By Mary Margaret Wanjiku (YES 2015-2016, Kenya, placed by AFS in Ann Arbor, MI)
I am Mary Margaret Wanjiku, a name that embodies the stories of many hands that have supported me, the wisdom of numerous guiding minds, and the warmth of a community that has been my constant source of strength. Currently, I am pursuing a degree in international relations at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. The YES program has played a pivotal role in my journey. My time in the United States proved to be profoundly transformative. It granted me the privilege of immersing myself in the rich tapestry of American culture, education, and society.
During my stay, I had the honor of actively participating in numerous community service projects, with one standout water project that we presented to Jody Williams, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. This experience left an indelible mark on my understanding of the profound impact of community engagement and international cooperation. My exchange experience has molded me into a more insightful and globally minded individual, equipping me with the enthusiasm to confront challenges and seize the opportunities of our interconnected world.
I recognized a pressing issue in my community that I care deeply about – the plight of disadvantaged children. Therefore, I applied for a YES Alumni Grant to launch a project focused on psychosocial support and soft skills development for 180 reformed street children, ages 13 to 18, now living in Don Bosco Boys Home as well as 20 children living in the impoverished Kuwinda neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya, the city I call home. Many of these children have experienced the harsh reality of life on the streets, and they lack access to a stable support system.
I led a project team of eight members, crafting a comprehensive four-day program, featuring sessions on self-awareness, communication, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, integrity, problem-solving, and stress management as well as activities, including creating a vision board and outdoor games and team-building exercises, which taught participants perseverance, strategy, leadership, and creativity. Our sessions seamlessly integrated theory and practice, engaging both the mind and body.
Implementing this project deeply moved me because I recognized the tremendous untapped potential in these young individuals. They possessed resilience, determination, and a strong desire for better lives, but circumstances often limit their opportunities. My vision was to create a project offering psychosocial support and fostering soft skills development, providing these children with the tools to break free from the cycle of poverty and adversity. Our focus on mental well-being, confidence-building, and personal development aimed to empower them to overcome obstacles and achieve their aspirations.
We administered assessments both before and after the program, and the growth of the participants was remarkable. Previous and current project managers at Don Bosco Boys Home as well as the teachers have acknowledged the project's positive impact. The current project manager is considering incorporating similar programs into the school's annual curriculum. The teachers were astonished by the active participation of kids who were previously known to be reserved and shy in class.
Some of the children approached us individually, sharing their life stories, seeking advice, and expressing how the project had left a profound impact on them. One student noted, "The program taught me how to manage stress, something that has been affecting me." Another reported, "I've learned valuable conflict resolution skills through this program, which will help me navigate conflicts with my schoolmates."
This project will establish a Character Coaching club at the boys’ home, initially for the students and later extended to youth in the first stages of rehabilitation after life on the streets. Additionally, we plan to train more youth from various Don Bosco centers in Nairobi to facilitate similar programs.
I want to express my sincere gratitude to those who contributed to the success of our project. First, a big thank you to the YES program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, for making this endeavor possible. To AFS-Kenya, our partner organizations, and my devoted project team, your support and dedication were instrumental in our achievements. Together, we have made a meaningful impact on our community's children, and for that, I am deeply thankful.