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Smiles across miles: Long Islanders support Kenya school, children's home

Donna Rosenblum, executive director of the nonprofit Reason2Smile, talks about how the group engages students and others on Long Island to support Jamba Jipya School and Children's Home in Mtwapa, Kenya. (Credit: Danielle Silverman)

Reading an article in 2009 in New York Teacher magazine, Donna Rosenblum of Merrick was drawn to the story of two intrepid women thousands of miles apart who shared a mission to help children. Kenyan Christine Mwende, who founded Jambo Jipya School in Mtwapa, Kenya, in 2004 in a mud hut with 12 students, and Keela Grimmette of upstate Lake Placid, had met when Grimmette was a volunteer teacher at the school in 2007.

Grimmette would go on to found Reason2Smile in 2009, creating a U.S. nonprofit to support the school — whose name means "something new" in Swahili — and adjoining children’s home. Under Grimmette’s stewardship from 2007 to 2010, the one-room wood and mud classrooms were demolished and classrooms were built of concrete. More buildings were erected, and the school was expanded to primary and secondary schools.

Reason2Smile was just the project Rosenblum was seeking. “I didn’t want to get involved with a big organization. What I loved was that this was such a small, grassroots organization,” she says. “The key people, all volunteers, were invested in it. They were doing what they felt was a calling.”

Rosenblum, 54, was familiar with Kenya. “I honeymooned in Kenya on a low-budget safari in 1989. I thought the country was beautiful, and the people are warm. With my social studies classes, I was doing ‘Save the Children.’ We sponsored a child — and it was in my mind how important education is and how so many children are not in school.”

Rosenblum began her 30-year education career as a high school social studies teacher, later getting a master’s in library science. She now supervises Nassau BOCES School Library System, which provides professional development, online databases for research, and library automation for school libraries. A passionate advocate for the power of education to transform lives, she understands the challenges faced by school-age children in developing countries. 2018 UNESCO figures show 258 million children between 6 and 17 are out of school — with rates higher for females than males: “Girls are the ones who get pulled out of school first,” she says.

After reading the article, Rosenblum contacted Reason2Smile director Keela Grimmette, now 35, who was running Reason2Smile out of Lake Placid Methodist Community Church, to volunteer.

Rosenblum eventually became a board member, then Reason2Smile’s executive director in 2016. Says Rosenblum: “I knew Keela was a full-on mom and that was her focus, and she was torn. I said, ‘I will take over Reason2Smile.’ I didn’t want to see the organization fold.”

“My goal has always been to help and support children, and to provide education opportunities,” she said. “Now I’m taking that same mission and bringing it to a global scale.”

The money raised by Reason2Smile comes from individuals and groups at schools, libraries, religious institutions and even the Boy Scouts. Rosenblum says Reason2Smile sends roughly $65,000 a year to fund the school and children’s home as well as trade schools and construction projects.

“We are a small nonprofit — every dollar we raise goes toward the school,” she says.

While government school in Kenya is free, many children cannot afford uniforms or transportation. So tuition, uniforms, supplies and meals are subsidized by Reason2Smile for the 220 pre-K through 12th-grade students at Jambo Jipya; living expenses are also provided for the 20 youths at the children’s home. Jambo Jipya is staffed with teachers certified by the Kenyan education system. Reason2Smile also subsidizes scholarships for graduates who attend secondary and trade schools, such as those for hair design, auto mechanics, hospitality — and for some students, university.

"I am blessed to give children from low-income single families opportunities to attend school," Jambo Jipya founder Mwende said recently in an email. "I thank God for giving me Reason2Smile to support this important mission. Most importantly, I appreciate Keela and Donna. Strong women who give from the heart. They are family.”

Neema's story

Rosenblum works to involve the community by spearheading educational and fundraising programs at schools and libraries and at craft fairs and Adirondack Global Arts Festival, held in March in Lake Placid.

