How child sponsorship connected two women and changed their lives forever? A girl who was told she’d never go far gets a better life through child sponsorship and education.
“I am very proud of my high school certificate more than even my master’s degree,” says Nancy Yiampoi, 34, thoughtfully, “because to me this was the bridge. This is what took me there. This is what separated me from difficulties, and this is what confirmed that I can do anything I focus on.”
As a humanitarian aid worker, Nancy Yiampoi has been to Ethiopia and South Sudan to manage emergency relief, worked in northern Kenya in agriculture and livestock programs, worked for a Nairobi non-profit as a finance advisor, and as of September 2018 was leading the emergency aid response in East Africa for international NGO CARE.
At 34, she’s a single mom raising her 10-year-old daughter in a suburb outside Nairobi in a home she’s saved to build and furnish; she recently purchased her first car. From the University of Nairobi, she has a master’s degree in project planning and management and a bachelor’s degree in veterinary medicine.
It was all made possible when Nancy was a young girl and a young woman, Georgie Paschalis, living at home with her parents in Australia, decided to sponsor Nancy through World Vision, in a sudden and spontaneous act of generosity.
It’s not often we get to see how a story like Nancy and Georgie ends. To be able to trace back to the small stream of Georgie’s donation and how it became blessing as wide and deep as a river. One World Vision sponsorship changed one little girl’s life in Kenya, but also changed other children around her and her community.
Nancy Yiampoi was born Kajiado County of Kenya, which runs south of Nairobi to the country’s border with Tanzania. She grew up in Oltepesi, a dry lowland area traditionally settled by the Masaai. She moved there with her mother, sister, and brother after her parents separated and her mother remarried into a traditional Maasai family. She lived in a traditional hut with no running water.
“When I would ask for water, the first time they brought me brown, like African tea that they made. I told them, I don’t want tea, I want water. They say, that’s water...I realized it was water, but it was water from a pond."
A girl was considered, and maybe still considered, inferior to a boy. I was not supposed to be bright, brighter than the boys.
Slowly, Nancy soon learned the Maasai language, culture, and traditions. She learned to tend the cattle and take the cows, goats, and sheep to graze. Her family had about 200 sheep and 500 cattle; they were doing well.
“What I was seeing from around the community is women fetching water on their backs for like five kilometers and in their dresses. They could go as far as 10 (kilometers) using donkeys.” And
though she saw the women waking early to tend to the cows, sheep, and goats, they had no say in the use and sale of the animals.
She dreamed of a different life through education.
Nancy says her stepfather was not supportive of her going to school, beginning with not purchasing a new uniform. She also felt that girls in general were not encouraged to go to school, despite her ability to do well.
“A girl was considered, and maybe still considered, inferior to a boy,” Nancy said. “Because I used to be top in school...there would be complaints from the community that the teachers were adding all the boys’ marks to this girl. I was not supposed to be bright, brighter than the boys.”
As more of the girls she grew up and married early, most by the age of 15, Nancy said she was the only girl left in her class.
Nancy says sponsorship evened the odds against her and enabled her to stay in school, beginning with a simple, light blue dress, shapeless, accented with a dark blue, flat collar -- the kind of school uniform thousands of Kenyan school girls wear every day, unremarkable, plain, and ordinary.
Nancy, 11, had no idea why they had taken her measurements earlier at school, but now she had been called to an assembly with other children, and they were handing out packages.
“When I opened mine, there was a brand-new school uniform,” says Nancy, “I was so excited!” The words words catch in her throat as she retells the story, and she begins to weep as she remembers.
“Because somebody cared to buy me a uniform.”
As a child, Nancy had no idea that her life was going to change in ways she could only dream about. Georgie had no idea what her generosity would have on Nancy, who, like millions of children around the world, faced lack of access to clean water, basic health, and education. And because she was a girl, Nancy was discouraged from attending school or pursuing a career and instead was supposed to marry by her mid-teens.
But it began with that new school uniform in Oltepesi Primary School southwest of Nairobi, where Maasai continue to live in traditional huts and herd cattle. Until that fateful day, Nancy wore the same uniform for three years. So, Nancy, along with other girls, tore open the package, immediately put on the new uniform, and dreamed of the potential of that dress that lay before her.
There were other ways sponsorship helped lift her, the children around her, and the community, according to Florence Muthani, who managed the Lodiarak project area for World Vision until 2006, a project area that had 2,400 sponsored children. The Lodiarak area project was completed in 2007, she says.
Florence, who no longer works for World Vision, said they helped support education in the area not only with uniforms, books, bags, clothing for children, and school fee subsidies, but also by building classrooms and providing water tanks at the school. World Vision also supported children by doing health exams, supporting health clinics, and raising awareness about good health practices.
Throughout the project area, World Vision instituted water projects and in 1997, most dramatically, saw the community through a crippling national drought by providing emergency food such as maize, beans, and porridge.
Nancy remembers that during the drought her mother and other women getting up earlier and traveling farther to look for water. And most of their livestock died.
“I just remember feeling hungry and thirsty most of the time,” Nancy says. “There were lots of carcasses around of dead cattle, dead sheep, and goats. You go out grazing, and one of them would fall. It could no longer walk; you just have to leave it.”
Nancy said when she was 13, the year of the drought, she weighed just 57 pounds.
How World Vision worked in the Lodiarak area, to stave off drought and do community-wide projects, shows the ripple effect of sponsorship, says Florence. Sponsorship is not just focused on one child, but its benefits cascade to many other children in a community, sponsored or not.
