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Post written by by Jordan Belmonte

Every day I wake up inspired by the fact that I have two valuable things: choice and opportunity. Like most Americans, I decide what to eat, where to work and the shape of my future.

In December 2010, I traveled to Africa with six other Jolkona volunteers to visit our partners and see the impact of their work. As part of this trip, we visited Dago, a rural village in Kenya, where the opportunities most Americans take for granted are harder to come by.

In Kenya, approximately 1.5 million people are living with HIV/AIDS and 1.2 million children are orphans due to AIDS. Dago has an especially high rate of HIV/AIDS, and many of the affected families struggle to meet basic needs for water, sufficient protein and access to medical care.

When I talked to my friends and family about what I saw in Dago, they looked at me with sympathy and said, “That must have been awful to see” or “What a tragedy.” But after leaving Dago, it was not the tragedy of poverty that stuck with me — it was the perseverance of the human spirit and the community’s efforts to help young people envision a future full of opportunity.

blackboard at Dago Dala Hera orphanage

In Dago, we visited two current Jolkona projects that help young people create a brighter future. We got to cheer on the home team during the Kick it With Kenya youth soccer tournament, which also provides HIV-screening and much-needed medical care. And we saw how the Environmental Youth Action Corps is teaching young people to be environmental advocates in their communities.

One of my favorite initiatives in Kenya was the Dago Dala Hera orphanage, soon to become a Jolkona partner. At Dago Dala Hera, 36 at-risk and orphaned girls have found asylum from childhood marriages, abusive households and family deaths. The orphanage’s meal program also allows 95 local primary school children to concentrate on their education rather than on their empty stomachs. While the community’s attention to meeting basic needs for food, education and health care was impressive, Dago’s true triumph was its initiative to feed the soul and reinforce the idea that “if you can think it, you can get it.”

help orphans in Kenya

Near the end of our time in Dago, while we were visiting the orphanage, I sat on the edge of one of the cheerful bunk beds and thought of the girl who slept there every night. I hoped that the girl would rest well, excited for a new day, believing as much as I do in the phrase painted on the dormitory wall: “life is like an ocean, an endless sea of opportunities.”

dormitory in orphanage

Jordan Belmonte is a product marketing manager at Microsoft during the day and the Director of Events here at Jolkona. This story is part of a series of blog posts from the Jolkona team’s trip to East Africa in late-December 2010.

Kick it with Kenya (KWIK) – a Jolkona project partner – is a community soccer tournament that leverages community gathering for sports to promote public health awareness. What is so innovative about this tournament is that it harnesses the power of the community in a fun way (who isn’t passionate about soccer?) to rally around their villages and also improve access to medical care and prevention. The tournament was hosted in Dago, and the Dago village team took home first place! It was amazing to see the spirit of the community and be a part of the talk of the town. Needless to say, the entire village was partying all night long at the orphanage center and will have another celebration to officially welcome home the trophy on Sunday evening.

The tournament brought together over 500 participants and even more spectators to show their support for each village and to receive medical treatment and counseling.

We had a chance to observe the clinics in action during the tournament and interview the medical team, which we will share with you in future posts. While the soccer games were  going on at the school field, the classrooms were converted to temporary health clinics. There was an optometrist, a nurse who diagnosed conditions and dispensed medications, and an HIV testing counselor. The community had access to free vaccinations and health mentors and advocates. This year, over 500 people were tested for HIV screening and over 250 patients received medical care and medications during the tournament.

It was such a privilege to see this project in action and experience how the donations from Jolkona are leveraged because of the triage of support from the dedicated community volunteers, the government, and generous in-kind donations secured by the tournament’s organizers.

Thank you to past donors who helped make the annual Kick it with Kenya soccer tournament possible! This tournament only happens once a year, and we welcome your support of this project throughout the year so that it can continue to grow and improve the lives and building of community in this rural part of Kenya.

Happy holidays from Dago, Kenya!

As part of Jolkona’s 12 Days of Giving, Team Africa is launching a campaign to sponsor 20 students to participate in the next KWIK soccer tournament. For $27, you can help promote public health awareness through a fun community event. Want to help make an impact for the holidays? Check out Team Africa’s campaign page.

After spending the day seeing Nairobi, this morning we packed our bags and headed to Dago, a small rural village about 4 hours west of Nairobi. Of course we wake up early with the plan to leave at 8am, only to be reminded of “African standard time.” We didn’t leave the house until 8:45am and although we reached the shuttle stand without much delay, once we got there we again were faced with the reality of how slow things move in Africa. Our goal was to get on the 9am shuttle, which ended up being full. So with much convincing from our hosts, we were able to get booked on the 10am shuttle, only it didn’t actually arrive until 11am! Finally we loaded up our stuff with our local guide named Eric and were off.

Outside of Nairobi, the Kenyan countryside is just amazing! We passed through the Great Rift Valley and descended into the land of the Masaai, traditional Kenyan nomadic warriors.

The road through this part of town was quite smooth and very beautiful. After what felt like hours-and-hours of driving through the northern plains of Kenya, we ended up in Kissi. Here we were picked up by a car and then transported to Dago, about 30 minutes away.

The roads were bumpy, made mostly of dirt. We finally arrived in Dago at 5pm, just in time for us to catch the last quarter of the “Kick it With Kenya Soccer Tournament” semi-final round. Dago Dera Hera puts on this tournament with the financial support of one of our partners, Village Volunteers. The tournament brings together over 500 youth from neighboring villages for a 4-day soccer tournament that includes free HIV/AIDS testing, medications, check-ups, and public health education. It’s a great way to bring together so many youth and to promote public health awareness at the same time.

Great energy, great music, and a crowd of kids like I’ve never seen before…what more can you ask for? How about an amazing home cooked meal and great conversations with the organizers of the tournament and our host family for our stay in Dago.

This family is incredible! The mom and dad and all of their children have dedicated their lives to helping their community, one that suffers from a large orphaned population due to an epidemic of HIV/AIDS in the area. Needless to say, it was an amazing night of learning about how they got started in this work and everything that their community center and this tournament achieves.

One of the things that inspired me about this family is the extreme compassion they have to help others. Although they are fairly privileged in their village standards, they are by no means what any one of us would consider “wealthy” or even “well-off” in the U.S. However, without taking any compensation, they volunteer their time, energy, and whatever extra resources they have to help these orphans and their community. I’m just amazed at what they’ve accomplished and at their generosity.

After dinner we headed to our room for the night. It was such a humbling experience to sleep in a hut without running water and plumbing using a community bathroom/latrine. Although it was a huge adjustment from the city life in Nairobi, it’s actually quite peaceful once you get used to it. I mean, who needs electricity and running water when you have a tube, well, buckets, and flashlights anyway?

I’m really excited to be helping out with the health clinics on the last day tomorrow as well as presenting trophies and prizes to the winners of the final round tomorrow.

By coming here I am seeing first hand what an impact this tournament is making and how cost-effective it is. For just $27, you can sponsor one of the participants in the tournament and give them access to free health screenings, education, and screenings. I hope you will join me in our campaign to help raise money to cover the costs of 20 kids to attend this tournament.

Again, each scholarship is only $27, but if you can only give $5 or $10 it all goes a long way here, TRUST ME! Please make a small contribution today. Good night from Dago!

GET INVOLVED!