Students volunteer at Children's Centre in Kenya

While most college students were enjoying their summer break, 36 Penn State students traveled to Kenya to work with the Children and Youth Empowerment Centre (CYEC), a facility that provides educational and social services for former street children Kenya.

It began when Paul Maina, founder and director of the CYEC in Nyeri, Kenya, turned to an old friend at Penn State, seeking the University’s expertise to help address a variety issues. Maina and Janelle Larson, associate professor of agricultural economics and head of the Division of Engineering, Business, and Computing at Berks, were students together at the University of Oxford, where both studied as Rhodes Scholars.

Maina formed the CYEC in 2006 in an effort to address several gaps in the care and rehabilitation of street children in Kenya, including training the youth in technological and entrepreneurial skills to support themselves when they leave the CYEC. The CYEC has more than 150 children in residential care and provides services for another 60 children.

“The problems of street-dwelling children and youth are emblematic of issues in the larger society -- poverty, family break-down, and disease,” said Larson. “Solutions identified and developed for this population can be expanded to the larger society.”

At Penn State Berks, students have been actively involved in two aspects of this initiative -- they designed and developed a new Web site for the CEYC and they tested and assessed a program for youth development.

In the spring of this year, students enrolled in Usability Engineering, taught by William Bowers, Senior Lecturer in Information Sciences and Technology, created the new CYEC Web site. The 15 students in the class researched cultural norms and legal issues in Kenya and worked with CYEC staff to develop the site, which was designed to maximize usability.

One of the more interesting challenges was to ensure that the site would meet the needs of a wide variety of users from different cultural backgrounds. To facilitate development, the class worked with the Berks Information Technology Support Office to build an Ubuntu-based local server and it was implemented using the popular content management system Joomla. The site can be viewed at online.

That same semester, five Berks students enrolled in Special Topics in Human Sexuality Education, taught by Alice Holland, Nurse Practitioner. The students, majoring in Applied Psychology and Global Studies, explored Kenyan culture, examined sensitive issues and reviewed a healthy youth development curriculum developed by faculty members Linda Caldwell and Ed Smith in the College of Health and Human Development at University Park. Titled “HealthWise,” the curriculum is a comprehensive, risk-reduction life skills course of study for adolescents which has already been successfully delivered in South Africa.

The class traveled to Kenya with Holland, where they met with Caldwell and Smith and conducted focus groups with youth at the CYEC to determine the suitability and adaptability of HealthWise.

The Berks students assessed HealthWise lessons with CYEC youth, including topics such as leisure time and motivation, evaluating risk, drug use, relationships and sexual behavior. They also worked closely with the CYEC counselor and nurse to consider the appropriateness of this curriculum for the centre.

"This was an incredible opportunity for students to look at diverse health-related situations, explore methods available for education and develop strategies for working with communities from a societal perspective," Holland said.

"Working with the students in Kenya was a life-changing experience. We connected with them and they connected with us. It was really hard to leave," said Kasie Lynch, a junior majoring in Applied Psychology at Penn State Berks.

Through Larson’s efforts, the University became involved in helping to support the CYEC through a variety of initiatives, including designing and building a Zawadi eco-village with the goal of providing a launch pad for youth as they leave the centre (“Zawadi” is Swahili for “gift;” the name was chosen to acknowledge that each child has a gift to offer the world.)

Since the young people of the CYEC do not have homes to return to when they complete their education, they are at high risk for returning to the streets. The Zawadi village will have agricultural production and other entrepreneurial activities to provide income and employment for the youth.

Other University initiatives include two projects developed by students in the College of Engineering at University Park: Mashavu, a tele-medicine system that provides pre-primary medical care, and WishVast, a cell phone-based system to develop social capital with the goal of stimulating economic activity, similar to e-Bay ratings.

“The CYEC is more than just a children’s home; it is a convergence point for people of different backgrounds to discuss, research, experiment and consolidate knowledge concerning the empowerment and development of young people,” said Larson. “The staff at the CYEC are intentional about focusing on developing the whole person and finding sustainable solutions to some of society’s most intractable problems. They provide an rewarding setting for Penn State faculty, staff and students to integrate teaching, research and outreach.”

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Last Updated November 18, 2010