Lewellyan with a woman from the women’s cooperative. | Provided

An inveterate volunteer and philanthropist supporting several nonprofits here at home, Kay Lewellyan, a retired teacher, was overwhelmed by the level of poverty she saw during a recent trip to Africa.

“The experience opened my eyes and my heart about how much of the world struggles to survive on so little — and they do so with such grace and hope,” said Lewellyan.

A retired middle-school teacher, she has lived in Oak Park for more than two decades.

Attracted by the community’s diversity, she moved here from Glen Ellyn shortly after adopting two African American girls as a single mother. Now adults, her daughters have embraced her lifelong interest in social justice. One daughter is a teacher in Chicago and the other is a social worker.

Lewellyan has been involved with a number of local nonprofits, including Housing Forward, where she served on the planning committee that launched the organization 30 years ago; Hephzibah Children’s Association; and YEMBA (Youth Educational Mentoring Basketball Association). In addition, she has been involved with Exodus World Service, an organization that helps refugee families acclimate to life in America— she recently “adopted” an Afghan family with seven children.

Kay Lewellyan with an elephant from the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, which she visited at the end of her trip. | Provided

Lewellyan visited Kenya this fall with Project Harambee, a nonprofit organization founded 15 years ago by Kathleen “Keen” Harrison, who, like Lewellyan, is a longtime member of St. Giles Catholic Church. Lewellyan brought with her suitcases full of children’s clothing, musical instruments, computers, and toys.

Harambee, the Swahili word for “pull together,” serves African families impacted by HIV through sustainable community projects focusing on education, health care and economic development. Its signature program, “Plant a Seed, Grow a Doctor,” provides scholarships for students pursuing education in medical fields. The program has 28 graduates and 22 current students in training.

During her three-week visit in Kenya, Lewellyan stayed at Nyumbani Children’s Home in Nairobi. The program provides comprehensive services for more than 4,000 HIV/AIDS survivors and more than 14,000 affected orphans and children each year, providing housing, a medical clinic, library, kitchen, greenhouse and pig and poultry pens.

She spent several days in Kibera, a sprawling settlement in Nairobi, housing more than 200,000 people in 12-square-foot shacks made of mud and corrugated tin. Families share outdoor latrines with up to 50 other families and only 20 percent of the area has electricity. Access to clean water is rare. The life expectancy of community residents is 30 years.

Lewellyan visited several projects supported by Project Harambee, including a free medical clinic and a women’s crafts cooperative. She also visited a school where 45 children were crowded into a tiny classroom with few desks or materials.

“The people I met were so generous with what little they had. I learned that the women in the cooperative were donating 10 percent of what they were earning in sales to help a colleague who was having surgery. At the school, the older children helped the younger children even if they didn’t know them. We gave the students candy, which they treated like gold,” Lewellyan said.

At Upendo Village, a complex outside Nairobi, Lewellyan had the opportunity to distribute goats and chickens to local villagers. And at the Thika School for the Blind, located northeast of Nairobi, she distributed musical instruments, including recorders and harmonicas. The school recently won awards in the Kenya National Music Festival.

Now that Lewellyan is back home, she plans to raise greater awareness of Project Harambee’s work and coordinate fundraising initiatives for Mirror of Hope Foundation, an organization that provides entrepreneurial training for women and educational scholarships for children in Kibera. Her daughters are sponsoring a female student for the next four years and Lewellyan is supporting another student through his high school years.

“I believe that education is one of the major answers for transforming lives. The young people I talked with in Nairobi, who had received scholarships to attend university, insisted that they were going to go back to their community to help others,” she said.

When Lewellyan left Africa, she left behind everything but the clothes on her back. She hopes to return to Africa.

“It just brings me great joy to be of service to others,” Lewellyan said.

Learn more

You can learn more about Project Harambee by clicking here.

Join the discussion on social media!