Photos by Esther Havens.
If you’ve ever visited House of Hope – SERV’s children’s home and school in Lodwar – you remember Rebecca Akiru. Rebecca was one of the first children who came to live at House of Hope eight years ago. Her quick smile, English fluency and generous spirit are not easily forgotten. Now a young woman of 18, Rebecca lives in her own room on the SERV campus, a time and place of transition from the children’s dormitory into adult life. “I feel so much responsibility. I need to take care of this place and keep it clean,” she explains as she smooths a sheet over her bed. Soon, Rebecca will finish high school and be the first student from House of Hope, and the first person in her family, to graduate high school.
Rebecca says that House of Hope is “a place of happiness and security. When I am home, I know there is nothing that will happen to me.” It’s a confident statement for any young woman, but particularly remarkable for her. Rebecca’s father killed her mother the week after she was born and he fled, leaving Rebecca totally alone. A neighbor, Anna, who wasn’t related to her, brought baby Rebecca to live with her. Anna is a good woman but had very few resources. She had already lost three of her six biological children to illnesses. Anna tried her best to do everything she could for Rebecca — they shared food when they had it and slept in the same dilapidated hut — but it was easier to get alcohol than food in their village, and Ana fell into alcoholism. Effectively on her own, Rebecca performed chores for neighbors and fetched water in exchange for food. People would see her wandering alone in search of something to eat. Word eventually got to SERV founder Steve Kasha, who invited Rebecca to live at House of Hope.
Rebecca felt safe when she arrived at House of Hope because her physical needs were met. She started eating three meals a day for the first time in her life, an answer to her prayers. She used to be preoccupied with where her next meal would come from; she would skip school to find food or work in exchange for small amounts of maize. With regular meals at House of Hope, she had the physical and mental energy to stay in school. She quickly found herself ranked in the top ten of her classmates.
Anna, the woman Rebecca calls grandmother, stopped drinking when she resolved that she wanted to see Rebecca grow up and succeed. Rebecca visits her on weekends and holidays. Anna sleeps in a hut right next to where the collapsed hut she used to sleep in with Rebecca years ago. Rebecca treasures memories of falling asleep when she was a child to stories Anna would tell. Anna is so proud of Rebecca and how far she has already gotten in life.
Rebecca has a singular vision and purpose. “To be successful in life, you have to work for it and be determined,” she says wisely. She was inspired reading Dr. Ben Carson’s memoir of coming from little but studying hard to become a respected surgeon. When she graduates next year, she wants to become a lawyer because, as she explains it, “lawyers fight for people, [they] stand up for them.” Rebecca is already advocating for others. When new children come to live at House of Hope, she lets them know everything will be okay. She acts as a surrogate big sister and friend for all of the younger children at House of Hope. Thomas Ekai, the SERV Kenya and House of Hope Director, sees great potential in Rebecca. “I know she is a visionary lady,” he says. “She can aim high. I believe she will be marvelous. She can do many things to help other children.”
Rebecca has been out with SERV staff on food distributions, eagerly helping pass out food and translating when necessary. She wants to give back to the students at House of Hope and to her larger Turkana community. In addition to her studies, Rebecca works shifts in the SERV store that serves the local population with “cereal” staples of maize, flour, oil and a small refrigerator of sodas. She enjoys cooking food for all the students in the kitchen and even finds time to dance and listen to music. Rebecca is taking every challenge thrown her way during this period of transition. She says she will soon be ready to go out on her own, well fed and well loved.
Rebecca’s story started with food. She worried about food – searched for it and worked for it an age that most children are completely dependent on their parents and even oblivious to their needs. When SERV staff found Rebecca, they responded with daily regular meals and then went on to provide shelter, education and a loving environment. If she hadn’t come to live at House of Hope, Rebecca believes she would probably be a mom right now. “I wouldn’t have continued with school or I would have dropped out,” she guesses. Many of her friends are married with one or even two children by now. She is the first one in her family to attend to school past grade eight. A bright young student with a promising future, Rebecca is an example of how the pillars of SERV – food, water, shelter, life – all work together to keep children safe and help them thrive.