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Small but powerful: Canadian micro-charity changing lives in Kenya

Submitted by on March 4, 2014 – 11:13 amNo Comment

By Golda Arthur

10 years ago, Nina Chung went to Kenya to volunteer her skills, intending to stay only for a couple of years.

Then she met a grandmother who changed her life.

“She had four children in her care and she couldn’t manage”, recalls Chung. “I mean, they weren’t eating every night.” The parents had left the children with the grandmother, who was struggling with the extra mouths to feed.

Nina Chung at the new classroom in Upendo Nursery School (photocredit: Nina Chung)

Chung helped them out with some money, and then decided to put two of the grandchildren through school that year – from her own pocket. “It was only 35 dollars,” she says, enough for registering the boys at school, and buying some uniforms and two backpacks.

“It was a small step at the time – I didn’t realize I was going to make decision to stay in Kenya”, says Chung. “That initial step filled a need. I have always been a person who gets involved, and I was tutoring them. I was drawn in – sucked in,” she laughs.

One thing led to another, and in 2011 she officially started a charity called Elimu (“education”, in Swahili). Today it runs a few stable projects including Nyumbani Kweto Home for Children, a sewing school for young girls and Upendo Nursery School, serving 100 children. The goal is to provide food, shelter and an education for young people in the rural communities around Malindi, where she’s based.

Chung says the most innocuous barriers can keep children out of school in Kenya. Some schools are strict about the type of uniform and shoes students wear, and families can’t always afford these. Children often don’t have pencils, and exams must be paid for and are expensive.

And the harvest is one of the biggest obstacles to keeping children in school, as their parents pull them out to help with the work the season brings.

Children listen to a story at Upendo Nursery School (photocredit: Nina Chung)

But like anywhere else, without an education, it’s even harder to get a job in Kenya, especially since the country’s economy is faltering.

Malindi, the coastal town Chung is based in, was once a thriving tourist center. “Terrorist activity around the country has been keeping tourists away over the last few years. And this trickles down to everyone,” she explains. “Middle class families who once had no trouble keeping their kids in school are struggling now, and asking for help.”

So there’s work to be done, and Chung has devoted herself fully to Elimu. She spends a few months with family back in Canada, but is otherwise based in Kenya. She resists the idea that this is a one-woman band, though, telling me she has an advisory board in Canada to help out, and a few devoted fundraisers (see sidebar) for the projects. No one, however, is paid for their work – the proceeds all go to Elimu, which raised $184,000 in the last three years.

Having got this far without quite intending to, Chung says her next step is to come up for air and think about Elimu’s future direction.

“We’ve been figuring things out on the go so far, and now we need to look at how we operate, and what’s sustainable,” she says. “There’s a tendency among charities to keep on doing more and more projects – just because you’ve got the funding. But I don’t want us to be in a position where we have grown and can’t sustain it”.

The charity’s latest effort is the Stay in School sponsorship project, launched last year, which helps children with the cost of continuing their education. This, says Chung, is the project she is focusing on now – having built a school, the challenge is getting children to stay in it.

Meet one of Elimu’s Nova Scotia funders here.

For more on Elimu, go to