JULY FEATURED AFRICAN: KENYA’S MARIA OMARE OF THE ACTION FOUNDATION (TAF)

Featured African Series - Maria Omare

–          Tell us who Maria Omare is please?

I am a child of God, Social entrepreneur, Daughter, Sister and “mother” of many.  I enjoy laughing, reading almost anything, writing poetry, making jewellery and getting lost in nature. Professionally, I am the Executive Director of The Action Foundation (or TAF) where we work to transform the lives of children with disabilities in low income areas and empowering their caregivers through various projects. I am also a registered dietician and work as a health coach for individuals and organizations on a consultancy basis

–          You’ve done a lot of work in the Health Sector, especially in Nutrition. You worked with Kenya’s Ministry of Health and a Nutrition Clinic. Tell us; at what point did you decide that you wanted to get much more involved with the work you now do?

Starting The Action Foundation was a team effort when I was in my 2nd year at Kenyatta University, where I studied Foods, Nutrition and Dietetics. The idea of starting an organization working with children with disabilities began when I was volunteering at a sports camp organized by Special Olympics Kenya as a nutrition and health trainer during school break. When I heard about the sports camp, I knew that I wanted to be part of it, even though the organizers were mostly interested in students who had a background in sports. During the interview with the head coach, I convinced him that nutrition would be a great component to include as it will complement the sports activities and contribute to the general health and wellness of the children at the camp. Special needs children are at risk of nutritional deficiencies because of feeding related problems, more so in the case of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Cerebral Palsy. I was thus giving nutrition talks to parents of children with disabilities.

I came into the camp with the expectation to teach the parents of the children and advise them on ways to improve their children’s health. I did not know that the experience there will completely change my course in life and re-define my purpose. Working with the children was a beautiful yet humbling experience and at the end some of the children had achieved milestones such as increased mobility, self-confidence and improved social skills.

After this experience, a group of friends and I came together to start The Action Foundation. Our organization initially started out with us reaching out to children with disabilities in schools in Nairobi, including those in Kibera and Mathare slums, through sports, art and giving health talks. People generally become nervous around persons with disabilities and even among the best of us, we avoid being around them. As a result of holding disability awareness events, we were able to recruit more people to be part of our work.

–          Would you say that your exposure in that line of work is what inspired your interest and desire to set up The Action Foundation?

I believe that my experiences as a volunteer opened my world to the realities of the lives of special needs children. I encountered cases of neglect and physical abuse particularly in the slum areas. This led us to specifically focus on children with disabilities in low income areas, as we felt that is where we will be needed the most.  We are a volunteer driven organization and currently have a network of over 200 volunteers from different parts of the world.

My experience of growing up with a visually impaired cousin, Lawrence, also cultivated my interest in disability issues. I have a close knit extended family and so he never really felt different, and always believed he could achieve what any other child can. Alienation and stigma mostly came from the outside world and people who had never interacted with him before. He exceled in his final high school exams and won a scholarship in a leading University. From Lawrence I saw that having a disability should not be a barrier to one achieving their dreams and the power of a support system.

–        In September 2013 your foundation ‘The Action Foundation’ received a grant from ‘The Pollination Project’, can you tell us a bit about that, especially how it has helped further the work you do and the results you’ve achieved so far?

The Pollination Project awards USD 1000 to individual change makers from all over the world, each day of the year. I received the award in September 2013 and it was very timely because we were in dire need of equipment and supplies at our rehabilitation centre. It is common to think that you need a lot of money to make a difference but being a grass roots organization at start up stage, the award had a big impact on our work. Using a local carpenter and welder from Kibera, we were able to design and make equipment that would have otherwise cost us an arm and a leg. We were able to make a swing, walking frame, special chair and wedges to be used for physiotherapy. Having had some years of experience with special needs children and their families, we found that it is not enough to just provide therapy in an institutional set up. For successful rehabilitation and social inclusion of children with disabilities, their caregivers have to be empowered to be active participants in their child’s development. This led us to introduce a parent-support component in our rehabilitation program where the parents are given technical skills and knowledge to carry out basic physiotherapy, first aid and ensure that they have proper nutrition. The pollination project grant also helped us to conduct our first training in basic physiotherapy and wellness to parents of special needs children who attend our rehabilitation centre.

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–          You are also an Akili Dada Fellow and a Spark Kenya Changemaker, do you want to talk about that a bit?

