In 2006, Kellie and her daughter, Heather, traveled to Tanzania to stay in a Franciscan convent and do service work. After helping meet some basic needs of the many people who came to the convent daily, they found themselves wanting to do something more to truly make an impact and help change the lives of people there.
It was then that Sister Dona, the Mother Superior of the convent, told Kellie of a man named Gabriel who’d been coming to them for five years. He wanted help building a school for his extremely poor, rural Maasai village whose children had no hope for a future without a school.
The next day, Kellie, Heather, Sister Dona, and a local doctor traveled to the remote village that consisted of clusters of dung huts and corrals made from thistle bushes for their cows and goats.
“When we arrived at Gabriel’s hut, we were surrounded by hundreds of children who’d heard that someone might be coming to talk about a school for the village,” remembers Kellie. “We sat in Gabriel’s hut along with village elders and discussed the importance of a school for this village that had never valued education before. After hearing them all speak, I turned to Heather and said, ‘I think this is the reason God sent us to Africa. We are going to build this village a school. I think our lives are about to change.’”
Kellie pulled a used envelope out of her purse and together they designed the first sketch for the school—a simple L-shaped building with three classrooms and two offices. “We passed it around, and they all thought it was beautiful,” says Kellie. On their departure date two days later, they stopped at the village to find that the villagers had dug a foundation for the school—a Herculean effort in such a short period of time that demonstrated their commitment and willingness to work hard for a school. They had erected a simple sign that read: O’Brien School for the Maasai.
“It was the beginning of a new future for this Maasai village,” says Kellie. “Little did we know what we started. But I always say, ‘God does not send the equipped, he equips those he sends.’”
Kellie came back home to Hinsdale and told the story of this village. “My family, friends, and neighbors were our first supporters,” says Kellie. Monroe Elementary School, the Rotary Club of Hinsdale, local churches, and other Hinsdale groups pledged their help. Kellie formed a 501(c)3 for the O’Brien School for the Maasai, and she and Barry hosted the first fundraiser in their own garden.
“I am so blessed to see the amazing goodness in the hearts of so many people whom I only knew superficially before this project,” says Kellie. “Hinsdale has so many good, compassionate people. I am proud to live in a town that gives so much and hears the needs of those living halfway around the world. Hinsdale is a village creating a new village.”
The first year would see the completion of Phase I of the school in 2007. Despite some inevitable trial and error, over the next five years, three more classrooms were built. They added a library, women’s center, soccer field, and medical clinic. They brought electricity to the school, dug a 300-foot bore water hole, and built simple wash stations for the children. Every year, The O’Brien School collects, loads, and ships huge containers of supplies over to Tanzania—everything from school desks to clothes and solar ovens. They partner with Feed My Starving Children to include hundreds of packets of dehydrated food in the five containers they’ve sent thus far.
“The Maasai gratitude is so extraordinary,” says Kellie, who visits the school at least once a year to monitor progress and to be there when a container arrives full of supplies. But this is not a matter of simple charity. “As you know,” explains Kellie, “Anything you give for nothing will not be valued. So the villagers must pay something for their children’s education.”
But Kellie soon learned that Tanzanian women have few rights of their own, and many are widows with no way of earning money. They face both the physical hardships of daily life—walking miles for water and firewood daily—and profound inequality as women—not even allowed to speak to men in public. So Kellie took on the additional challenge of educating and empowering the Maasai women and mothers.
“Little did we know what we agreed to. Saying yes to building a school is far different than taking this village into your heart and making all their issues your issues. We are developing our students in mind, body, and spirit, and believe they will become the next generation of leaders in Tanzania,” she says.
To accomplish this, Kellie formed a women’s group. Their first simple task was to learn how to sew their names on paper—many had never seen their name in any written form. The O’Brien School created a meeting place just for women that is now equipped with sewing machines, beading stations, and project tables. They make jewelry to sell and make and mend uniforms for students. “We teach them something and then pay them something,” says Kellie. For many, it is the first money they’ve ever earned.
Now a group of three young women have taken up the charge to support the O’Brien School’s women’s group. After volunteering in Moshi, Tanzania, during summer internships, Katyann Quinn, Rebecca Sliwoski, and Susan Vertucci formed S.E.W. (Successfully Empowering Women). On June 24, their group of 12 will embark upon a charity climb 19,341 feet up Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money to fund women’s projects, including tree-planting initiatives to combat deforestation and providing women with individual handheld corn grinders.
Kellie will join the group on the climb. “I know that we will make it to the top because we will be carrying all the dreams of our village women to the top of this mountain, a mountain that they see every day as they walk miles for water,” she says. “Our challenge is only five days, but their challenge is daily—to make it to the end of each day with enough water, wood, and food to feed their families. We hope to change that with the sponsors we get to support us on this climb.”
Upendo, in Swahili, means “with love.” If you’d like to support the S.E.W. Charity Climb and the O’Brien School for the Maasai, or participate in this summer’s “Swing for Kids” Golf Tournament, visit obrienschool.com
—Elaine Doremus Slayton