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This is part 2 of the 3-part blog series introducing the story and people behind Students for Amani. If you missed part 1, go here.
After having met the faces behind Students for Amani, let us introduce you to Marina, the coordinator of the first project that has been supported by Students for Amani. Through an interview, we dive into Marina’s personal and professional background and everything related to how she ended up managing Makungu e.V., the German foundation in charge of supporting the needs of the Makungu Care Home in Kenya.
But before, you probably wonder why this project was chosen as a beneficiary in the first place.
A story of trust and solidarity
Students for Amani has set principles when it comes to selecting their collaborators. In order to receive donations from the charity organization, a project needs to focus on children’s rights, be small-scale, transparent and socially sustainable.
With this in mind, Julia, one of the co-founders, initiated the contact with Marina. She had known Makungu through her personal connection to some volunteers at the project which was one of the cornerstones for mutual trust. Students for Amani knew the project actually existed and had a positive impact on children’s lives.
The fact that Kenya ended up being the country of the first supported project by Students for Amani is pure coincidence. Instead of focusing on a specific region, the team aims to support children and teenagers in difficult situations regardless of their geographic location.
Over the course of time, the informal chats with Marina turned into a formal collaboration because the team was convinced that Makungu’s setup perfectly fit the requirements. A select group of children, most of them orphans, is provided with shelter and food, a second family, and good education. The latter is where Students for Amani steps in by sending donations to the project to cover school fees.
What better way to use donations than to ensuring a bright and self-sustainable future for disadvantaged children?
The close collaboration has manifested itself through routine monthly calls where the two parties exchange their progress and necessities while also proving through regular receipts that the money is used for the right purpose.
Now that we have set the scene, on to the actual interview!
From volunteer to charity leader - Marina’s story
Students for Amani (SfA): Hi Marina! To start off, tell us a bit about yourself and your background!
Marina (M): Hello to everyone in the Students for Amani community! Looking forward to the conversation.
To give some context to my story, I was born and raised in Munich, Germany where I also currently reside. After graduating from high school in 2012, in search of realizing my teenage dream to become a songwriter and popstar, I moved to Berlin. It’s one of the best places in Germany in terms of pop culture and arts, and just generally a great city for young and old.
As you might have heard here or there, the music industry is tough and only very few people make a decent living with their gigs etc. This is exactly what led me to struggle with my plans and ended up in an identity crisis where I felt completely lost. Still, I decided to continue which somehow was a good choice looking back at it now.
SfA: You say it was a good choice. Can you elaborate on that?
M: Yeah definitely. It’s a long story that ultimately led to where I am today so take a seat.
Since we students needed to do a curricular internship during the studies, I decided to go to Kenya where I would be helping out schools as a music teacher. After contacting a small charity organization in Nakuru, the fourth biggest city in Kenya, and working through all the papers, I started working there in 2015. In practice, I tried to teach the local children a feeling for music and rhythms with the occasional lesson in singing.
What made the experience very interesting and challenging for me was the mix between abled and disabled children that I worked with. For the latter group of kids I focused more on speech therapy. Also the places where I carried out my work, from orphanages to slums, taught me valuable lessons in life.
One of the main projects in a care home was to create a musical together to be later performed in school by the children. Throughout the course of the musical development, I developed a strong connection to each of the children. But what really stuck with me was what one of the girls that used to call me ‘big sister’ told me one day: “Wherever you are, your home will always be here.”
SfA: Wow, those are the kind of moments that one never forgets. You must have left a lasting impression on the children. But were you alone in this project?
M: No, I wasn’t the only one there. At the organization where I was volunteering I met Liz, a woman from Nakuru with whom I became best friends. And at the care home, I closely collaborated with the coordinator/mama Genrix. At that time, no one was thinking about setting up a charity or structure to support the local children in the future. Due to the uncertainty if I would ever see the children, Liz and Genrix again, it was a tearful goodbye as you can imagine.
Nevertheless, I was eternally grateful for what I have learned during the internship about different ways of life, human values, and cross-cultural understanding. Music in the end creates a powerful bond.
SfA: We can imagine! What happened after you left Kenya?
M: Upon my return to Germany, I finished my studies in Berlin but having had this eye-opening experience in Kenya, I realized that instead of pursuing a career in music I wanted to do something in the field of social work. Therefore, I moved to Stuttgart in 2016 to study social work which finally brought me to my current job as a social worker in Munich where I am responsible for the local youth welfare office as well as for elderly people. In that sense, I guess you could call my internship in Kenya life-changing.
