Saturday, February 25, 2012

Shameless Plug

Every year, my brothers' families and mine do an Oscar-related extravaganza, involving thrift-store finery, a red carpet and gawking at celebrities on E!. This year is the fourth annual, so we have decided to up the ante and add a Family Film Festival element the day before. (That's today!)

Each family has to produce a short film and do a Q&A following the screening. And, yes, there will be a Best Picture award -- everyone in my house wants it real bad, so we'll be working on the final edits of our submission right up to the last minute.

What does this have to do with Cura, you ask?

Knowing this event was coming, I decided to take advantage of my captive audience and make a shameless plug to have my family join me there someday. Give a girl a FlipVideo camera and basic Windows editing software, and she starts to think she has skills.

Clearly, I do not have a future in film, in front of OR behind the camera.

But here's my invitation to them... and to you!

Contemplating Disappointment

We've had a small setback at Cura Orphanage, where momentum is typically forward-moving and news is mostly good... and this disappointment has me reflecting on yet another aspect of doing non-profit work:

What does failure look like?

In this specific case, "failure" seems too strong a term, since our recent setback involves one of our oldest children deciding for herself that she doesn't like the path we have laid out for her -- and deciding to leave the Home to return to her extended and far-flung family.

Our commitment to the children we serve is to see them through secondary (high) school, providing a safe, loving Home where they can thrive and, of course, commit to their studies so that they have as many options as possible for a successful future as adults in their community. Doing this while the children are very young and still in primary school isn't easy, but it certainly doesn't meet with objections from the kids themselves!

As every parent of teenager knows, however, it is precisely when a child's independence asserts itself most strongly that he or she needs the most loving and careful guidance... and this is challenging even when one's household only contains one teenager or two. What happens when the commitment is to 50, and one insists on an alternative path??

Most of us involved in the Home are disappointed that one of our beloved children has chosen for herself NOT to proceed to secondary school and, consequently and simultaneously, NOT to live with us. We continue to keep lines of communication open and point, figuratively, to the door that is still open for her to re-enter. But we can't deny that this feels like a small failure, a big disappointment, a moment for contemplating how things could have been different.

In this process of reflection, I'm reminded of a TED Talk I saw not long ago, in which David Damberger shares his experience of making the most of his own project's disappointments. I was struck, as he spoke, at his commitment to transparency, to sharing successes, of course, but to learning from and sharing failures, as well; he encourages us to reap the rewards that come from taking an honest inventory of a perhaps well-intended, but ultimately fruitless effort so that we can do better next time.

I'm also reminded, as a mother of a teenagers myself, that this moment that feels so disappointing may bear unanticipated fruit. I've certainly seen this dynamic with my own children: the next steps we choose could redefine and perhaps improve our relationship with this wandering child, and allow us to serve her and the others in our care.

I don't think this is what failure looks like. It doesn't entirely feel like success. But failure? Nope.

Monday, February 20, 2012

One World Chorus - Success!

The children all got their new costumes, thanks to Mrs Mwathi and Mrs Hinga, and Aaron Nigel Smith has worked his magic! All of the reports from Cura have been positive, and the early mixes Aaron has shared with us have been incredible and inspiring. We hope this is only the beginning of our relationship with One World Chorus!
NEW! Watch the video Aaron and Mike made on YouTube!