Yes, I am a 2013 Fellow of Akili Dada. Akili Dada is a leadership incubator investing in some of Africa’s most innovative young women to meet the urgent need for more African women in decision-making roles. At Akili Dada I met other young women who had initiated social change projects. These women were facing similar challenges I faced, running a young organization with minimal resources. Akili Dada believes in the spirit of sisterhood, women supporting each other to achieve their dreams. I learned a great deal about running a healthy organization and built relationships that have contributed to the growth of our organization.

In 2013 I also had the honor of being selected as a Spark Kenya Changemaker. At Spark I had the experience of a leadership accelerator, over the course of one week. Aaron and Kaitlin from Spark helped me and other awesome young innovators from across Kenya to design strategies to grow the impacts of our organizations.

–          It is quite clear that you have an immense passion for Children, Nutrition, Rehabilitation and General Health; how do you intend to engage a country like Kenya to deliver positive results?

While working with the children at TAF, many times I picture what their lives will be a decade from now. Some of them are approaching teenage hood, while others are ready to start school.  It has been an uphill task securing places in schools for our children simply because the Kenyan education system does not cater to their special needs. This is even more so for children and youth with intellectual disabilities. As organizations like ours are working to ensure that special needs children get early intervention and are rehabilitated, this should not just end here.  I strongly believe in inclusive education, where children with and without disabilities learn together to the most possible extent.  This involves the willingness to invest in the extra care that the child with disability will need, which our government has the power to make a reality by recruiting more special education teachers. Article 11 of The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child states that every child has the right to an education, to develop his or her personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.  It calls upon governments to take special measures in respect of female, gifted and disadvantaged children, to ensure equal access to education for all sections of the community.

Furthermore, to achieve equality and give an equal shot in life to all children, key players and employers in the private and public sector should utilize innovate ways to engage persons with physical and intellectual disabilities. Disability is viewed both as a cause and a consequence of poverty. Unemployment is very high amongst the youth with disabilities, whether they are literate or illiterate. Globally, PWDs are often marginalized and face difficulties as a result of their disability.

It is common to assume that youth with disabilities can only do tasks such as sewing and making beadwork. From our experience at TAF, I can conclude that they are capable of achieving tasks beyond where they have been commonly grouped into.  One particular young man with autism from a special school we once visited was very skilled in artwork and making impeccable crafts using his hands.

–          So, how simply can you describe the work that your foundation ‘The Action Foundation’ does?

At TAF, we are creating a barrier-free society for children with disabilities through community-based rehabilitation and disability awareness.  In March 2010 we took a leap of faith and with our modest savings, opened a rehabilitation centre for special needs children at the heart of Kibera, the largest slum in Africa.  According to a 2010 Report by UNDP, approximately 9.2% of the households in Kibera are caring for at least one child with disability. We offer health services including physiotherapy, nutritional care and medical services. The children are trained in activities of daily living and engaged in social activities such as art, play and singing. We also work with volunteer doctors to enable the children receive medical and at times surgical procedures at a reduced or no cost. Our personalized approach entails formulating and implementing individual treatment plans for the children

Kibera is an area characterized by extreme poverty. Most families in the slum cannot provide their children with disabilities with the special care and nutrition critical to the child’s development, due to lack of financial means, skills, and knowledge.  Studies have also found that families raising special needs children experience elevated amounts of stress.  In Kibera, this is compounded by the inability to meet even the basic requirements of the family. The road network in Kibera is very poor making it inaccessible and impossible to navigate especially during the rainy seasons, this makes it difficult for the residents to access medical care services timely. It is more difficult for the parents/caregivers of children with disabilities because they have to carry their children on their backs when going to the clinic which is a great strain on them.  At TAF, we not only offer accessible health services but also provide a support system for the parents and walk with the parents in their journey of raising their children.

Our approach involves participation of the children’s parents where they work on a rotational basis to look after the children, assisting in the centre’s activities and preparing nutritious meals. After completing rehabilitation at The Action Foundation, children are integrated into society to the extent possible, for example through enrolment into special and mainstream schools.

It is now two years since we opened and the centre has provided physiotherapy, day care and nutritional care to 32 special needs children, 12 of whom have gained the ability to walk thanks to corrective surgeries we have facilitated with the help of our partners.  We have given partial scholarships to 5 children who graduated from the rehabilitation program and others will be graduating at the end of this year.

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–        In May 2014 you won the SET Africa Social Innovation Award. Tell us about that. How did that make you feel, and how has it impacted your work going forward?

