Never in his wildest dreams did a young man from Co. Down think he would be spending all his free time rescuing, housing and educating parentless street children in Africa.
“I didn’t mean to. It happened by accident or providence maybe. Truthfully I never liked children that much and they definitely didn’t like me,” laughs Thomas Keown, 31, during an interview with the Irish Voice.
Keown, who has worked at the Irish Immigration Center in Boston for eight years and still does so on a part time basis, is the founder of One Home Many Hopes (OHMH), a loving and inspirational home for orphaned and abandoned girls in Mtwapa, Kenya.
Helping children in developing countries was never something on Keown list of things to do in life.
“I went on holiday to Kenya in the summer of 2008 with no plans to do anything to help anyone but myself,” smiles Keown at the irony.
While visiting Kenya, Keown met a young Kenyan journalist, Anthony Mulongo, who had given up his job, his house and a lucrative journalism and broadcast career to rescue and house abandoned street children.
“Anthony had met one child in particular, a six-year-old girl called Gift who in between his first and second meeting of her had lost her mother to AIDS, leaving her and her nine-month-old brother on the streets,” said Keown.
“By the time he met her again her brother had died. He died on her back as she carried him around the streets looking for food.
“Anthony was profoundly moved and moved her into his house and basically adopted her informally. Then another, then another and another.”
Mulongo has a vision to educate children so they can become the doctors and journalists and teaches of the future. Keown was blown away by Mulongo’s foresight and plans.
“I had seen orphanages in several other parts of the developing world and wasn’t moved to help. But Anthony’s vision of creating those who would be leaders and agents of change in the future was exactly in line with my own thoughts on how development can most effectively be done,” he said.
“I’d thought for a while that we can build orphanages for the rest of lives, but to what end, when and how does it stop? And then suddenly, boom! Into my path had come a genius with the same notion, but who had started doing it with children already.”
Keown was so inspired by his new friend that he made a decision right there and then in Kenya that he was going to help Mulongo’s mission.
Keown quickly formed an attachment to a three-week-old baby boy called Macharia while in Kenya, and realized he had the ability and means to access the pockets of those living in the developed world to help Mulongo in his quest to save many lives.
“I know people all over the world who want to make a difference but don’t know how to in an effective, high impact and trustworthy way. Now they can help through OHMH,” said Keown.
Since returning from Kenya, Keown has worked tirelessly to make a difference.
He began raising money by asking friends and family for donations. They in turn organized local fundraisers, and soon enough people both in the U.S. the U.K. and in Ireland were doing their bit to help house, protect and educate young Kenyan children.
Describing the conditions of the children OHMH and Mulongo help save, Keown said, “Some of these girls lived on trash piles and ate from the streets or the bins. Girls are very vulnerable to pimps and traffickers and so wear baggy clothes and cut their hair short so they will look like boys.
“Some of the girls had been forced to be married as young as 10. Others had been raising siblings since they themselves were as young as six.
“You can’t describe it to people in the U.S. easily because our eyes glaze over; so much have we seen and heard on the news. But when you have seen it for yourself, you don’t glaze and you can’t not do something about it,” added Keown.
Currently, OHMH, a 501c3 tax-deductible charity, is housing 32 girls and three housemothers in a four-bedroom house in Mtwapa in coastal Kenya.
“We are rescuing girls and raising leaders so we aren’t asking people for charity, we are asking people to invest in 32 shattered lives who will heal and do work in Kenya that generations of generous and well-intentioned charity hasn’t done and will never do. We are all volunteers and so every dollar people give goes to the project. Zero percent is spent on admin and the like,” explains Keown.
“We use donors gifts to develop ways of sustaining the children and adults. For example, instead of buying milk every day they have five cows, instead of buying vegetables they grow them. Instead of paying electric bills they have solar panels.
“We recently dug a fish pond for the house and aim to fill it with 10,000 tilapia fish so we can provide the children with protein rich food, but also so they can hopefully sell fish to locals and so create income to sustain themselves.”
By the end of 2009, OHMH is expecting to have raised $70,000 to build a “proper home” for the girls. Currently all 32 of them and their four housemothers live in one four-bedroom house. The aim by the end of the year is to raise enough money to build a much larger residence for the children already living there.
“A volunteer architect has designed our new building – four floors, 12 girls and a house mother in four rooms on each floor complete with a living room and a kitchen so as the children feel that they are in a home as a family, and not in an institution as an orphan. And so they can study fruitfully,” said Keown.
Unlike many charities that build orphanages to house parentless children, Keown said OHMH creates a home environment for each child and fills it with love and education.
“Our aim is not to house every orphan in Kenya, although that would be lovely, but our aim is to very strategically raise up this group of future change agents, a group of highly educated indigenous people who have suffered the worst at the hands of a corrupt government as children so they can become the leaders of the future,” he says.
Although a recession is not the ideal time in which to be fundraising and looking to send money abroad, Keown remains optimistic of people’s good natures, especially his fellow men.
“I knew enough from growing up at home in Ireland and from my parent’s stories to know that Irish people always help even when we are in hard times ourselves,” he said.
And so far so good. To date dozens of Irish men and women have supported OHMH in one way or another.
“An Irish lady, Una McKeever, who was getting married, dug our fish pond by having me write to all her wedding guests saying she had enough toasters so please give to OHMH instead of getting her wedding presents,” said Keown.
Keown, who began the organization in Boston, will open up a chapter in New York City this week.
The aim of opening a chapter in New York is to recruit more volunteers to help fundraise and support OHMH, said Keown.
“New York will be the big engine for us. I believe that there are many people here who are working hard and doing well, but know that there is something bigger than their jobs and success and home and want to help with it if it is good and reputable,” he feels.
“There is a quiet voice in their head telling them so, but it gets drowned out by life and the rush of the city.”
Keown is urging young and old to attend the launch and get involved with OHMH.
“The last year has taught us that no matter who you are, you can do something. If we all give a little of ourselves, large things happen,” Keown says.
“If you want to be in on the ground floor of building something new, then we want you. We need people to sit around the table and help us work out how we are going to transform a region over the next generation.”
The launch of the New York chapter will take place from 7-9 p.m. at the Galway Hooker (1 East 36th Street) on Wednesday, August 26.
Visit www.onehomemanyhopes.org or e-mail Thomas Keown at
[email protected] or phone 617-230-2574.