An interview with Robin Wiszowaty

Robin Wiszowaty is the Kenya program director with Free the Children, and oversaw the construction our very first project in Emori Joi. Robin was born and raised in Schaumburg, Illinois, but she currently splits her time between Toronto and her adoptive home of Kenya. In her early twenties, Robin went to live in a Masai village where she immersed herself in their culture. Robin has made Kenya her home, serving to implement long-term development projects in partnership with local communities; one being Emori Joi. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Robin when she participated in the Global Issues Conference at the American School in Abu Dhabi.

How far does $10,000 go in Kenya?
This type of donation means the difference between students learning in a small mud hut and students learning in a classroom. It doesn’t take long for a mud hut to disintegrate from rain and wind. Eventually, teachers have to step over huge puddles to get to the student desks during the wet season and the class is full of dust during the dry season. Before the school was constructed in Emori Joi class was often cancelled when Elephants roamed through the school grounds. The constant interruptions had a drastic impact on attendance (on a good week students would show up to school for 2 or 3 days). With the new classroom attendance is over 80%!

Why do you believe investing in education is so important?
We always meet with the community several times before starting a new project to get an idea of what type of support they need. When sitting down with village elders and asking them what type of legacy they want to leave the first thing they always say is education. This vision “does not come from reading a UN report it comes from living it”

As the Kenya program director with Free the Children are you involved in projects beyond education?
Yes. We have learned that there are a number of barriers to education and unless you address those it is difficult for students to attend school. For example, the girls in the community are responsibility for fetching water every morning. This often involves walking kilometers to the closest source of water and carrying it back in buckets. Having lived in a Maasi village “I know how vitally important this job is and can understand why the girls miss school in order to get water for their families”. To overcome this obstacle we have dug bore holes and installed several clean water stations at the school to allow the girls to both attend class and fulfill part of their domestic responsibly.

In addition, to delivering clean water we have a mobile health clinic, a permanent hospital and disseminate health education through the school curriculum and community groups. We have also created a school farm to supplement the lunch program and established environmental clubs to educate the community about sustainable practices.

How is this your work in Kenya sustainable over the long term?
We enjoy tremendous support from the local government and community it has been “great working with them”. The government has committed to delivering the national curriculum, training teachers and paying the faculty’s salary. They are also responsible covering the cost for all maintenance and repairs. The local community helps maintain the school farm, supplies labour and assists in countless other ways. Our alternative income program has also been very successful. This three-phase program promotes financial literacy,
basic budgeting skills and offers alternative income sessions. Two of our proudest accomplishments have been the bee keeping program that sells honey in the local market and the beading initiative that ships Kenyan handy crafts overseas.

What are your major challenges in the next 5 years?
Managing the growth in the area. I started in 2004 when we had 192 students and 6 schools. Now we oversee 100 schools and 5000 students. In March we have plans to enter 3 more communities. We are also opening the first boarding school of High School students, which will have a unique set of challenges.

To see excerpts of Robin from previous speaking engagement, feel free to watch the video below:


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