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Three years later: SF60K returns to Kenya to compete construction of community school

Schools by: Vivienne Cierski, February 14, 2023

An image from the first Students for 60,000 trip to Kenya in February 2020; in three days the organization, including some students on that initial trip, will return to Africa to complete the construction of a school for the village’s children. Photo courtesy of SF60K.

Editor’s note: For the following article, Northport High School sophomore Vivienne Cierski, an aspiring journalist, interviewed Sam Rosenfeld-McMahon and Carley Herman, seniors who will be returning to Africa with the Students for 60,000 organization in just a few days. Cierski, a fellow SF60K member, will be joining them on their travels and documenting their time there. “I am lucky enough to be part of the group that is traveling to Mtito Andei on February 17, and I am looking forward to relaying our experiences to the community when we return,” she told the Journal. Thank you, Vivienne, for sharing your time and talent with the Northport Journal community. We wish you and the entire SF60K team the trip of a lifetime.

This February, the student-led organization Students for 60,000 will travel to the remote Kenyan village of Mtito Andei. Run out of Northport High School, the service organization, established in 1987 by Peter White, was initially formed in an effort to support the homeless in New York State, and more specifically in New York City; the group took its name from the 60,000 homeless people in the city at the time.

Since then, Students for 60,000 (SF60K) has kept its focus on aiding the homeless community, but over the years has also broadened its horizons to provide care and support on a national and international level. High school students from the club have been to Nicaragua, Guatemala, the El Paso border, and West Virginia in years past to aid impoverished communities.

In February of 2020, just weeks before the global lockdown due to Covid-19, more than a dozen SF60K members took their first trip to Mtito Andei to help local residents build a new school for the community’s children. The trip was an educational one, teaching the high schoolers about how people really live in these remote and impoverished locations.

The mission was a success, and the school was almost finished when the week-long excursion was over. Plans were already in motion for the students to return the next year, in 2021, to complete construction. Those plans, however, were put on hold indefinitely when coronavirus suspended all international travel.

In just a few days, some of the students on that inaugural trip will return to Africa.

Sam Rosenfeld-McMahon and Carley Herman, both freshmen in 2020, are very excited to finish what they started in Kenya. In an interview last week, they were asked to describe their first impressions after being flown into Nairobi and taking an eight-hour bus ride to the Mtito Andei village.

“It almost felt like a different world,” Herman said. “The city itself was a bit more modernized than what you would expect, but as we went through the country it became much more rural, with the buildings becoming more and more spaced out with farmland between them.” On the underdeveloped highway that the students traveled on, the buildings were mostly made out of materials the locals had on hand, they said. There were little huts and shops along the road, few cars and many people walking, often with livestock along and across the highway.

When arriving at the village, the group first went to where they would be staying for the entirety of the trip – a small but well furnished hotel near the local marketplace. It was about a 20-minute bus ride from the hotel to the worksite, going from a paved road to a dirt road. The houses, Rosenfeld-McMahon and Herman said, were a considerable distance from one another and became more shack-like, nothing like the traditional houses we see in the United States.

The actual construction of the school was hard work, the seniors recounted, doing manual labor under the hot sun for five to six hours a day. The locals had their own building plans: the foundation of the school would be mostly made out of rocks and stone that were found in the area, and the walls would be made of brick and concrete. One thing World Servants (the organization that facilitated the trip) stressed was being respectful of the Kenyans by not taking over the project, but instead following their lead and providing only the necessary help.

“On the site we did anything from breaking rocks, to laying bricks and stone, or mixing concrete,” Rosenfeld-McMahon said. The students worked side-by-side with the local adults, construction workers, and students who would be attending the school. During their breaks from lessons, around 60 children helped with construction, and during downtime they would play games with all the workers.“In that way you could really tell that they valued their education and the opportunity they were presented with,” Rosenfeld-McMahon said.

All the locals spoke a dialect of Swahili, with some communicating in limited English. Both Herman and Rosenfeld-McMahon said that the language barrier was difficult, but often they didn’t need words to make connections with the Kenyan people and the children. Working toward a common goal, they said, and being sure to show respect was communication enough.

Another important feature of the trip was the home visits, when students would tour the houses in Mtito Andei and see how the locals live. Almost all locals live off of their crops and what they can grow in approximately 30-by-30-foot plots of land. Houses are small and made of any resources the Kenyans had – mostly straw and wood. The majority of houses consist of just one room with a bed and some personal items inside. Although these homes are modest, villagers are very proud of what they have, and were more than happy to show the students their homes.

When asked what a favorite memory from the trip was, both students described interactions they had with the local children. “On the first day of the trip, we went to the community’s church, and it was our first time really being exposed to the people there. Before going into the church, a little girl named Faith came up to me and took my hand and led me inside. She was braver than me, and I was really nervous, so I was very grateful for that,” Herman said.

Rosenfeld-McMahon’s favorite memory from the week was the day before they left. “All the kids gathered together in front of us, and they had learned a song and a dance that they performed for us,” he said. “They started to bring people up with them and soon everyone was dancing. That’s what I always remember first when thinking about the trip.”

Students for 60,000 advisors Darryl St. George, Alison St. George, and Karen Paquet have worked tirelessly with World Servants to coordinate this year’s trip, and believe that it is this type of hands-on experience that will expand students’ perspectives and help them become more compassionate citizens of the world. Many students who have been members of the organization and participated in service trips have gone on to pursue professions in helping the needy and volunteer their time to supporting the underprivileged.

Rosenfeld-McMahon and Herman reflected on this and what impacted them most from the trip. “When you come home and come back to the world you were in before, you have this different perspective and greater appreciation for things you didn’t even think about. You’re sleeping in your comfortable bed that doesn’t have bug netting over it, you have air conditioning, it’s not 100 degrees outside, things like that you feel so grateful for,” Rosenfeld-McMahon said.

Both he and Herman remain SF60K leaders and, for this trip, helped to coordinate clothing, shoe and other supply drives for the people in Kenya. They believe their experiences with the organization has changed their idea of what they want to do in the future.

“It surprised me how much we really had in common even though we were from such different worlds,” Herman said. “It opened my eyes, and you can see pictures from these places, but seeing firsthand how these people are really living, I think can make the difference between whether you go into a career that is helping people or going into a career that’s not.”