While working in Kenya over the last year, training the Kenyan Defense Forces to disarm improvised explosive devices, former Army Reserve Lt. Col. Jason Souza noticed many local children had no shoes – but had to walk 10 miles a day to and from school over hot, rocky, thorny lava fields.
With the help of friends and community groups, Souza and his family collected 600 pairs of shoes and clothes for the children.
Remarkably, that effort blossomed into a more ambitious one, the rebuilding of an overcrowded, dilapidated children’s home in Archer’s Post, Kenya.
Dismayed by the poverty and inspired by the dedication of the director and smiles of the children, Souza and co-workers at Arlington-based PAE, a defense contracting firm, are working to raise $30,000 in the next two weeks. That will enable them to finish the home, known as the Mama Wachiras Children’s Home, before the team leaves Kenya.
The home currently cares for 64 abandoned, orphaned or homeless children.
“We might not be able to fix everything in the world, but we are making a difference for this one group of children,” said Chris Taylor, a U.S. Marine who had been deployed to fight ISIS before he went to work for PAE. He is helping to head the project. “My takeaway from Kenya is that everything in life is temporary and arbitrary, and the only thing you have in this life are the footprints you leave behind.”
For 15 years, Souza was commander of 501st Ordnance Army Battalion and stationed in battle-scarred regions where he defused live ordnance and taught others to do the same. He continues that work today at PAE.
He said that at first, it seemed as if it was just a chance encounter, meeting Eva Wachiras, head of Mama Wachiras Children’s Home. Souza and Keller, with the Kenyan Military Command and Chaplin at the School of Combat Engineering, distributed most shoes they collect before they visited Wachiras’ school for underprivileged children.
She told them that her father, Noel Muriithi, a talented butcher, builder and entrepreneur, and her mother, Purity Wachiras, adopted dozens of Kenyan youth beginning in 1985.
“(My father) saw children from a nearby community loitering in town instead of going to school. He found out that they had no home or food. Since my Dad was kind … he decided to take children in his home,” Wachiras said in a letter to Souza and Taylor that they provided to Fox News. “From there, our family became very large, which motivated our parents to work extra hard to care for the extra children.”
In 2008, Muriithi was seeking scrap metal for additional money when he triggered an abandoned ordnance that killed him.
“That left us with our [mom],” Wachiras said. “Things turned and life became a bit hard, but [mom] never lost hope in everything she was doing…she never chased any child away.”
Upholding the tradition, Wachiras cares for 24 children who live in the home and six others who come for meals. The operation is funded with wages from Wachiras’ brother and sons, 17 and 18 years old.
After learning the children need a sustainable food source, Souza and Taylor bought 40 chickens and milking goats. But they realized the dilapidated home the children lived in was bursting at the seams.
“We left that meeting pretty touched and that was the beginning of a commitment to helping the children,” Souza said. “With friends and family pushing us to go bigger we set out to make a real change to these kids’ lives.”
Thanks to the Kenyan government, they secured a one-acre property, recruited team members and the Kenyan military to clear land and construct an 8-foot fence to keep out African wildlife.
Everything will be powered by solar energy instead of coal to reduce operational costs. They built a kitchen, installed a fresh water system and recruited Farmers Helping Farmers to teach gardening.
Most ambitiously, they launched a GoFundMe page to raise $30,000 for 64 new dorm rooms for boys and girls.
To date, they have raised half the money but urgently need $15,000 by mid-August to complete the project before the PAE team leaves Kenya in September.
“This project has shown me what is truly important in life and that a little project like handing out shoes can turn into something that can change people’s lives for the better,” Souza said.
Both Souza and Taylor are still stunned by the irony that they defuse ordnance professionally, while Wachiras’ father was killed by a bomb. In a sense, they are finishing what he started three decades ago.
“It is just odd how fate sometimes puts you in the right place,” Taylor said.
A local church in Kenya and a California-based nonprofit, The Samburu Project, will maintain the property once PAE leaves.
Souza’s children have done their part. Much to their mother Beth’s surprise, she learned that Emma, 10, and Liam, 8, sent all but one pair of their shoes to Kenya. The children also allotted their savings to buy 150 “fidget spinner” toys and made their new Kenyan friends a demonstration video.
“This project has been a family affair,” Beth Souza said.
Souza said the Kenya children, with their joyful smiles, have changed his life and perspective.
“They make you realize what we take for granted. They make you question what we need to be doing in life, in general,” Souza said.
Souza and Taylor said sometimes people don’t know where to volunteer and how to help.
But Souza said the children taught him it’s simple.
“Just stop,” Souza said, “and help where you can.”
Malia Zimmerman is an award-winning investigative reporter focusing on crime, homeland security, illegal immigration crime, terrorism and political corruption. Follow her on twitter at @MaliaMZimmerman