Ellis creates opportunities to share experiences

Maria LoBiondo


Ann Ellis, left, with children at the school in Nairobi, Kenya, that is funded by the nonprofit organization she created. The school doubles as a community center when classes are not in session. Ellis also has set up a medical outreach program through the organization and hopes to begin an exchange program for Princeton students.

Princeton NJ -- Ann Ellis '01 didn't go to Kenya on a long-term mission. But she left with one.

What started two years ago as a trip to observe life from the perspective of Kenya's poorest residents has become RAFIKI, Resourceful Americans Forging and Implementing Kenyan Initiatives, Ellis' nonprofit organization that funds a school, community center and medical outreach program. She also envisions an exchange program in which Princeton students would volunteer in these projects. In Swahili, rafiki means friend.

"I'm interested in connecting people of the two countries, sharing experiences with each other," Ellis explains. "We're coming with our knowledge and experience. They can show us their culture and lives, and that affects us."

The summer before her sophomore year, Ellis went to Kenya to volunteer at an orphanage run by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. Her initial impulse, she says, was to "get to know the Kenyan people, identify their needs, and work with the poorest of the poor." She lived with the host family of Oscar and Eva Beattuah.

That first summer, Ellis held babies, dispensed meals and medicines and played games with the orphanage youth. She sang and played countless rounds of "Old MacDonald" on her guitar. She also did a lot of listening to the children and to the mothers in the surrounding community. The mothers, she learned, dreamed of education for their children, but Kenya's public schools cost money, making these dreams all but impossible. Their children often went into the city to beg to help their families survive. One mother told her, "I feel that the children's smiles are empty, because what do they have to hope for?"

Setting up the school

With the help of the Beattuahs and their connections Eva is an administrator for Strathmore College's secretarial department in Nairobi and Oscar owns and operates the African Broadcasting Network Ellis began to investigate possibilities. Through Oscar Beattuah, Ellis contacted government officials about setting up a new school in Kibera, Nairobi's poorest neighborhood and home to 40 percent of the city's population. Eva Beattuah helped Ellis arrange for teacher training for four Kiberan mothers. Mother Teresa's sisters also agreed to help by providing additional teachers from their ranks and to oversee the program in Ellis' absence. Ellis scouted for buildings to rent for the school.

On her return to Princeton, Ellis added fund raising to her regimen, which includes duties as resident adviser in Rockefeller College and volunteering at the Merwick Rehabilitation Center in town. She secured $3,000 from several sources St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church, the Flynn & O'Hara Uniform Co. and the University's Office of Religious Life enough for a year's rental of three unused buildings in Kibera with space for 11 classrooms.

By January 2000 when Ellis returned to Nairobi, the school opened free of charge for 520 children ages 6 to 15, kindergartners to third grade.

Generous donations by Princetonians and Ellis' own family and friends helped pay teacher salaries and provide classroom materials. One benefactor paid for the Federal Express shipment of 210 pounds of books. When school is not in session, the buildings serve as a community center from which the nuns distribute food and clothing. "The free school and community center will help the people of Kibera to help themselves and raise their standard of living," Ellis says.

To continue this effort, Ellis began forming plans for RAFIKI, which, as a nonprofit organization, will allow her to solicit corporate sponsorship and broaden her fund-raising base. Last April, she received the International Center's International Service Award and $300; her previous contributors have continued their support.

She also convinced three Princeton classmates, Martha Quesada '02, Ana Quesada '00 and Taylor Armstrong '00, to join her in Kenya last summer, the pilot of a future exchange program. Along with Ellis, the Quesadas and Armstrong taught English, math and science and lived with local host families.

Providing medical treatment

Ellis visited Kenya for the fourth time this past January to hire two doctors, rent downtown Nairobi office space for them, and purchase needed medical equipment. In February, an ophthalmologist and a pediatrician native Kenyans began visiting Nairobi's neighborhoods three days a week to provide free treatment for conditions such as cataracts and malnutrition. The ophthalmologist is the Beattuahs' daughter, Ada. By the summer, Ellis hopes the outreach program can expand to the countryside.

"The mentality is to only go to the doctor when you're really sick, so some conditions go unchecked," Ellis explains. "There are about 100,000 people who don't need to be blind from cataracts, for example. Other conditions like skin diseases can be prevented. Parents think that by giving their children porridge every day, the children will be well nourished so they need education on nutrition. We want to get across that they can have check-ups to stay healthy rather than only seeing a doctor when they are sick."

Ellis, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major, says the medical outreach program falls in line with her own career plans to become a doctor.

"My experience in Kenya has helped me focus on why we're here at Princeton and how fortunate we are," says Ellis. "This education empowers us to share ourselves with others."

She'll head back to Kenya this summer and assist on the forays into areas within a 60-mile or so radius from Nairobi. By then she hopes to have additional funding for a vehicle and medicine, perhaps even for a nurse and secretary too.

Ellis' overall mission is to work with Kenyans as colleagues, assisting them in projects they envision. "I think service is sharing your passion with others, creatively and authentically. True service is a cooperative interaction," she says.

(This article is based on earlier stories that appeared in With One Accord and E-Quad News.)


April 2, 2001
Vol. 90, No. 22
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Senior ready to launch his career and a company
Club encourages enterprising students
Event celebrates Goheen Fellowship
Lights, camera, action!
Recipient uses fellowship to give back
Princeton Project 55 gets new home

Dickerson connects with University community
Ellis creates opportunities to share experiences
Spotlight, People, Briefs

By the numbers: Orange Key Tours
Nassau Notes
Calendar of events

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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Writers: Maria LoBiondo, Marilyn Marks, Steven Schultz
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett