Building Schools and Lives in Kenya

Welcome from Molo Community, Kenya

As you may know, over the past 5 years I’ve been involved in building schools in communities for traumatically displaced people. Working through the nonprofit organization World Teacher Aid, we’ve completed 7 schools, each serving about 500 kids, and we have more schools on the way. We are building schools and lives at the same time.

Due to the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007, 600,000 people were displaced. Others died. They lost their homes, communities, family members and most of their possessions.

Some were middle class workers while others were poor farmers. In just one night, their lives changed forever.

Our adopted Kenyan daughter, Cynthia, was 10 years old when the violence occurred. Here’s how she describes that traumatic passage.

One day we found a paper saying we would have to leave our homes. That night we woke up, our house was burning. People were running every which way.

We didn’t have time to take anything. We ran and ran. People were being burned to death in their cars. There were dead people lying on the ground being eaten by pigs.

Eventually we got to a police station and finally to a camp of about 16,000 people near Nakuru.

Later we went to a smaller camp where I lived for almost 4 years. It was terrible. We were cold and hungry. We had lost all hope.

Finally we moved to Shalom community and the government gave us a small plot of land and a tin roof to rebuild our home. With no school for 4 years, I thought my future was lost forever.

Cynthia is just one of over 400,000 kids with a similar story to tell. Some of the families are only now being resettled. The last remain in tattered canvas tents, where they are still subjected to rain and cold. They are all known as IDPs – internally displaced people.

The backdrop of our work in Kenya is a grim and tragic history. Yet, today there is hope, love and sharing passing between cultures and people whose life circumstances share nothing in common.

Every time I go to Kenya, I am humbled by how much I learn and how touched and fortunate I feel to be there receiving the love from the kids, moms and communities. It is a story of trauma and recovery, a story of gratitude and willingness to learn from each other. It is deep immersion into a world so different from my own.

This year my daughter, Molly, and I camped in a new community named Molo. We went to help finish building an elementary school and to support this newly resettled community.

It had been two years since my last trip. I was excited to return and also wondered what I would find.

Here’s a peek into some of what I experienced:

  • It is tragic that some of the families still are not resettled. They’ve lived for years in tattered canvas tents. I’ve posted some pictures on Faceook.
  • Opening the new school in Molo was uplifting and reminded me again how much difference a school makes for rebuilding community and instilling hope! It is amazing to witness its significance in reorganizing trauma.
  • American dollars go a long way. Remarkable achievements are possible at relatively small expense.
  • People who could easily be angry and resentful and who have lost so much maintain their loving generous spirits and gratitude.

Along the way we visited communities at all stages of development.

  • The most primitive stage: groups of refugees still waiting to be resettled after 9 years in temporary camps.
  • Forming communities: in our newest community, Molo, we opened their first real school.
  • Established communities: we returned to Shalom, where we built our first elementary school and high school five years ago, and were able to learn how education is impacting the kids and the community.

In Shalom we learned:

  • It takes the kids about 3 years of being back in school to return to their optimum learning ability.
  • Providing lunch of beans or porridge increases attendance in school significantly.
  • Schools lack libraries and enough textbooks.
  • The schools want to be self-sustaining, and growing beans and raising bees are the two most profitable sources of revenue to support the feeding and textbook programs.
  • The local Governor is truly committed to our work and to providing teachers and assistance to our schools.
  • 52% of the first high school graduating class went to college.
  • There’s an urgent need for more sex education and for mentors who can help girls say no to predatory men.


A special highlight of the trip was our reunion with Cynthia. Over the 5 years our relationship with her has deepened. She’s become a part of our family. Recently, thanks to the wonders of “What’s App” technology, we have been in touch weekly.

In January Cynthia proved we were right to see her potential and support her education, sending her to boarding school. She caught up the 4 years of school she missed and was able to start college in Nairobi this past January.

Molly and I took her traveling with us for 4 days after finishing our construction work on the new school. Beforehand I wondered a lot about how that might be for all of us. I wondered if it might be too intimate or foreign for her or how she would respond to her first airplane flight? Would we feel awkward together or have very little to say?

We laughed together, cried together and faced a challenging issue of her having lost another girl’s computer. It was another step forward in integrating two vastly different worlds with loving acceptance, gratitude, and openness to experiencing the unknown.