The programs include kindergarten through sixth-grade education trunks that she and a team of educators developed for public schools. The trunks — stuffed with lessons, activities, music and books about Kenyan culture — help educate children about life in Kenya and Jambo Jipya School. The trunks are used in conjunction with Patricia Newman’s 2018 children’s book, “Neema’s Reason to Smile.” Rosenblum facilitated the book’s publication and its publisher, Lightswitch Learning, donates part of the proceeds to Jambo Jipya.

“Every book sold puts another child in school,” says Newman, who lives in Sacramento, California. Rosenblum asked Newman in 2011 to write the children’s book. In the story, 7-year-old Neema (whose name means “grace” in Swahili) lives with her mother in a small village in Kenya; Neema wants to go to school but cannot afford books and uniforms. She sells fruit to support the family; after Neema and her mother count the coins they make to pay for beans and rice, whatever is leftover goes into Neema’s “Dream Basket” for school.

Neema is a composite of Jambo Jipya students, says Newman. “She is bright, inquisitive. She is the kind of child I hope every child becomes: She realizes her dream. This is a worthy story for any child who has a dream.

“Christine Mwende is giving them a chance and an education to let them achieve their potential.”

Newman says her book leaves out graphic details of the real students’ lives: Many live without plumbing and electricity; some are orphans or come from abusive homes. The back of the book features photos of actual Jambo Jipya students alongside their dreams.

“Their hopes and dreams mirror those of children in the U.S. It doesn’t matter where you live — people have the same journey,” Newman says.

Sales of Kenyan bead bracelet kits made from recycled rubber are another source of fundraising. Rosenblum sells the kits, which cost $3 per bracelet, to libraries that offer them to patrons for their “Great Give Back” fundraising initiative in October.

“The bracelets symbolize a sense of community; what affects one person affects the next,” Rosenblum says. “Making the bracelets empowers kids — they feel they’re doing something, and the bracelets support the organization.” Last year, says Rosenblum, 10 Nassau libraries raised $2,175 for Reason2Smile.

Turning point for Rosenblum

In 2013, after a family vacation to South Africa, the Rosenblums flew to Kenya, spending three days at Jambo Jipya. It was a turning point, Donna recalls: “I had been fundraising but didn’t know people on the ground. To meet Christine Mwende and the children in person was an important thing for me. … From that point, I went back to Kenya every year, and now I go two times a year.”

Getting to Jambo Jipya entails a 14-hour flight to Nairobi, then a 40-minute flight to Mombasa and a van ride to the school. When Rosenblum visits, she takes books, supplies and extra food. And she says, “We go to the beach, the pool, movies — children deserve to have these memories, too.”

Last summer, she also carried a video message from students at the Merrick’s Chatterton School, one of many supporting the nonprofit: “We are thinking of you. We learned about Kenya. We love Reason2Smile — Wakanda Forever.” (The “Wakanda Forever” crossed-arm salute has come to symbolize black excellence, derived from the name of the fictional East African country depicted in Marvel Studios’ 2018 film “Black Panther.”)

Last summer, more than 300 students in the summer reading program at Levittown’s Jonas E. Salk and Wisdom Lane middle schools learned about Reason2Smile. Students were assigned “Restart,” a book by Gordon Korman about a bully who wakes up with amnesia and decides to restart his life. During three sessions, Rosenblum read Newman’s book and shared photos of Jambo Jipya. Afterward, students compared the books, made bracelets and participated in discussions about how to give back globally.

Says English chair Kerin Slattery: “They got to realize how important education is, and they wanted to help these other kids become successful in their education journey.”

Rosenblum’s November 2019 presentation for fourth graders at the Searingtown Elementary School in Albertson made a similar impact. Recalls school librarian Karen Kliegman: “The kids were touched with the pictures she shared with them. They realized that not everybody has what we have here.”

Students were given a handout, “Koins for Kenyan Kids,” listing household items to count at home, including electronics, faucets, toilets and lights; each item was given a monetary value in pennies, and students were asked to donate the total. They raised more than $500, says Kliegman. “Reason2Smile opened their eyes to a global issue — it was a great learning experience for them.”

