.”
KOP will change in coming years. Several students graduated recently, and three more will this year. Only about 20 students will remain. When all have graduated in the next five years or so, KOP money will go from tuition and upkeep needs to ongoing educational grants.
Boekhout will “never totally disconnect” from Kenya, in part because of relationships like the one she made with Odemba, keeping the spirit of KOP alive in so distant a place.
“It’s getting easier,” Boekhout said. “We’re getting better, too. We’re learning as much as the kids are.”
In some ways, Boekhout believes Odemba is the face of the organization here and there. Here, she is proof of the work so many individuals and churches made possible since 2002, many of them the whole time. There, Odemba is proof of possibility for children no matter their beginnings.
Three weeks stateside is a chance to promote KOP and connect with supporters, but also an opportunity to celebrate both.
“It’s ‘Thank you, Sharon,’ ” Boekhout said. “KOP would not be able to do what we do without you.”
John Marks: 803-831-8166
Want to know more?
For more about Kenya Orphanage Project, including to schedule a speaking event or meet Sharon Odemba, call 704-301-3652.