It was truly a blessing winning SET Africa Social Innovation alongside other 24 young leaders selected across Anglophone Africa. It was incredible to have our work recognized internationally and meeting the other young founders and co-founders. Although we came from different cultures, our resilience and passion for a better Africa united us. Learning from the diverse experiences of the other award recipients was not only inspiring but game changing. It got me thinking of the endless possibilities and potential of The Action Foundation, and aroused a desire to reach out to other special needs children across the continent. From Liberia to South Africa, there is an emergence of young people thirsty for change and willing to put in the work to make it happen.  All they need is the resources and opportunity to solve the social, economic and political problems plaguing our continent.

–          Tell us about some of the challenges you’ve faced, or probably still face, especially as a young leader of The Action Foundation charged with such an important role for development in Kenya and Africa?

Having a background in Nutrition, working with children with disabilities is not my area of expertise. Coming into this new field meant that I had to begin from scratch. Setting up The Action Foundation required a lot of research and mentorship from professionals in Special Needs. I guess one can learn anything when they put their mind into it.

In the first two years of TAF, particularly after graduating from campus, I had inner struggles wondering whether it was really the right decision to move forward with the organization. It did not help that some of my former classmates had landed good jobs while we were struggling to keep our lights on and sustain the organization. It is often tempting to look for a way out when starting an organization from scratch and I am glad we kept on thanks to a relentless spirit, prayer and everyone who cheers us on. Many times I had been asked to look for a “proper job”, you know the usual 8-5-pay slip at the end of the month kind.

When we received our NGO registration certificate in 2010, it was very exciting, yet frightening. In as much as we were very passionate about our cause, the reality was that we had no idea of where to begin! It has been, and still is a learning curve since we are always hungry for knowledge and seeking to discover how to improve our work. The fellowships I have received as well as leadership trainings I’ve attended have played a major role in building our capacity.

Furthermore, receiving rejection letters after investing many hours in writing grant applications is always heart breaking. On the flip side, the feedback has helped us to improve on our grant writing skills.

–          How have you been able to overcome these challenges?

Being positive and the joy of knowing that my life has a higher purpose keeps me going. Four years down the line we have had quite a bit of recognition nationally and internationally, which also include the awards and fellowships I have received. In March this year we were 2nd place in our category at the National Disability Inclusion Awards organized by Action for Children with Disabilities. The most important award to me however is bringing real change into the lives of the special needs children we serve.

–          With The Action Foundation, looking at how much you’ve been able to achieve and the traction you’re getting now, are you looking at expanding to other regions of Africa with a similar need of your solution?

The challenges faced by children with disabilities cut across our continent and we are definitely looking at expanding to other regions in Africa. We are still at Start –Up phase, albeit our rapid growth. In future, we endeavour to collaborate with other like minded organizations to make inclusion and equal access to opportunities a reality to all children. Our approach can be scaled to other countries in Africa and this is part of our broader vision TAF.

Before this is a reality and as a believer in the transformative power of early intervention and inclusion, governments should allocate more funding to projects targeting children and youth with disabilities. Failure to do so will create a generation of dependent under-utilized people, which can only be a barrier to the development of our nations.
–          How do you imagine other young Kenyans, other young Africans can join in the good work of rebuilding Africa?

Africa is a rich continent not only because of our minerals, tourist attractions and fertile soils, but also because of the great minds and innovative spirit of our youth.  Change always begins with the individual. Africa is at a stage where the youth empowered by education can now take it upon themselves to see this change through. Collectively everyone’s little contribution will stand for a lot; a great deal can be achieved through these efforts.

As much as their ideas and intellectual property should be protected, the young should stop relying on the government or other aid organisations to do everything for them. This should not be another ‘naomba-serikali-isaidie’ (I would like the government to help) generation. The youth should embrace innovation and be ready to use the energy they are blessed with to help rebuild Africa. I believe that with their great ideas and strength to put the ideas to work, the young in Africa need not fear the future because they have all they need!

–          Tell us about the next big thing from Maria Omare, what should the whole of Africa look out for from you in the near future?

Resources from grants are increasingly becoming scarce and non-profits are looking for ways to diversify their income sources. In May this year we received a seed grant of 1000 AUSD from Spark International to launch a business involving mothers of the special needs children at TAF. They are making handicraft from water hyacinth, leather, paper bags and other recycled materials. Having had a great response to the first items produced, we are looking to grow this business.

I also feel that a lot needs to be done in Africa to provide information to parents/caregivers of special needs children on how to care for them. Minimal research has been done on interventions that can be applied in the African context. I want to be part of initiatives that will develop local solutions to the health and social problems faced by special needs children in Africa.

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