ELIZABETH NIECY DENNIS: Helping Youth See Opportunities
Many young people imagine solutions to their problems are not here but in the Diaspora. But one lady from the US is helping the youth step out of this thinking
Many young people imagine solutions to their problems are not here but in the Diaspora. But one lady from the US is helping the youth step out of this thinking and see the opportunities in the country and within their community. She takes MWAURA MUIGANA through the work of her organisation.
Elizabeth Niecy Dennis from Pittsburgh, USA came to Kenya with her brother in 2004. Their mission was to dedicate a school in Nakuru in honour of their late father’s, Pastor Archie Dennis, Jr., devotion to missionary work in the country. She was touched by the plight of many children she came across living in poverty and vowed to return.
She came back a year later with a mission to assist poor families and marginalised children in Nakuru county where her late father spent most of his time. It was while walking in the streets of Nakuru town one day that she met with Metrine Mugo, a 13-year-old schoolgirl who was out of school and hanging out in the streets near a mud hut.
Niecy was curious that the girl was not in school and asked her. The girl was articulate and forthright with her answer. “Why should I go to school if am only going to return back here to this hut? What good is education if it doesn’t change my condition?”
It was obvious this was a girl who had lost hope and it pricked Neicy’s conscience. It dawned on her that Metrine and other children from marginalised families needed an education that went beyond the classroom. They needed solutions to their problems, most of which lay within their communities. A decision was made right there and them – Niecy would not return to her country but will stay in Kenya to help such children and continue with her later father’s work.
Quitting her job…
Niecy was at the time working at Mellon Bank in the US where she was involved with programmes that exposed students to career options and helped them transition from the classroom to the job market through internships. She thought these types of school-to-work programmes could help Kenya’s youth see possibilities within their own borders instead of always looking outside the country in the Middle East, Europe and Americas for job opportunities.
She approached various companies for collaboration and was excited when General Motors and the Kenya Chamber of Commerce promised to come on board. She tendered her resignation from Mellon Bank to pursue this vision. She assembled a number of volunteers including professionals and company CEOs who were ready to use their resources, time and energy for the project.
Niecy launched Workforce Development Global Alliance (WDGA) in 2006 to provide hope and support for disadvantaged youth and help them become self-sufficient. She went round Nakuru town and its environs looking for students who didn’t attend school regularly.
The programme kicked off in 2007 with 250 needy students, most of who had dropped out of school. For the next nine months these students participated in worksite tours, job shadow days and career assessment workshops guided by different facilitators and mentors. Not only were the students learning new skills, but their academic performance also improved by up to 62 percentage points.
Unfortunately violence broke out in the area after the 2007/08 elections just about the time the programme was preparing to admit the second batch of students. WDGA shifted attention to helping the Kenya Red Cross with relief efforts for many displaced families. This was an important lesson for Niecy and those who worked with her in the programme – that conflict resolution should be part of WDGA mission. Between 2009 and 2010, WDGA hosted peace summits at the Nakuru ASK Showground where internally displaced persons (IDPs) were accommodated after the post-election crisis.
The first peace conference involved corporate leaders, educators and students. They planted 42 peace trees for each Kenyan tribe – a symbolic gesture on how people from different communities can live together in peace as brothers and sisters. Among the dignitaries who attended this conference was Michael E. Ranneberger, US Ambassador to Kenya at the time.
“This violence changed the course of our programme to give more emphasis and focus on peace and conflict resolution, as it was obvious selfish politicians were using the youth to cause chaos. We focused on training and empowering the youth to have capacity to decide on their own what was good for them. We didn’t want to see a repeat of 2007 in future elections,” says Auni Bhaiji, chairman of WDGA International Advisory Council.
WDGA launched the Youth Peace Ambassador programme in 2009 whose aim was to identify young people in society who could become peace influencers in their communities through talking to and mentoring other young people to observe and safeguard peace at all times.
A total of 700 peace ambassadors have been inducted into the programme and among other things have held peace walks to bring youth, politicians, government officials and other leaders together. The programme has evolved to teaching students how to avert violence and value peace and integrity as the core values and foundation of success in life. It also teaches them to become civic leaders so as to attract employment opportunities and promote community and economic development in their areas.
The first phase of this programme includes a comprehensive peace and leadership curriculum designed to develop young leaders in poor and violent communities with conflict resolution skills. It promotes and encourages activities such as peace vigils, community days of peace, and the peace tree planting initiatives planned and led by a youth council.
WDGA nurtures young people to become peace ambassadors in their communities. It instills patriotism in the youth, reminding them that their future is in this country not in a foreign land. It encourages them to look for job opportunities here instead of putting all their hopes on opportunities outside the country.
In 2010 WDGA launched 2Steps2Work programme, which equips the youth with the skills necessary to ‘get along’ with each other and also ‘get ahead’ to achieve their individual goals in life. This is is a two-phased programme focusing on conflict resolution training and a ‘school to work’ formula, involving mentorship and internship opportunities in corporate organisations. The youth get job shadowing experiences in organisations in Nakuru and Nairobi.
After the youth graduate from this programme, they move to the ‘2Steps2Build’ where they work with organisations that help them to use the wealth of knowledge they have gained at WDGA and also at school. Graduates of this programme are preferred by employers because of the work and social ethics they have developed.
The alumni of this programme are now involved in training other youth and also planning the calendar of events and activities. Metrine, the girl who made all this happen, has graduated from high school and is aspiring to become a lawyer. She is an active member of the youth leadership council.
Other programmes of WDGA include ePal and eMentoring – Internet learning platforms designed to link youth in Africa with those in the US to share common struggles and career goals. The eMentoring programme matches the youth with mentors who nurture them on academic achievement and career exploration. The youth are exposed to global projects that help broaden their thinking and way of relating with each other and their communities.
Niecy is happy with the progress WDGA is making in helping young people ‘step out’ of their comfort zones and ‘step into’ personal goals. The programme is operating in Nakuru and Machakos counties and it is her hope that it will now scale up its work to reach more counties. The board also hopes to put the programme into the hands of the youth by incorporating more of them in the management through a programme to be launched next year dubbed 2Steps2Independece. [email protected]
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Published in December 2014