Sunday, February 19, 2012


It seems like lots of people around me are talking about happiness these days.
My friend Roko made a movie called "Happy," and he and his team just pulled off a global World Happy Day that asked audiences to consider the source of real happiness.
There's an organization where I live, in Seattle, called the Happiness Initiative: it is attempting to tie civic planning to the happiness of citizens.
We strive for happiness in our home, and we talk endlessly about increasing satisfaction (aka happiness) at work...
But my favorite recent quote about happiness comes from a perhaps unlikely place. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review has this to say:
"Happiness comes from the intersection of what you love, what you're good at, and what the world needs."
The premise of this article is that passion, though it's the characteristic we've been told provides the push toward satisfying work, is perhaps too self-centered an impetus to make us truly happy. Instead, the author (Oliver Segovia) encourages readers to consider how something as mundane as simply matching one's skills to the needs of others might actually provide a more enduring joy in what we do.
This resonates with me!
I've watched passionate people inspire crowds and follow their own bliss, and I know that a passionate believer in a cause can draw attention to it like nothing else. But I've also seen the limitations of "passion"--all that energy without a plan or a pre-determined set of principles can keep a cause in a constant spin cycle of creative reinvention.
Reading this article, then, gave me some permission to proudly assert myself as the occasionally dispassionate, process-obsessed, number-crunching program coordinator of Cura Orphanage.
That's not to say I'm not wildly in love with the children I help serve, and I can't deny the selfish pleasure I get every time I'm lucky enough to board a plane to yet again cross the planet to land in Kenya. But it is to acknowledge that the skills I bring to the effort are perhaps the boring kind, but they're essential, too.
The bulk of my work includes identifying or anticipating needs and then sorting out reasonable paths toward meeting them.... so I identify with Segovia again when he writes:
"Putting problems at the center of our decision-making changes everything. It's not about the self anymore. It's about what you can do and how you can be a valuable contributor. People working on the biggest problems are compensated in the biggest ways. I don't mean this in a strict financial sense, but in a deeply human sense. For one, it shifts your attention from you to others and the wider world. You stop dwelling. You become less self-absorbed. Ironically, we become happier if we worry less about what makes us happy."

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Books Wanted

Last month, I briefly mentioned that I planned to go buy more textbooks for Cura Primary School, building on the purchases we made last summer (after an immensely successful flash FB fundraising campaign!).

This recent textbook splurge wasn't as extravagant as the last one, but it still resulted in providing full class sets (plus teachers' guides) of English language and Social Studies textbooks:
Retail therapy of the very best kind!

And this time the teachers matched their immense gratitude with astute strategy, providing me with an additional list of required materials... just in case my donor friends had any more interest or resources to send Cura Primary School's way!

On my desk right now there sits a hand written list of materials REQUIRED for the students to study for their standardized (KCPQ) exams. Throughout the years, the teachers have made do without them... and the students' test scores reflect it. Though the children have the same range of skills and abilities as pupils in every elementary school, they're fundamentally disadvantaged by the lack of parental resources and infrastructure. How can these children be truly successful as scholars if they don't have the basic materials that make this possible?

The items on this list total over US$2000... and, let's face it, even this is only a drop in the bucket. But if we keep plugging away at it, maybe we fill even more tables with books during my next visit.

Who's with me?

Being a "Connector"

I rarely check my LinkedIn profile, but when I occasionally duck in, sometimes I find article titles that catch my eye.
Here's one that did: "Forget Networking. How to be a Connector." An introvert at heart, I'm only marginally successful at "networking"; I tend to stick to who I know at parties and get bashful about going on about my own accomplishments.
But this "connector" business seemed less intimidating, somehow, so I clicked away. Imagine my surprise when what I found there featured a person with whom I'm actually connected!
The article includes a brief interview Josh Bycel, the founder of One Kid One World -- a non-profit with whom Cura Orphanage has been working on plans to construct the village's first-ever secondary school.
I've never met Josh, but he and I share a friend, Amy, who is the best connector I know. Amy is unforgettable, and folks who meet her want to stay in touch. And she fits the definition the LinkedIn article provides:
"They're always able to help -- or if they can't, they know someone who can. You meet them for the first time and in 15 minutes, you're talking with them like you're childhood friends. They're successful, smart and funny, with a likable touch of self-deprecation. And they're interested in everything."
Clearly, Josh fits this description, too... and I'm looking forward to having our real-life paths cross instead of only our virtual ones!
In the meantime, I, too, am working on honing my connecting skills, assured that what isn't innate in me, I can learn. Consider this Wikipedia definition:
"Connectors are said by author Malcolm Gladwell to be people in a community who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions. A connector is essentially the social equivalent of a computer network hub. Connectors usually know people across an array of social, cultural, professional, and economic circles, and make a habit of introducing people who work or live in different circles."
Indeed, making introductions among those who work and live across the globe comprises a great deal of what I do in my development work. This week, my communications include connecting international guests for a destination wedding in Kenya to the teachers and housemothers in Cura, connecting pen pals from Australia and Norway and Canada and the US to Cura children, and even connecting an LA film-maker and a Seattle-based construction non-profit organization to, yes, One Kid One World.
Clearly, for me, stretching to be a connector -- against my natural impulses to simply work independently behind my computer -- is inspired by and focused on benefitting the community of Cura, and the warmth with which they have adopted me is my reward for stepping outside my comfort zone.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Those bulging envelopes contain gifts of artwork and prized possessions that some of the kids in Cura asked me to distribute to their pen pals and other loved ones... I was almost sad to see them go into the mail, as they've been sitting on my desk at home as reminders of the capacity to give in the face of such scarcity.

