A Reason to Smile

By Rebekkah McKalsen

Steeped as we are amid budget cuts and arguments over Common Core, keeping a truly global perspective on the state of education can be difficult to do. Keela Grimmette (ΦBK, Wells College, 2006) knows this only too well: she decided to take a year off after getting her Bachelor’s in 2006 because she wanted to give back before going to graduate school for an advanced degree in education. 

After being rejected by Teach for America, Grimmette decided to take a ten-week trip to Mtwapa, Kenya. In this little coastal town, she volunteered as a first grade teacher at a tiny school called Jambo Jipya, run by a local woman named Christine Mwende. At Jambo Jipya (which means “something new” in Swahili), Grimmette was surprised both by the levels of poverty and the happy children. “How are they smiling?” she asked herself. The children had so little–homes built of mud and sticks that washed away during the rain, sick or absent parents, and no way of knowing when their next meal would come. And yet, they were smiling. 

After her return to the U.S., Grimmette raised enough money to return to Kenya for a four-month stay. During this second trip, she saw clearly that the school didn’t need more volunteers–the children spoke some Swahili and a mixture of tribal languages, so trying to teach them in English or broken Swahili was a struggle, at best. What the six-room school really needed was funding–Mwende couldn’t pay enough teachers or buy food for the seventy children who depended on Jambo Jipya to be a safe place. What food Mwende was able to afford was cooked over a fire in the corner of a classroom because there was no space for a kitchen. 

On her return to New York, Grimmette founded Reason 2 Smile, which was officially incorporated in 2009 as a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization. The organization wires money directly to Mwende each month for Jambo Jipya’s upkeep and improvement. Grimmette said that often, the directors of such small schools in Kenya have expensive cars and enormous houses thanks to widespread corruption, but Mwende is an exception; she only cares about bettering the lives of the kids. Mwende founded the school in 2004 to help relieve women with AIDS who were unable to care for their children. “Christine, day in and day out, is working and fighting for them,” Grimmette said. 

The school, whose motto is “Education is the light of a nation,” is now much better equipped to fight for the futures of Mtwapa’s children thanks to Reason 2 Smile. While “technically” primary school (up to eighth grade) is free in Kenya, children are only allowed to go if they can pay for uniforms. Mtwapa’s children can’t afford such an expense. 

When Grimmette first visited, Jambo Jipya only covered kindergarten through fourth grade, but now it is a k-12 school with twenty teachers, eight full-time staff members, and a kitchen. Last year, Mwende was also able to start renting a large house near Jambo Jipya, which became home to thirty-five children, some of whom had been sleeping in the school’s kitchen because they were homeless. Grimmette makes a yearly trip back to the school to “remind myself of what’s important: the children, and the fact that even as an individual, you can make a difference.” 

Jambo Jipya supports students who excel in the classroom by funding internships whenever possible and sending them to competitive high schools, trade schools, and even college. Jambo Jipya’s students leave with the skills and education necessary to get decent jobs and to start changing the cycle of poverty they were once a part of. Two of Jambo Jipya’s 300 students, who scored very high on the KCPE (Kenya’s eighth grade standardized test), are currently going to the country’s best high school.

Over the next five to ten years, Reason 2 Smile hopes to reach out to another school. The organization recently helped a school in Nairobi cement their floors, but Grimmette explained, “It took too much away from Jambo Jipya. We need to be bigger before we can make an impact elsewhere.” 

If you would like to learn more or donate, please visit Reason 2 Smile’s website.

Above: A kindergarten classroom in Jambo Jipya. Photo by John DiGiacomo.

Rebekkah McKalsen is a senior at Wells College majoring in English. Wells College is home to the Xi of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.