Callista Lien, 9, a fourth-grader at Searingtown, attended the Koins program. “I learned how some countries are not as fortunate as us. I thought it was a little bit sad that some people in other countries can’t have what we have here,” she said.

'Awesome conversations'

After participating in the “Koins for Kenyan Kids” fundraiser during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, Unqua Elementary School students in Massapequa raised more than $3,200 for Reason2Smile. Says Melinda Alford, school librarian and a Reason2Smile board member: “I love to see the kids’ reaction that they are helping a child in another country to have a better life.”

In December, the Unqua PTA raised another $575 from bracelet sales at book and holiday fairs. Newman’s book “has brought awesome conversations with kids who have ‘everything’ here. Kids are flabbergasted that things like education are a given here and are not a certainty in Kenya,” Alford says.

She had students fill out the hopes and dreams for themselves in their own “Dream Baskets,” which Alford hung in the school hallways.

For the Rosenblums, civic-mindedness begins at home. Donna’s husband, Charlie, is a past president of the Kiwanis Club and their synagogue, and coaches PAL soccer and basketball. In 2017, Donna, her husband and son, Ryan, shaved their heads for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which raises money for a cure for cancer. “We shaved because we can — it was a Rosenblum family event.”

Ryan has been to Jambo Jipya three times. “It is an eye-opening experience that makes you appreciate everything you have,” he says.

In 2017, when Ryan was a member of Calhoun High School’s Senior Experience class, he invited his mother to talk to the Merrick class about Reason2Smile and Jambo Jipya student Maureen Wairimu.

An exemplary student, Wairimu still needed money to attend the University of Nairobi. That year, the class voted to raise funds for her college tuition, taking in $10,000 from an April fashion show. The $10,000 paid tuition to the university; Jambo Jipya also paid for Wairimu’s food, rent, clothes, transportation, books, phone and computer.

“All the students were excited — you could tell they were happy to help,” Ryan says. “We were going on to our next chapter, and that we would help send another person on hers — that was the spin we put on it.”

The day after the fashion show, Donna, Ryan and Ryan’s classmate Olivia DelGandio traveled to Kenya to tell Maureen. It was an emotional meeting, Ryan recalls: “She was just blown away, as was myself.”

Wairimu graduated in December with a degree in economics. “I have the desire, the motivation and the intelligence to succeed but am lacking the resources,” she said in an email. “Without Jambo Jipya, Reason2Smile and the Calhoun Senior Experience Class of 2017, I never would have gotten to this moment and had the opportunity to attend university.

“Asante for making my dreams a reality," Wairimu said, using the Swahili word for “thank you.”

Under Rosenblum’s leadership, Reason2Smile continues to grow. “We’ve done construction projects every year at the school: redone bathrooms, expanded the kitchen area, and bought a stove to feed 200 kids,” she says. “This December we just redid the high school classrooms, repaired roofing and painting.” And Reason2Smile has begun helping to pay for students attending trade schools.

Within five years, the nonprofit’s operations will shift to Long Island, she says. Four board members are from Long Island and 70 percent of the fundraising comes from the Island, too.

Says Rosenblum, “You really get to see the impact. I just sent $5,000 for new construction and roof work, and I get to see photos of it and can send them to the donor."

She continues, “And when I go to Kenya in March, I get to see it firsthand. One student has gone to work in construction — he got a job at a hotel. He’s working, earning a salary. Another student is in hair design. We’re hoping these skills will help students make their way.”

Future projects include rebuilding the school with two stories and running water and electricity. And says, Rosenblum, “My dream is to build a library. I would love the children to have access to books.”

How to help

For information about Reason2Smile, visit reason2smile.org or contact executive director Donna Rosenblum at dearosenblum@gmail.com. You can also find the organization at facebook.com/Reason2SmileInc.

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