“Sponsorship gives a great opportunity to connect not just to sponsoring a child, but helping other children,” Florence says. “Whatever happens to the child is something that helps the rest of the children to see a change that can also be good for them. Sponsorship is good and sponsoring a child is a very, very unique opportunity for anyone. It is going to open more opportunities than just for that one sponsored child.”
And there are the more intangible benefits of sponsorship. One day, while working in the World Vision office in Kiserian, Florence had a visitor. A young, college-age student who had been a sponsored child introduced herself and said Florence was like her role model. Her name was Nancy.
Nancy says she remembers Florence: “She was beautiful. She had her hair well made. She had nice clothes....and she had powers. She was the boss. That’s what I wanted. I knew exactly who I wanted to be.”
The two have become friends, and on a recent visit to the Oltepesi Primary School, Florence could see and hear the improvements. As she walked through the school courtyard, classrooms of students greeted their teachers and recited their lessons in unison. The children appear better dressed, healthier, and thriving, Florence says. And a big change: she sees as many girls as boys.
As Florence inspired Nancy, so does Nancy, dressed in a bright blue plaid dress accented by a flowing yellow scarf and traditional Maasai jewelry, inspire others.
“Nancy is a great inspiration in this community because there are many girls -- they may not verbalize
it -- but they are looking at Nancy and hoping someday they will become like her, like she always used to wish that she’ll become like me,” Florence says. “For Nancy, a role model knowingly or unknowingly, there are some girls who are emulating you quietly and hoping to walk in your footsteps.”
Until Florence came along, there was little to encourage her, Nancy says. She watched as one-by-one girls got married in their teenage years.
I was feeling so alone and so different because the girls who were around us were not in school.
“Watching the girls from our neighborhood, I remember. I was feeling so alone and so different because the girls who were around us were not in school...Their story was different from mine, and what I wanted was different from what they knew depending on the exposure they had. Most of them were married before they were 15.”
Nancy never felt like she fit in. She fled to the comfort of books and school. She read everything she could find. Book in hand, she would go off to graze the animals, or shop, or even the latrine to steal some time to read.
“I was very good at grazing these animals, and I was also sharp,” Nancy says. “I was fast on my feet, but lazy with my hands. I was sharp, and I believed I was sharp.
“But around the homestead I always felt confused. I felt unwanted. I felt like there was something wrong with me, so the school was it. The school was like an escape which I really loved...Every time I woke and went to school I would be excited because I’m running away from the problems at home.”
Georgie Paschalis was 20 and living at home with her parents in Melbourne, Australia and watching a World Vision documentary on Africa. She was moved to sponsor a child. She didn’t ask for permission, and she didn’t tell anyone what she had done. But when Nancy’s photo and letter came in the mail, her parents and friends were glad that she was able to do something.
“It was just about giving, and it was about me hoping that I could make a difference,” Georgie said recently, looking back at what she had done.
After Nancy had sent some letters and drawings of life in her village, Georgie wrote her back and included pictures. She simply shared her life her work, her family with Nancy along with messages of encouragement and affirmation.
She kept a picture of Nancy on her bedside table. “Yeah, I felt a real connection to her.”
As a young girl, Nancy treasured those letters.
“I remember one of her letters where she said, “Your photo is in my bedroom, so every time when I wake up, I see your beautiful smile.”
Something in Nancy clicked: “Yeah, finally, there’s nothing wrong with me. That’s what I felt. I felt like there’s someone out there who cares. Who does not judge me. And who is interested in me.”
Nancy was able to go to high school because of Georgie’s sponsorship, which subsidized her school fees. As Nancy graduated and went to university to study veterinary medicine and enter the working world, she came to deeply appreciate what Georgie’s generosity had done.
“As I remember, if I had not gone through high school, I would not be at this level in life because that is what has determined everything else,” Nancy says. “If it were not for World Vision, I would not have gone through high school, I would not have achieved this.”
The confused and isolated girl had found herself.
“That’s what I got: I got a second chance at life,” she says. “If World vision didn’t come to give me a second chance in life, maybe my life would been out there.”
Though they are separated by vast land and water, Nancy feels the same connection to Georgie.
“Just like a kid when you have achieved something, and your parents are here, I think I’ll be like, ‘Georgie, you see where your money went? This is what I did, this is what I’ve done. This is what I’ve
done.’ I’d be very grateful to her. I always felt I needed to make her feel like whatever she did for me did not go to waste.”
Back in Melbourne recently, Georgie is watching a video of Nancy’s interview for the first time.
She listens as the interviewer asks Nancy, “If you could say anything to her right now, what would you say to her? What would you tell her?”
“I think I would tell her I’m grateful for the much she did...The fact that she would say, ‘Your smile is good. You’re beautiful. I have your photo in my bedroom,” said Nancy, made her feel wanted, loved by someone else.
Nancy continues, “I would tell her how much she meant to me, and now that I understand how the whole things work. As much as you did, you provided the much you did to World Vision, that has helped me go through an education, that what you did is what made me choose my current career, and that what you did is what is still driving me to want to do it to someone else.”
“The kind of change she wanted to see in that little girl’s life is what I’ve always remembered, that if I work hard, if I make it out there, then Georgie will be happy. So, I’m grateful to Georgie, I’m grateful to World Vision,” says Nancy.
The video message ends, and Georgie is wiping away tears, seeing the little girl on her nightstand is now a confident mother, a humanitarian aid worker who wants to repay Georgie’s kindness in the lives of those around her.
That was more than I expected and more than I would have ever wanted for her.