Gap year turned into fundraising mission
DAVID CLENSY talks to the extraordinary Bristol student who set up an international charity just months after leaving school.
FOR most 21-year-old students any spare cash after paying tuition fees and rent probably goes on socialising. Not so Zoe Kelland, from Henleaze, who keeps down two part-time jobs on top of her university work in order to cover the cost of visiting a poverty-stricken Kenyan community each summer.
But then, Zoe is no ordinary student. The former Orchard School Bristol pupil (formerly Monks Park School), who is currently studying illustration at Loughborough University, has raised a remarkable £47,800 in the last three years for the Kenyan primary school she first visited on a gap year in 2009.
She's done everything from jumping out of an aeroplane to cycling 100km across an African desert in order to raise cash for the school children who won her heart while she was teaching in the downtrodden city of Nakuru.
On one occasion she even restricted herself to just one meal a day for a week in a sponsored fast to raise much needed cash for the school.
"When I first decided to take a gap year after doing my A-levels, I had no idea just how much of an impact the experience would have on my life," she says.
"I heard about a project that allowed British students to spend six months in the slums of Nakuru, Kenya's fourth largest city, teaching in the state-run primary schools.
"It sounded interesting – a once-in-a-lifetime sort of experience, so I signed up for it."
But nothing had prepared Zoe for the extreme poverty she would witness in the city.
"These are kids who have so little," she says.
"They come from such poor backgrounds, it's hard for we in the West to even comprehend it.
"But because I was living with a local family, and was teaching all day at the school, I very quickly began to get an idea of the extent of their poverty.
"As someone who had only just left Orchard School Bristol, with all the state-of-the-art technology we enjoy there, the sort of facilities on offer to the pupils at the school in Nakuru was shocking.
"They essentially have nothing. It's just a lot of children in a classroom with a teacher and a blackboard. There are 600 pupils at the school, with just five stone-built classrooms, and a further six mud-built classrooms.
"The class sizes are extraordinary. You're looking at 85 pupils to each teacher. So there is absolutely no opportunity for these youngsters to spend any one-to-one time with teachers. They're lucky if they even get to speak to their teacher during their day at school.
"But the attitude of the children is so focused, compared to British schoolchildren. They know, even at this young age, how important education is going to be in their lives. If they stand any chance of lifting themselves out of poverty, it is through the education they receive at the school.
"Secondary school education is not provided free of charge by the Kenyan government, so only the wealthier families are able to afford to send their children to school beyond the age of 12. For the majority, that's the start of their working life."
Zoe taught everything from English and maths to creative arts and PE.
"I got to know and love the pupils so well," she says. "They're so positive and happy, when you consider the situation they are in. They quickly all became good friends."
Zoe also developed close friendships with the two other volunteer gap year teachers who were working in the school at the time – a fellow British student, Rebecca Siddall, and a Dutch student, Annemarieke Blankestein.
When the school reached a financial crisis point during their time in Kenya, the three girls decided to do something to help.
"Because of the shortage of classrooms, the school was going to be forced to not take in a whole academic year of children. That would have meant 120 children missing out on a school education altogether, and we just thought this was totally unacceptable.
"We knew it would cost £3,200 to build a new classroom, so we organised a sponsored cycle ride – 100km across Kenya. It was tough, but all our friends and family back home really got behind us, and we were able raise enough cash to ensure the classroom was built in time for the next academic year."
Inspired by their achievement, when the three girls returned home later that year, they decided to continue with their fundraising activities for the school, setting up their own charity, the Nakuru Children's Project, in order to allow them to apply for grants and charitable tax breaks.
"We knew setting up an international charity was a lot to take on at our age," Zoe says. "But these people had become our friends. If any of our friends back home had found themselves in this kind of poverty, of course we would do everything we could to help, so it was no different for these guys just because they were out in Africa.
"We have returned each summer to visit the children in Nakuru, and see how our money is being spent. Of course, the flights are expensive, but we pay for those by working in part-time jobs outside university hours. I have a job at a youth centre near uni, and another job as a waitress back in Henleaze when I'm home for the holidays," Zoe says.
"When I graduate next year, I'm hoping to take another gap year, so I can spend a further six months working at the school in Nakuru. That way I'll get to see the pupils who were tiny when I was first there, getting through their final exams before heading out into the big world."
Zoe is currently trying to raise £1,000 before September in order to keep the charity's food programme running.
The scheme allows the pupils at the school to receive free school meals – often the only meal they receive each day.
"Because of food prices rising in Kenya, the number of children needing assistance and our costs have increased dramatically, and without extra funds we will have to stop providing food every school day and leave the children hungry one day a week," Zoe says.
"We are desperate to make sure that this doesn't happen – 33p provides one meal, £7.50 feeds a child for a month, £22 for a term and £67 for a whole year."
â For more information, and details on how to donate to the charity, visit the website at www.hakuna-matata.org.uk.