Mental Wellness for Kids in Hard Places

Story and Photos by Donna Atola, Kenya Field Communications Specialist

Mary Ndundu, one of the longest-serving Child Champions in Kenya, helps us understand what it is like to serve in an impoverished, crime-prone neighborhood, and the psychological and emotional challenges that kids face there.

Child Champion Mary Ndunda says teaching is her calling.

Most kids living in poverty lack mentors and people to look up to, says Mary Ndundu, a teacher at World Hope Academy in Kawangware in Kenya. But Child Champions across all Hope Centers have stepped in to fill this gap and are helping kids dream bigger and achieve their God-given potentials.

“The knowledge and hope that Child Champions give to the registered kids in the OneChild program go a long away to helping break the generational cycle of poverty of kids living in Kawangware,” Mary says. “I have over time learned that this should be accompanied by counseling because these kids go through so much at a tender age.”

Mary joined World Hope Academy in 2003, at the onset of the primary school. She was later recruited as one of the first Child Champions in 2006 when World Hope partnered with OneChild.

Poor and Crowded Living

World Hope is in Kawangware, an impoverished neighborhood in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Kawangware is located nine miles west of the city center. It is densely populated with people from different tribes in Kenya. It neighbors high-end suburbs where caregivers go to seek jobs like housekeeping and gardening.

Mary says one of her greatest joys of working with kids at the Hope Center is seeing their lives transformed.

Most people in Kawangware earn less than the equivalent of $2 a day from working menial jobs and manning gates at the estates neighboring the poor neighborhood. Some of the residents own small grocery shops at the market, where they sell groceries to earn a living.

Most of the houses in Kawangware have walls made of iron sheet. These tiny, informal houses are closely packed together due to the high population in the area.

The area frequently experiences a shortage of water and has few toilets, which makes it prone to waterborne diseases because of poor sanitation. People living in this poor neighborhood have to walk long distances to buy water, which is a precious but scarce and expensive commodity.

An estimated 65% of the population in Kawangware is made up of children and youths. With the high rates of unemployment in Kenya, most youths in this neighborhood lack jobs; this in turn raises the level of crime and drug abuse in the area. With high crime rates and drug abuse, the rate of domestic violence is also high.

A Calling to Teach

The effects of domestic violence trickle down to kids who at times become victims or survivors of abuse. Some of these kids end up becoming gang members, abuse drugs, or even become drug “mules” (transporting drugs for gangs).

For teacher Mary, this is a situation she observed when she got an opportunity to teach kindergarten at World Hope Academy.

Mary says that teaching for her is more of a calling.

Mary, right, stands next to Gideon, a formerly sponsored child and now a Child Champion. They emphasize the importance of mental wellness for kids in hard places.

“Since childhood, I loved to lead during Sunday school, and I enjoyed teaching my peers,” she says. “When I grew up, I became a tutor and was teaching design and tailoring to adults. But I felt this strong urge to transform my community, and I figured out that the best way to transform lives would be to intervene at a younger age. So, I took a course in early childhood development. After graduating from college, I had this urge to change lives in poor neighborhoods around Nairobi.”

Mary started her kindergarten career in Kibera, Nairobi, the largest urban slum in Africa. She later relocated to Kawangware and began teaching at World Hope Academy.

“I enjoy working for the less fortunate in the society because all they need is hope, and I believe I am cut out for this, to give hope to the hopeless!” she says.

In the 14 years that Mary has worked at the Hope Center, she has handled over 500 children who have gone through OneChild’s sponsorship program.

She says her greatest joy is seeing the lives of the kids get transformed after they complete the program.

“We have so many of the formerly sponsored kids that I taught at kindergarten who are currently working here at the center as volunteers and one as a Child Champion. We have so many others that are doing great things out there, and this makes me a happy person knowing that I impacted lives,” she says.

Spotting a Child in Distress

However, Mary says that mental instability is the greatest challenge that kids in Kawangware face in the process of breaking the generational poverty cycle. This comes from violence at home by parents or neighbors.

Mary believes the mental well-being of a child starts at home, and she advocates good mental health and counseling for parents as well.

Most of these kids not only lack mentors, but they also lack someone to open up to.

“When they join the school, most of these kids never have dreams or they dream to become what they see around,” Mary says. “Most will tell you that they want to become night guards, housewives, and some even say they want to become housemaids so that they can work in the lavish estates neighboring Kawangware, because that is what they can easily relate with.”

She continues, “But here is where we Child Champions come in. We help them dream big and hold their hands to their desired destinations. It is fulfilling to transform lives.”

She has, however, over time learned how to identify a distressed child as soon as they step into the Hope Center, thanks to the experience she gained over the years and the counseling classes she took.

“Kids are amazing; they are just angels. And no matter their personality, I am able to spot a distressed one. A distressed character ranges from violence, self-isolation to rebellion. With such traits, I have to ensure that all these kids have confidence in me and open up to me so that we can find a solution to their problems.”

She adds, “The challenge is where they at times face threats from their parents or family at home. Kids at times fear to open up for fear that they will be reprimanded by their parents. However, we strive to ensure that as much as the Hope Center is a safe haven for them, their homes, too, become peaceful places where they can go to after school.”

Many of the kids Mary works with consider her as more of a parent.

Mary uses numerous means to get the kids to open up. This ranges from having one-on-one conversations with the affected children, to having the quieter ones draw so that she can understand what message the child is trying to communicate.

“We once had a child here who was so violent and would not play with other kids without injuring them,” she says. “He also had trouble concentrating in class or finishing up little tasks assigned to him. He was so troublesome, and his parents were fed up with his character. I later on realized that the boy was rebellious because some other kids that lived close to his home were bullying him, and he did not know where to run to. We later helped sort out the problem and through counseling, the child became a complete opposite of what he was when he joined World Hope.”

Helping the Caregivers, Too

The struggle with mental well-being is not only with the kids but also with their caregivers. It is this realization that led World Hope, through teacher Mary, to start counseling the caregivers, too.

“Whenever we realize that trouble is at home, we call in the caregiver, or we visit their homes to hold talks with them. This is followed up with frequent checkups to ensure that they heal from whatever trouble they are suffering from,” says Mary.

“It is of no good if we counsel the kids only for them to return to a violent home. This creates a cycle of mental breakdowns for the kids, which in turn makes the kids exhibit unstable behavior. So, it is important to have the caregivers counseled, too.”

However, the challenge is that some caregivers tend to dismiss counseling because they don’t understand that their mental wellness helps improve the mental state of their children.

Mary says that “most of the caregivers do not prioritize mental wellness because it something foreign to them. This is because most of them were brought up in poverty where the real struggle was about the next meal, water, and monthly house rent.”

In a place where casual jobs are hard to come by, young kids are left to care for themselves because parents tend to focus on the real struggle to survive. And when plans to earn an income go south, they resort to violence out of frustration.

Violence then becomes a norm because the adults vent out their frustrations on each other and on the kids.

But the joy is that Mary, who is charged with counseling at World Hope, has done a great job at not only helping the kids’ mental wellness but also most of their families as well.

It’s not unusual to see children and youths run to hug Mary whenever she is walking around the poor neighborhood because most consider her more of a parent. Mary is loving, and despite being a kindergarten teacher, she frequently makes calls or physically invites the older youths to the center just to check up on them and to ensure that they are OK despite moving to secondary schools away from Kawangware.

“This has become more of a lifestyle to me, and when they succeed, I am most excited because I am confident a family has been elevated from poverty,” she says.

Help us reach more kids, open more Hope Centers, and do whatever it takes to bring hope to hard places by donating to the OneChild Partners Fund.






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