Cleaners making a difference
for children in Africa
In some places in the world, knowledge can be the rarest of precious commodities, as David Mering has come to understand all too well.
For the past six years, Mering, who with his wife Nancy owns Nor’east Cleaners in Gloucester, MA, has worked to help children in Kenya gain access to a good education, something much of the population has been denied due to circumstances beyond their control.
He became aware of the problem when he traveled to Africa where his daughter worked at a hospital in Kijabe.
During that visit he toured a nearby school known as Gentle Bells, located on the edge of the Rift Valley in the town of Longonot, a territory known to foster an incredibly inhospitable environment marked by relentless winds and arid drought conditions.
With no running water or sanitation and an astonishingly high unemployment rate, the area is rife with poverty, crime and corruption. Making matters worse, many of the young residents are orphaned or the product of broken homes, leading to few opportunities for a better life.
“There were about 1,500 kids in that area that were of school age,” Mering recalled. “About 700 of them were not going to school. There were a lot of kids receiving no education and were headed in the wrong direction.”
While distraught by what he had seen, he also found hope in the form of Esther Waweru, a visionary teacher determined to make sure Gentle Bells offered local children access to a better future, a daunting task considering the harsh realities of the region.
According to the non-profit organization CTC International, Kenya is home to one of the world’s worst HIV and AIDS epidemics. An estimated 1.6 to 1.9 million people there now live with HIV and around 1.1 million children have been orphaned by AIDS.
Mering and his wife joined with some of their friends in an effort to financially assist Waweru.
“It was not uncommon for the kids to come to school without breakfast,” Mering explained. “That was one of the first things we did. We started supporting her [Waweru] with a feeding program. So, the kids would come to school and get a very basic meal, a porridge at breakfast and a kind of bean/rice soup for lunch. For many of them, that was all they got. It they weren’t at school, they wouldn’t have had anything to eat.”
Over time, the Merings and their friends decided to ramp up their charitable efforts and form the Kijabe Children’s Education Fund (KCEF).
When Mering first set foot at the school, it only had 35 students in what he described as a “rundown ramshackled building.” Three years ago, however, it was completely rebuilt on a larger tract of land.
“We were able to raise enough money to buy five acres of land for $8,000 and then we built a six-classroom school along with a second building for the kitchen and the offices and a library,” Mering noted. “All of that cost us about $120,000 to build that facility.”
Fortunately, KCEF has found a broader base of contributors to help sponsor their efforts. Among them is the Pinnacle Group, a cost management bureau of drycleaners that has contributed about $5,000 to the cause.
Mering’s Nor’east Cleaners is a member of the group, which also includes: Minute Men Cleaners of Westport, CT; Dermody Cleaners of Taunton, MA; Toomey’s Cleaners of Lynn, MA; Horrigan Cleaners of Gardner, MA; Cudneys Cleaners of Saratoga Springs, NY; Deluxe Dry Cleaners of Clifton, NJ; Swiss Cleaners of Vernon/
Rockville, CT; Gadue’s Dry Cleaning of Burlington, VT; and The Cleanist of Boston, MA.
Making it postive
Tired of all the negative press against drycleaning, the Pinnacle Group wanted to take part in something more positive.
“I don’t think there’s anything we can do that would be better,” said Paul Ceccarelli, owner of The Cleanist.
Gadue’s Drycleaning owner Mark Gadue heartily agreed with the sentiment. He took a trip to Africa with Mering last January in order to see the project with his own eyes.
“We saw people of such great character and courage,” he said. “I was struck by how much the same people are. I met people and, though our circumstances might be different, they have the same fears as I do, the same hopes, the same desires, the same needs.”
During the sojourn, Gadue, Mering and KCEF board members Craig Hammond and Richard Cairns brought over two dozen XO-1.5 laptops.
The powerful little devices are made with plastic and lined with bright green trim, costing only about $175 when bought in bulk. About the size of an iPad, they are fully operational computers with video and wireless Internet capabilities and much more.
“They look like toys, so we’re hoping they won’t be something that people try to steal,” Mering said. “Theft is such a huge problem that we can’t just ship them to Kenya because if we did they’d most likely be stolen.”
KCEF had given one to the school a couple of years ago and it quickly made the rounds to all of the children. When the new batch arrived early this year, the students were already well-versed on how to use them.
“They were figuring out those computers faster than the teachers could keep up with them,” Gadue laughed. “They were so cool, I wanted to get one.”
The children are gaining more practical knowledge and training even as the size of the student body continues to grow. As of the start of the January 2013 term, the school had 160 enrolled throughout all seven grades.
Making it sustainable
It has also become more sustainable. Gentle Bells now boasts an on-site two-acre garden where students gain the experience of growing the very food that they will eat.
“Basically, they’re teaching the kids how to do organic gardening with mulching because the area is so dry and water is so scarce that they have to do everything they can to conserve water,” Mering explained.
Much work yet to do
While significant inroads have been made on the project, there is still a long way to go. KCEF has stepped up its fundraising efforts and now is paying to send the school’s personnel for additional training so they can offer an overall higher quality of education. The program also aims to ensure that the kids are taken care of in the long run.
“I think our long-term goal is, as the kids go through the school and graduate, to try to make sure they can get into a high school, that they just not be left out in the world and that’s it,” Mering said, noting that in Kenya kids have to pass an entrance test to advance beyond grade school. “Our goal is to provide every kid who graduates from Gentle Bells an opportunity to go to high school.”
Of course, that might mean supplying graduates with partial and full scholarships so they can attend. In the meantime, KCEF has its hands full with funding Gentle Bells along with a few other schools that the project has expanded to include.
“We’ve raised about $50,000 to $60,000 a year to support this school [Gentle Bells] and now we’ve gotten involved in three other schools with the same kind of thing, providing them with money for feeding programs and other things,” Mering said. “All three of them are in Nairobi, in the city itself. Two of them are in the really hardcore slums, the worst slums in Africa.”
Bang for the buck
Mering, who has made eight trips to Africa, enjoys a sense of accomplishment for KCEF’s charitable endeavors. After all, the organization is currently making sure that 650 schoolchildren receive help on a daily basis.
“Part of the appeal, interestingly enough, is that you just get a huge bang for your buck in Kenya,” he said. “It’s costing us a little bit less than $200 each to educate and feed a child for a year. You say to yourself, ‘I can take someone whose life is almost certainly going to end badly and very young and, for $200, we can take them on a different path.’ That’s really compelling. It’s hard to walk away from that.”
At the same time, it’s also hard to ignore that the problem still persists. When he travels in Africa, Mering often sees far too many kids who are still not in school. It would be easy to become frustrated by the numbers; instead, he chooses to focus on the bright side.
“Hundreds of kids compared to thousands is a drop in the bucket,” he admitted, “but if you’re one of those kids, it’s a huge advantage and an opportunity.”
Those interested in contributing to the cause can send a payment to: Kijabe Children’s Education Fund c/o David Mering, 37 Spring Street, Essex, MA 09129, or donate through PayPal on the site: www.gentlebells.org.