Student volunteers ask: Ken-ya make a difference?

UW-L student Mike Wilson plays with kids at an elementary school in Kenya.

UW-L student Mike Wilson plays with kids at an elementary school in Kenya. Wilson, a senior majoring in information systems, led a group of students to Kenya over winter break.

UW-L senior Michael Wilson wears a green T-shirt around campus with the catchy slogan “Ken-ya make a difference?” It’s a question he raises in relation to world poverty — particularly in Kenya.

Wilson and seven other college students certainly tried to make a difference when they traveled to the third-world country Dec. 30 – Jan. 21. They volunteered at local schools, orphanages and tribal villages near Nakuru, northwest of Nairobi.

But they realized no matter how much they gave, the Kenyans always had more need. And so their mission became not about solving all the problems, but about making a statement.

“We are eight college students who are fairly unaffiliated. None of us knew each other before we left, but we all went with one idea: To make a difference in rural Kenya,” says Wilson. “Coming back, I think we can safely say that we did.”

In a community of huts with tin roofs, they packed mud in their hands to create bricks and built an addition on an elementary school. In a place where many people don’t have enough money to buy shoes, they walked hut to hut with suitcases packed with 200 articles of clothing donated by UW-L students. The items were collected during a fundraising event on campus — The Nearly Naked Mile. They used donations from their families to hire a welder to construct a jungle gym for kids to play. They handed out toothbrushes, toothpaste, notebooks and pencils. They even lent a hand playing with kids at a local orphanage.

College student volunteers visit Kiptenden Elemetnary Schoo

College student volunteers visit Kiptenden Elemetnary School in a rural village near Nakuru, Kenya.

In response, the Kenyan people cried, laughed and some were so timid they ran the other way. When they delivered soccer balls to one school, the kids took one look at the foreign looking strangers and fled. But the children’s attitudes quickly changed when they threw the soccer balls across the floor to play.

“Immediately 100 kids were trying to get at one ball. It was amazing,” says Wilson. “They absolutely loved us.”

UW-L Junior Monica Rasmussen remembers sitting down by a fence to rest after making deliveries of donations. Adults kept coming up to ask her if she had more stuff — more T-shirts, more pens, more candy. She didn’t.

“I wanted to cry,” she said. “Everyone has such great need, it’s hard to say who deserves it the most because they are all deserving.”

But even these people who are in need and have nothing to give — still do, she said.

Wilson and the seven other college student volunteers stand in front of the half built classroom they helped build for Kenyan kids at Soar-Kenya Academy

Wilson and the seven other college student volunteers stand in front of the half built classroom they helped build for Kenyan kids at Soar-Kenya Academy

Rassmussen couldn’t believe when the villagers threw them a goodbye party and gave gifts of plastic necklaces and earings to the college women.

Wilson says the trip is a reminder that despite all the differences between our countries, the people share many similarities.

“You can even see it in the eyes of the kids,” he says. “Despite everything that has happened to them, they still love life, everyone tries their hardest and everyone does good for one another.”

Wilson, a senior, says he would like to pass on the torch to another student to continue the “Kenya Make a Difference?” project.

View a video clip and read Wilson’s blog.

Many UW-L students volunteer over winter break. Another group of students from UW-La Crosse and Viterbo University traveled to Central America over winter break to aid locals with dental, veterinarian, and medical services. Read more about the program.
Group sitting on a rock at Mendengai Crater