Kibera, Kenya – She first visited the slums in 2000. She has never looked back.
Lilly Oyare went to Kibera with her cousin who was taking visitors from Japan around the slums. Kibera is said to be one of the biggest slums in the country, with the most number of non-governmental organizations, but with little visible impact.
“What I saw changed my life…I found a group of people who were desperate…who would end up being criminals…I started asking myself, ‘what do I need to do?’ I became very angry about the government because I felt it was not doing enough for its citizens,” she said.
Oyare said she first prayed to God about the situation and what she could do. “What does God want me to do? I pictured my four children being in the same condition…children sleeping without food.”
This encounter is what led to the founding of Little Rock Inclusive ECD centre in Ayany Estate, a school that caters specifically for pre-schoolers, and the first one in the area to offer inclusive education for children with special needs and regular learners.
But before this, she took a gamble by resigning from her place of work and beginning to volunteer at a school in the slums called Calvary School and Centre. The centre was sponsored by American missionaries, and it provided food and education for children 5 to 21 years old in the area.
Oyare said that in those early days, she took her husband and children to the slums to appreciate what they had in life.
“If something was not done in the slums, it would affect my children in the long run,” she reasoned.
With a background in education, she said she felt she could have more impact among the children by being present with them.
Coincidentally, something happened in 2003 that would forever change her life. The government introduced the free primary education policy in Kenya and there was an explosion in the number of children joining public schools. They received so many children at Calvary Centre, many of whom did not know how to read or write, some did not know their real names (since they mostly used nick-names at home), and they did not understand sounds and numbers.
Founding Little Rock
That is when Oyare decided to venture out and start her school. She founded it upon a Biblical scripture that says that Christ would build his church on the rock and the gates of Hades shall not overcome it. And that is how the school came to be known as Little Rock.
She started a kindergarten so she could help the young ones transition smoothly to primary school. The school began in October 2003 with only 12 children. But the numbers built very fast. By the end of the term, they had 35 children and 50 were on the waiting list for the following year. When they opened for the new term in 2004, a total of 75 children reported to school.
Oyare said the numbers increased that fast because the children received in the school what they did not receive at home. They were well fed and they also had materials which made learning fun.
By the end of January 2004, the numbers had increased to 100.
That year, they turned a challenge that they faced into an opportunity. A parent brought in a child who was deaf and was interested in learning. At first they did not know what to do. But then they admitted her and this was the start of their inclusive learning, where they have children with special needs learning together with those with no special needs.
This openness to adapt has led them to admit children with Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy and Autism into the school.
Currently, the school has a total of 836 children, with 360 in Early Childhood Development stages and 441 in primary school. They are sponsoring a further 35 in high school.
Oyare said she had great support from the local administration that encouraged parents to take their children with special needs to the school.
To help expand the school, she climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 2010. That is the time she met someone from the UK who began supporting the school.
She said her greatest challenge when she began was lack of resources to hire qualified teachers. Also, when they began admitting children with special needs, some parents were afraid that their normal children would be affected by the children with special needs. The school administration held meetings with the parents before they could understand that they didn’t have to worry.
The prevalence of HIV and AIDS in the slums meant that some parents died and left behind small children. This challenge again forced them to start a children’s rescue centre, which has 17 children whose parents died from the scourge.
One other challenge they faced was that some of the children who came to the school could not concentrate since they were always hungry, as they came to school on empty stomachs.
“You can’t teach a hungry child,” said Oyare. For this reason, they introduced a feeding programme in the school.
The school was forced to start a library so other children from the area could come and use the learning and reading material.
Motivation comes from little children
Oyare said her motivation comes from the little children. “When you see their beautiful faces, their eagerness to acquire education, that is what gives me the zeal – the zeal to give the children the best, because God demands the best, is what motivates me.”
“I am motivated by some of the children like Melody, a class five pupil, who has a special need…she is a senator in the Children’s Parliament,” said Oyare.
She also draws her inspiration from world leaders like Mother Teresa, and other local women who are bringing a change in the society.
Their work has been rewarded and now they have four major donors – Global Fund, Eliminate Poverty, Euromoney and Aids Orphans – besides other local donors like Dorman’s and Karen Country Club, and individual donors.
To help add additional classrooms, they organized a charity golf tournament in November to build 11 classrooms for a primary section that will provide inclusive education for those graduating from the kindergarten, especially those with special needs, since some of them cannot be accommodated in the public schools around the area.
Oyare said they have deliberately invested in learning and teaching materials which makes learning for the children more fun and easy. All their teachers are trained and they have termly refresher courses.
“We have a reading teacher for reading lessons for the children,” she said. The teacher works one-on-one with the children, to help them learn how to read so they can be integrated well once they join public schools.
She said the parents are also deeply involved in the affairs of the school, with the majority of them providing support by working in the school.
“All the workers are parents,” she said. The parents have been made to realize that they are the primary care-givers with the school only providing them with support. The school is strict and follows up on those parents who are not participating in their lives of their children.
Oyare is proud of the school since they are the only school doing inclusive education in the area.
“Their learning is enhanced when they learn with regular learners,” she said of the special needs children.
The school has a therapy unit to cater for the needs of children who need special attention.
Oyare believes the government can do more for education if it partners with other stakeholders in the sector, and by increasing the amount it gives per child in primary schools, especially for children with special needs, whose needs are more than that of regular children.
She gives the example of Jessica, who has cerebral palsy, and who cannot be integrated into any regular school, because many of the schools are not disability friendly. They have been forced to keep her in school, even though she is supposed to go to primary school.
Currently, they have six children with special needs who are to join primary school but they cannot find placement in regular schools, all primary schools in the area are saying they are not disability friendly.
Oyare also believes the government needs to reduce the content in the syllabus for primary schools because “children don’t get to be children, they are crammers,” she said.
Other changes she would like to see in the education sector are increase in class sizes, spreading of feeding programmes, a change in the diet offered (other than maize only which she says stunts the growth of children), and provision of learning materials and libraries.
She suggests that public schools should have assistant teachers for such schools to be able to compete fairly with better equipped schools.
Oyare is confident that the school will survive even in her absence because they have put in place structures to help it run. They have a functional board with managers and heads of departments who are qualified for their positions.
One of the long term goals they have is to duplicate the school in other urban and rural areas in the country.
They are currently working with the government so that the schools in the neighbourhood can adapt what is at Little Rock Inclusive ECD Centre, in terms of facilities and creating environments that are conducive for learning.