Over the years, I kept in touch with the care home in Nakuru given the deep connection with the people there. One day in 2016, Genrix, who is still running the care home today and taking care of all children, texted me saying that the owner and sponsor of the care home (a local politician) left the project to focus more on her political career. That was hard for me to hear because it shows that she probably did it for her reputation and not for the wellbeing of the orphans.
SfA: That’s rough taking into account the lack of access to social funds in Kenya in order to cover the expenses of the care home. Did they manage to support the children throughout this period?
M: Indeed, Kenya is a country where social projects are very rarely funded by public money. So in this precarious situation, thinking about the children, I felt I needed to step in and help them out in one way or another. But I did not know where to start because the care home was not registered at the time and other organizations were also struggling for resources. Anyways, I tried to give it a shot and through trial and error I could raise funds to support the children.
I started completely from scratch and asked both family and friends for ideas to solve the issue at hand. Together we came up with the plan to set up an official foundation in Germany governed by a constitution. A legal consultant helped me out with all the paperwork and once the foundation was registered with a proper structure and constitution, Liz intended to set up a community-based organization in Kenya as the local counterpart.
All these processes involved considerable upfront costs but this was not the major obstacle. What held back all progress was the inefficiency of local authorities and officials and how they abuse their power to get a share of the pie. Concretely, when Liz refused the official’s invitation to drink tea with him, the registration was denied.
Things just work differently in Kenya because who you know is more likely to determine success than your own ambitions. Still, patience and perseverance won and after a lot of back and forth, the counterpart organization in Kenya was officially registered as well.
SfA: That sounds like a very lengthy process. Glad you managed to carry through in spite of all the adversaries. Let’s dive into the actual work at the project. Which issues are you addressing with your project and what is its mission?
M: In the beginning, the efforts at the care home were dedicated to orphans and kids that suffered domestic violence or had parents with a drug addiction. Essentially one of the most vulnerable groups of children who we wanted to keep away from a life in the conditions they had known before coming to the care home.
We started out with 24 kids who all treat themselves like siblings with Genrix being their “mom”. Just like in one big family, the orphans are provided with food, care, and shelter. However, with all the uncertainties and financial issues at the start it was more about trying to keep the place running. It was focused on short-term help.
SfA: While you were first trying to simply keep the care home afloat, how did you move towards a more sustainable way of operating?
M: After some time of doing charity work mostly in Germany, we started to receive more and more donations which allowed us to think about how to improve the caretaking for the orphans. Rent payments and grocery expenses weren’t a major worry anymore.
Consequently, we amplified our focus. Since a big part of a child’s happiness is determined by his/her ability to goof off and have fun with peers, we decided to spend money not only on education, food and shelter but also on free-time activities.
And with more financial resources, education became a top priority. Especially for orphans who belong to a very vulnerable group of society, education is decisive in improving the odds of a self-sustainable away from street life.
Beyond opening doors in the professional sphere, Makungu’s objective in terms of education is having children learn to become responsible and moral citizens with a great sense of empathy. Makungu is the Swahili word for dawn and stands for the mission of giving Kenyan orphans a home and a future to look forward to.
SfA: How many people work for the project and which resources do you need to carry out your work?
M: In Kenya Genrix and Liz work for the care home. Anna and I (who started as volunteers in Kenya) are now on the board of the foundation in Germany, while we also work with many volunteers that help with social media and fundraising efforts. The core team is made up of 15 people.
But that shouldn’t give the impression that it’s only about sending money. The crucial factor for an effective collaboration is a functional working structure and cultural connection to the people in Kenya. Our work is guided by the philosophy to help children in need. As you can imagine, you can have the most amazing foundational setup but if you do not take into account the reality of how things work in Kenya, any project is bound to fail.
For this reason, we recently added another principal cause to our constitution which is cross-cultural understanding. It is an important concept that fosters the children’s adaptability to different environments and makes them see the beauty of cultural differences instead of being surprised by them.
SfA: What does a normal day as the leader of the Makungu foundation look like, if there is a “normal” day at all?
M: Well, I could sum that up in 2 words: continuous work. That does not mean I work for Makungu all day, every day but almost every day I dedicate some time to this project. I began working on this during my dual studies in Germany and now next to my main job as a social worker, I spend part of my evening hours on Makungu. It rarely feels like work because I know from first-hand experience how grateful the children are for our efforts.