Drawing a picture or writing a letter to a faceless friend across the world is an act of emotional generosity in itself -- and sending a sentimental trinket is something else altogether. The children in Cura don't have much by way of personal possessions, yet they turned some of the dearest of them over to me, joyfully and with trust that they would safely reach their intended recipients.

I've taken that responsibility pretty seriously. Believe me.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Wait... I'm confused now.

Last week, I spoke at a local Rotary function, on the invitation of the club president and its International Committee chairwoman. As Cura Orphanage is one of my favorite things to talk about, I happily accepted the invitation, prepared materials for my table display, and gathered thoughts to provide commentary to accompany the requisite set of PowerPoint slides.

At the event, I was given a graceful introduction, and the audience was attentive and engaged as I began to overview the work we're doing in the Home and in the village. At one point, though, a man at one of the back tables raised his hand... and when I acknowledged his question, he said: "Wait... I'm confused. Do you work for the orphanage or for all this other stuff, too?"

I had to laugh at myself a bit, since I was similarly confused when I first threw myself into this work. I remember, as I prepared myself to participate, asking for some kind of flow chart or map or hierarchy when it came to decision-making or project management in the village -- and I remember receiving an understanding smile from the Home's founders, Evelyn Mungai and Mike Eldon, in reply.

They reminded me that development work doesn't fit as neatly into linear models, that non-profit work can be a function of inspired opportunity in addition to rigorous planning, and that, especially, the leaders, like the needs, in the village are numerous and diverse.

Now that I've been doing this for a while, I understand this messy web better, and I'm working within it... some days more successfully than others, of course. But this fundamental understanding about development work wasn't coming across as clearly as I had hoped in my nicely-packaged lunchtime presentation!

What I wish I had reflected better is that our work concentrates on supporting the children under our care, of course, and to be successful we need to be sure we focus resources and attention on the Home, its residents and its employees. But supporting the children without also supporting the extended families to which they belong would be an exercise in futility. We can't meet only the needs of individual children if we expect them to mature into adults that can be productive within a thriving community.

Cura Village, as it turns out, thrives without us. But we can help nurture projects in the face of economic and resource challenges: supporting infrastructure for reliable water sources, offering low-cost, local (basic) medical care, providing tools to supplement learning in an information age, building in economically sustainable collaborative agriculture projects and even constructing a secondary school where there wasn't one before.

These projects ultimately belong to the community, and its members are the ones who will reap the rewards if they are successful. But we lend our resources and expertise to the enterprises when we can, since this is the only way we can see to help the village rebound from the devastating effects of AIDS and poverty.

It is this philosophical position that provides the connecting thread among the numerous facets of our work in Cura; it helps us determine priorities and create order where it may not be immediately obvious.

If they invite me back, this is what I'll say.

Cura Primary School and One World Chorus

Today is the day that we launch the One World Chorus music education program at Cura Primary School! It is not only the children who are thrilled... the teachers there are eager to learn from Aaron Nigel Smith, too. The participants are selected, the costumes are purchased, rehearsal space is identified, and, as Mrs Hinga says "all is in readiness."