Hong Kong woman helps Kenyan street boys get their lives on track

Grace Kan set up a home for teenagers other facilities shunned because of their drug taking, and funded it from her savings, after visiting the African country to do volunteer work

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 July, 2015, 6:05am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2015, 7:50am

When she took a year off to do volunteer work in Kenya, accountant Grace Kan Wing-yan figured she would learn a lot. But the experience was enriching in ways beyond measure: she wound up setting up and managing a home for street children.

Now working as a consultant for Jardines in Hong Kong, the 31-year-old says she signed up on the volunteering trip in 2010 because she was feeling a little lost at the time. A graduate of the London School of Economics, Kan had been working in Britain for about four years and felt she needed a change.

During her first week in Kenya, Kan was placed with an orphanage in Nairobi and asked to help entertain the children.

"After a few days, I asked myself what was I doing. I expected to have a lot to do, but we weren't teaching the children much," she says.

While out walking one evening, Kan noticed a few street children scrounging for scraps. Curious to know more about their situation, she returned the next day with a few teachers from the orphanage to act as translators, and brought the wary youngsters some food and clothes.

"After gaining their trust, we gradually learned that these boys, mostly teenagers, came from broken families and had been abandoned by their parents," says Kan.

Many times I have thought of giving up. Sometimes the workload is just too much to handle, and I feel like I might go crazy," she says. "But I can never bring myself to abandon Jia Courage
Grace Kan

"Sadly, the orphanage could not accept the boys as they had a so-called street mindset - they take drugs and focus on finding money - so they might be a bad influence on the younger orphans."

As Kan struggled to find organisations to take in the street children, the orphanage operator offered to help her find housing for the boys and two workers to care for them as long as she secured the funds to keep it running.

That was how she came to set up the Jia Courage home for street children - referencing " njia", the Swahili word for "path" and " jia" the Putonghua word for "home" .

"The running cost was £500 [HK$6,000] a month initially, mostly for buying food and paying the two full-time staff. I funded the home with my savings," she says.

As the sole donor for the home, Kan returned to Britain after a few months, desperate to find a job to keep the funds flowing. But she couldn't get one. Then, after six months, just as she was about to close the home in Nairobi, she was offered a job and resumed work in Britain. She was able to reserve a large proportion of her income for the operation.

"It was OK since I have no family burdens," she says. "And I was able to fly to Kenya two or three times a year [to care for the boys and manage the home]."

Starting a rehabilitation home is no easy matter, and even more so in Kenya, where corruption was a serious problem. "There was corruption at every level, and it was hard to find locals I could trust," Kan says.

It took three years to secure a licence for the children's home because the official responsible wouldn't respond to requests until he was "treated to a meal"; then hygiene inspectors threatened to close them down if they weren't paid. Even the home's project manager was found stealing money from the charity and had to be fired last year.

There were also low points when some boys left because they were so used to roaming the streets. "They couldn't stand the rules in the rehabilitation home and ran off," says Kan. "Such instances made me feel particularly sad and discouraged."

Of the 12 boys that Kan initially took in, four remain. Still, the Jia Courage home gradually gained recognition. More children came knocking, and there were increasing court referrals. The number of boys rose to 25 - the maximum capacity.

In 2011, Kan found a partner in Julia Snive, a Swede who learned about the home during a service trip to Kenya.

Snive started to spread the word among her friends and family in Sweden, and soon there was a sponsor for each of the 25 boys. While sponsors each pay about HK$300 per month to support a boy's schooling and living expenses, Kan continues to contribute HK$8,000 monthly to keep the home running. Snive helped with the management by becoming a board member.

Our home is like a hostel. The boys attend a nearby school during the day and return in the evening. The main rule is: if you leave more than three times, you won’t be accepted again
Grace Kan

With support from sponsors, Jia Courage was able to move out of the small sheet metal shack it first occupied in a crime-infested neighbourhood near Nairobi airport. Now the home is in a concrete structure on the Athi River, a more industrialised suburb.

"Our home is like a hostel. The boys attend a nearby school during the day and return in the evening," says Kan. "The main rule is: if you leave more than three times, you won't be accepted again."

Because the capacity is 25 boys, the home decides on which children to take in by assessing their eagerness to learn and to fit in. When they reach 21, the boys must learn to survive on their own. That can be a daunting prospect, as the unemployment rate has remained at 40 per cent since 2011, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics,

The home helps by referring the boys to factories, which provide accommodation after they graduate from high school.

"In a country where even university graduates struggle to find jobs, practical skills become more useful," says Kan.

That's why she referred a boy who had been struggling academically to a carpentry programme instead. "He's now working as a carpenter and can support himself," Kan says, smiling as she recalls the first "graduate" from Jia Courage.

After 12 years abroad, Kan returned to Hong Kong in 2012 because her parents missed her. And while acknowledging more homes are needed for Kenyan street children, Kan is considering quitting her role as the manager for Jia Courage.

"I feel that my job [as a consultant in Hong Kong] and my family need me more now," she says. "I'm looking into whether there are any non-governmental organisations that could take up the management of the home, while I could become just a sponsor."

All the same, Jia Courage will always be part of Kan's life.

"Many times I have thought of giving up. Sometimes the workload is just too much to handle, and I feel like I might go crazy," she says. "But I can never bring myself to abandon Jia Courage. I have become very close to the kids."