I won’t go too much into the specifics, but I work on every part related to charity work which entails public relations (e.g. with donors and companies), fundraising, coordination and strategy as well as volunteer management.
SfA: How do you make sure you can operate the project in the long run, i.e. the sustainability of the project?
M: To be honest a lot of it is learning by doing. Right now, we are in the process of restructuring our organization and team roles to better meet the needs of the Makungu Care Home and to do more with less.
We are also investing constantly in fundraising initiatives and trying to get private as well as corporate donors on board. Creating personal connections and networking on- and offline is a big part of the work. For example, companies often have ongoing social responsibility commitments which makes our project a perfect fit for their investments. Thus, the more corporate connections we establish, the better for our financial sustainability and, in turn, the better for the Kenyan children.
Since we cover part of the costs of Liz’ studies which she started for Makungu and also pay Genrix (who takes care of the children every day) a normal local salary, we somehow need to ensure a continuous cashflow. In that sense, partnerships with companies are a blessing because they bring more planning security than individual donations that fluctuate from month to month.
Notwithstanding, we are extremely grateful for any type of support, small or big. Even donors that contribute €5 a month are a strong part of the Makungu community and we value them as ambassadors for our organization.
SfA: For the readers it would also be interesting to learn more about your collaboration with Students for Amani. What’s your relationship with organizations like ours and which role do we play for your project?
M: I guess every charity organization knows the struggle of always worrying about funding. This is what creates a tight bond between charities fighting for a good cause. In our case, other foundations are very important because united efforts are more likely to lead to the achievement of a common goal. Concretely, this means that we increase the reach of Makungu each time we partner with a new organization and simultaneously decrease our dependence on single donors which is crucial.
Since different charities focus on different parts in the “value chain”, Students for Amani is fundamental for us with its focus on donations to local projects dedicated to children and youth. In the end, their financial contributions ensure that our kids can continue to attend school and receive quality education. It’s great that we have such a tight collaboration.
SfA: What has been your impact on the local community so far?
M: In the beginning, the children we took care of could not attend the boarding school where we wanted to send them because they did not meet the grade requirements. That was a bummer for the kids but we intended to keep up their hopes and just continue with our work despite the ups and downs of the project over the years.
We never told them about the structural issues we faced because we believe emotional and physical safety are the foundation for any child’s development in terms of skills and education. It turned out that our strategy worked because over time grades improved and some children started going to boarding school. I would say this is one of the impacts to be highlighted. As said before, quality education is an essential factor for a brighter future.
At the moment 5 of our kids are attending boarding school who visit during the mid-term holiday, while another three are permanently at the care home. Although it is a small number of children, we are able to give the necessary care and attention to every child we accommodate.
SfA: Even though it might just be wishful thinking, where do you see the project in 5 or 10 years from now?
M: Oh, that’s a good question! Our dream would be to build or buy a house that can accommodate more children. Currently, our biggest limitation is space which prevents us from helping even more children. And of course, it would be awesome to ensure the financial stability of the orphanage with all the necessary resources and structures. Nevertheless, even in 10 years we still want to be a small-scale project to ensure quality care and the personal connection to every child. As the kids say “Makungu is a family”. We also want to encourage the circularity of the service where kids that formerly received support from the care home can become workers of the orphanage.
SfA: Thank you for sharing this inspiring story, Marina! Keep up the great work. Any last thoughts that you would like to share with the readers?
M: Regardless of the cultural and personal differences that exist between all parties that are in some way related to the Makungu Care Home, in the end it boils down to core values like honesty, trust, and optimism. These are the foundation for an enriching collaboration in any field.
Makungu - The dawn of Kenyan orphans
Despite the many coincidences and challenges that led Marina to finally support Makungu from Germany, perseverance, empathy and a hint of “just wing it” have always been her guiding lights along the way. The Makungu Care Home has become the dawn of a life full of opportunities for the orphans living there.
The gratefulness for her work that the children express shows that she and her collaborators are on the right track but she also knows that the world of nonprofits can be unforgiving with the constant risk of running out of money. Students for Amani therefore plays a very important role to ensure the sustainability of children's education.
If you want to do your part in supporting children for a brighter future, look no further.
Stay tuned for the final part of the blog series, Meet the children.
This post was written by Max Kückels. Visit his personal blog to check out more of his work.