Keela Dates planned to be a teacher. Then a 10-week stint as a volunteer in Kenya changed those plans.
Keela grew up in central New York but spent summers with her grandparents in Lake Placid, working at the Bookstore Plus, since she was 16.
"I have grown to love this area," she said. "I love the scenery and the presence of nature. I also love the numerous activities, from arts to sports, that the region offers. I love the new people who come through each year. I feel like it's a great place to constantly meet new people - at least compared to the farm country where I grew up."
(Photo — Yvona Fast)
In 2006, Keela graduated from Wells College with certification to teach elementary education. She wanted to experience other cultures, so she put her career on hold for a year.
"I was searching for something that would diversify my teaching and make me more appreciative of my middle-class American life," she said. "I Google-searched 'volunteer teaching abroad' and came up with thousands of options. Sifting through them, I found a volunteering position in a semi-rural school for orphaned children in Kenya that seemed to fit.
"I have always had an interest in Africa, and always seemed drawn to Kenya or Ghana. I worked hard and saved my money for about eight months (I also received some financial support from very generous family members and friends) and then traveled to Kenya for a 10-week volunteering stint. The children at Jambo Jipya School stole my heart. Through a sea of tears while on a plane headed back to the U.S., I realized my life had been forever changed.
"Food, shelter, love and family are basic necessities of life anywhere in the world. Family is very important to me. My parents and grandparents have been incredibly supportive; my fiance is my best friend. In Kenya, families struggle to survive. The social culture is very different than in the U.S. Not many things are done merely for fun. Hobbies are unheard of. Almost everything is done with the goal of supporting the family. Many don't have jobs, but it's always on everyone's mind to find work and ways to provide for their family.
"There is so much poverty. The need is so great. I have so incredibly much to be thankful for. Taking time to count my blessings helps me through the tough times. Even though bad days come once in a while, all it takes is one thought about the kids in Kenya and all they deal with on a daily basis, to put things back into perspective for me."
She explained that although there's no tuition to attend grades K-8 in Kenya, education is not compulsory. Because schools require children to have a school uniform, shoes and school supplies - things many Kenyans cannot afford - they can't send their children to school. Starting in 9th grade, there's also a tuition fee.
Religious traditions are important in Kenya. In Mtwapa, where Jambo Jipya School is located, about one-third of the population is Muslim and many of them attend mosque on a regular basis. The other two-third are Christians and they're also actively involved in a number of different denominations with churches in the area.
"I spent the next couple of years spreading the word about the children who had changed my life," Keela explained. "My parents instilled in me the idea that as long as I pursue something I love, everything else will fall into place." So during the next two years, Keela returned to Kenya three more times (for a total of 10 months). With the help of the Adirondack Community Church she raised funds, developed a support base and tried to discern if starting a non-profit organization was something she could truly commit to.
"I enjoy being part of a community of people who believe in God and the power/importance of love. The apostle Paul encourages us to use our gifts to help one another. He writes, "Give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. (Romans 12:1,5,6). "It speaks about following your passion and using the gifts God gave you."
In March 2009, the paperwork finally went through, and Reason2Smile Inc. was recognized as a 501c(3) nonprofit organization.
"A board of directors was in place, I was named the executive director (a more than full-time job) and Reason2Smile was off and running. Our website is www.reason2smile.org, and you can also find us on Facebook and Twitter." Just two years later, the nonprofit hired a second employee who works part-time to handle PR/marketing and social media work.
These funds have enabled the school to help more kids.
"Since I first visited Jambo Jipya in February 2007, the school has grown from six mud hut classrooms to 13 concrete classrooms, from grades K to 4 to grades K to 10, from 90 students to 300, 45 of whom live in our orphanage. Thanks to the continued outpouring of support, largely from people across the North Country, we are able to provide 300 orphaned and at-risk children with a safe, happy, and healthy place to learn and play each and every day. We are also looking to expand our support to more schools and orphanages that work with orphaned and at-risk children in developing countries."
Based on an interview with Keela Dates. Yvona Fast can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.