For many teachers, winter break usually means chilling out at home or maybe heading upstate for some skiing. Eight times over the past 11 years, Kevin Mann of Middle Island has taken a 16-hour flight to Kenya, followed by a rugged six-hour bus ride from Nairobi to Meru. With his wife, Aida, and many of his students in tow, he’s made the winter pilgrimage to Jerusha Mwiraria Hope Children’s Fund Home, an orphanage Kevin Mann founded with a fellow Long Island high school teacher, Lawrence Hohler.
“My wife and I have gotten much more from the orphans than we’ve given them and learned much more from them than they learned from us,” Kevin Mann said. “They have taught us wealth is not determined by things, and friendship doesn’t stop with age, ethnic groups or boundaries.”
The Manns have been inspired by many of the children who have lived in the home on a hill near Meru National Park. There is a blind child named Vincent who went to live there when he was 6, after his parents were murdered. Now 22, he was recently reunited with his extended family.
Their most lasting friendship has been with Risper Mwendwa, an orphan whose parents died of AIDS. The Manns, who have five children from previous marriages and six grandchildren, have come to think of Mwendwa, whom they met on their first trip to Kenya, as a daughter.
“We’ve had some wonderful times with her,” said Kevin Mann, now 65, who retired in 2014 after teaching history, English and social studies for 41 years at Shoreham-Wading River High School. They’ve taken Mwendwa, 22, whom they support with an annual $365 contribution they call a “mentorship,” on safari and on trips to Nairobi. “When she was in secondary school and she was a junior, we got to go to parents’ day,” Kevin Mann said.
Mwendwa recently completed an internship in government services at Uchumi House, a Nairobi government office, and is about to graduate with a diploma in human relations from a technical school in Nairobi. She wrote in an email that the Manns “have always been the best parents I would ask for. My primary education, high school education and my college, too, has been a success because of them.”
AN UNUSUAL ORPHANAGE
Situated inside a former church, with a dining hall and separate dormitory floors for boys and girls, the Meru orphanage has provided shelter and other basic needs for 100 children, many of whom lost their parents in the AIDS epidemic.
“The children in the orphanage have the highest standard of living in the community — they have a roof over their head, steady meals, and they don’t have to forage for wood,” Kevin Mann said.
Mann, who graduated in 1970 from Hicksville High School, has always been interested in other cultures. He earned a bachelor of arts in history, Asian studies and education, and a master’s degree in liberal studies, both from Stony Brook University. In 1974, he began teaching Asian and African studies at Shore-Wading River High School. In the 1980s, he volunteered with a United Nations campaign to free Nelson Mandela from life imprisonment in South Africa.
While working as a volunteer in Suffolk County with Habitat for Humanity in the early ’90s, Mann met Hohler, an Afro-Asian culture studies teacher from Port Jefferson who first visited Africa on sabbatical in the 1970s.
After Hohler, now 74, retired in 1999 from Smithtown East High School, he began raising money for the orphanage in 2000. He was inspired by a Kenyan named Joseph Kirima, a primary schoolteacher and headmaster, Kenyan teachers’ union leader and advocate for orphans, who came to Long Island to help him promote the project.
Hohler brought Kirima to meet Mann, whose interest in the orphanage was piqued. In 2001, Hohler registered the Hope Children’s Fund as a nonprofit tax-exempt charity and raised $40,000 through donations on Long Island and in Kenya. It was enough to begin construction on the orphanage.
When the orphanage opened in 2005, Hohler said, “We took 18 kids off the streets.” One of the boys accepted at the home had been begging for food at the door, he said. “Now they [the orphans] are 18, 19, 20 years old.” Hohler continued, “One is a pharmacist, another one sells beauty aids to beauty shops, one is going to be a doctor.”
Hohler said the children are encouraged to apply to secondary schools — which charge tuition — and get college degrees. “ ‘Education Is the Key’ is what we have printed on the wall at the dining room at the home,” he said. “Without an education and the ability to speak English, these kids would be assured that they wouldn’t rise above hewers of wood and drawers of water.”
The Manns have raised money for scholarships for the orphans by selling crafts made by the Meru Women’s Collective, an organization in Meru that makes and sells jewelry and other crafts at markets. The couple, along with their daughter, Tiffany, 33, of Shirley, serve on the 10-member board of the Hope Children’s Fund, which is holding a fundraising gala on Feb. 18 at East Wind Long Island in Wading River.
Last year, the Hope Children’s Fund provided scholarships to 35 students attending technical schools, including the prestigious Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology near Nairobi, Kevin Mann said.
Visiting the orphanage has been life-changing for many of the students and Shoreham-Wading River alumni who’ve taken the trip with the Manns.
“It’s a very emotional trip,” said Aida Mann, a retired bilingual cellphone sales representative. “When people go to the orphanage, there seems to be a magnetic bond between a child and a visitor.” She continued, “If we go with 20 kids, those 20 kids will hook up with 20 orphans, and they spend whatever time they are there holding their hand, playing with them, talking about music.”
“When we got there and the kids from the orphanage came pouring out, it was a little overwhelming,” Matt Millheiser, 35, of Center Moriches, a former student of Mann’s, said about his 2013 trip. “As you get to know them [the orphans] and see what kind of great young people they are, and then learn what they went through, they change the way you look at things. You look at all the things we have and take for granted, and the silly things we get frustrated about.”
a land of safaris
During two weeks in Kenya, Millheiser went on what has become a tradition — a safari in Meru National Park, the famous preserve where elephants, giraffes and other African wildlife roam free.
Another Shoreham-Wading River graduate, Julie Lindell, made the trip in 2011, 2012 and 2013, after taking Mann’s high school community relations course. Lindell paid for the first trip with $2,800 her parents had put aside for her Sweet Sixteen party. One of her most memorable experiences was meeting Vincent.
“I don’t know why or how, but Mr. Mann always said that when I stepped into the room, he [Vincent] would know I was there and would say, ‘Julie?’ ” Lindell, now 22, and student-teaching in Bloomington, Indiana, recalled. “He was probably one of the most intelligent and brave kids I’ve ever met.”
Mann requires that those accompanying him pay their own travel expenses and bring just two suitcases — one packed with clothes and another with donations, which will then be filled for the return trip with Meru-made crafts sold for fundraising on Long Island.
The donations have included 10 suitcases of Band-Aids, which are prohibitively expensive in Meru but important in preventing HIV transmission. Mann has shipped 60 laptops — reconditioned by students at Eastern Suffolk Board of Cooperative Educational Services’ Eastern Long Island Academy of Applied Technology — for a new technology center outside the orphanage.
Not every gift has had the desired effect. On their first trip in 2007, the Manns thought it would be a “kind gesture” to hand out milk and chewable vitamins to the children. “In Kenya, milk is given to people who are extremely sick or very old and not going to last long, and you only get medicine if you are terminally ill,” Mann recalled. The fearful looks subsided after Kevin explained the gesture to one of the older kids in the home.
At the end of each visit, the orphans have written letters for the visitors to read after they leave Meru. Transatlantic pen-pal connections have been difficult, however, because of Kenya’s unreliable postal system.
Thanks to a recent development, the visitors from afar will be able to communicate in the future with their new friends 7,000 miles away.
“Mail is tough, and if you leave it at the post office, they charge you for storage,” Kevin Mann said. The solution, says Mann: “It took us five years to do it, but now we have an email server.”
HOPE CHILDREN’S FUND GALA
WHEN | WHERE 6 p.m. Feb. 18, East Wind Long Island, 5720 Rte. 25A, Wading River
INFO $200; 631-470-6351, facebook.com/hopechildrensfund