Be Inspired

Over the past 5 years, some therapists have written to me about being inspired by this work. Others have asked how to get involved.

In the coming years, I hope to involve more people from our therapist community in this inspiring work. If you choose to participate, your life will be richer for it.

Please comment below on if and how this work touches you.

And I’d like to visually share the journey with you.  I’ve posted some photos on Facebook so you can see the work and the people.

In a few days I'll also post a fun, very short video of the trek Molly and I did to see Dian Fossey’s gorillas. I'll let you know when it's published.

Please click Kenya Photos and take just a few minutes to allow the folks and experiences of Kenya to brighten your day.

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Jane Ryan
Jane Ryan

Ah-mazing Ellyn! Thank you for sharing this and sharing your heart and yourself in the world! The world is a better place because of this work!

Lauren Ostrowski
Lauren Ostrowski

This is so amazing! Could you say more about how we can get involved?


Doc, Thank you for sharing . thank you also for taking the time to give selflessly to those who cannot possibly give you anything material in return. this is what is rewarded where it matters most. May you see the rewards of your efforts soon.

Mike Lacinak
Mike Lacinak

Deeply moving and inspiring, Ellyn. Such good work and generosity. I would love to hear more about involvement.

Nancy St John
Nancy St John

Fantastic work Ellyn! I’d like to know how I can support this project.

Sue Diamond Potts
Sue Diamond Potts

Ellyn, thank you for your heart-felt words. It all brought tears to my eyes and I realize there is so much more we can all do to help end suffering. Thank you for your caring and generous heart and for creating an opening for more people to give. Much love to you.

Ephraim Frankel
Ephraim Frankel

I read this with tears in my eyes. For you and Molly to touch these kids’ lives with your caring embrace and work – so humanizing, so peace making. I know from my Peace Corps work in villages in rural eastern Turkey, these kids, as adults, will never be the same: they will take your loving, noble spirit to others and work to build a better world.
With so much admiration and affection!

Cathy Marakovits
Cathy Marakovits

Ellyn, I am so moved by the incredible work you do, within the Couples Institute and in Africa. I’m inspired by your compassion, commitment, and generosity as you help so many lives in remote parts of the world that most of us are shielded from knowing first hand. The photos on facebook are powerful…they’ve been with me all day. I would love to contribute somehow to the development of these much needed schools and communities.

Alexa Elkington
Alexa Elkington

Isn’t it just wonderful. The more you give the more you receive. What a marvelous experience to be able to help hands on, and to witness the power of the work you are doing. And to top it off to see these peoples kind and loving attitudes when it would be so easy to be just the opposite. Thank you for sharing.

Deb Hecker
Deb Hecker

Hi Ellyn,

I said it once and I will say it again – “The world needs more people like you et al.” Many talk about their compassion but you do something about it. What a great role model you are. Deb

Ümit Çetin
Ümit Çetin

Thanks for sharing the details of your altruistic work Ellyn. Yours is such an inspirational story of transforming tragedy into hope and healing. You show us how to be accountable in this world, that we are really responsible for what happens anywhere in the world, and that we have the power to make a difference in the world no matter how small it is. Interestingly, this is also what gives the ultimate meaning to our lives.
I found the part where you recounted your traveling with Cynthia especially challenging for reasons you already expressed. And I am touched by how you were able to meet each other with acceptance and openness being in the background. So another inspiring point for me is that enormously different worlds and cultures can really meet, that we can make contact with each other through the dynamic interplay of differentiation and confluence.

Penny Mohan, LCSW
Penny Mohan, LCSW

Info on how to get involved in the future?

C. Estrella, PhD., LCSW
C. Estrella, PhD., LCSW

I just returned from Kenya and Tanzania in October 2016. Please keep me informed as to how to get involved in the future. There is such a need!

Norma Leslie
Norma Leslie

This is amazing, selfless and courageous work. Let us know more.

Shelley Anderson
Shelley Anderson

Please let me know how to get involved from afar as well as on the ground.

Trudy Heemskerk
Trudy Heemskerk

As an English teacher and trauma therapist (Somatic Experiencing®)) I could possibly be of help there. Please keep me informed.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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