Women in Our Community, Part 3: Meet Steph Julian

(front row, pictured with the KYEEDA kids)

I worked briefly as a Teaching Assistant at an International Kindergarten in Hong Kong – I loved my year there but a year was enough for me! It gave me a new found massive respect for kindergarten teachers – they deal every day with our kids sneezing on them, picking noses, being sick and having toilet accidents (don’t even ask about the day I saw one of the kids lick the bottom of their shoe, I’m still scarred by that….) but still manage to have a smile on their faces at the end of the day!

That was where I met Steph Julian who was a teacher there at the time. The next year, after I had left the school, much to my delight Steph became my youngest daughter’s teacher.

Steph is one of those ladies that I am just glad I met, she is warm, bubbly and lots of fun.  She is a wonderful teacher – kind and gentle yet firm and encouraging. My daughter ADORED her and still asks about her over a year later. 

However, there is another reason why Steph sprang to mind when I started to think about writing this series of articles about women in our community and that is Steph’s work with the KYEEDA School in Nairobi, Kenya. Now, being the modest lady that she is, Steph never told me about her work with this school herself, I actually first heard about it from someone else and then asked Steph all about it.

Hi Steph, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m originally from Australia but moved to Hong Kong as a baby and then lived here for 10 years before moving back to Australia for 12 years. After University, I moved back to Hong Kong – I had family here and felt there were more career options here for me. My first teaching job was in Repulse Bay. I met my husband here and now I am pregnant with Number 2 – my life is in Hong Kong now.

Tell us about the KYEEDA School

The KYEEDA School is in Korogocho which is one of the big slums of Nairobi in Kenya. 

In 2012, I decided that I wanted to use my teaching experience during the school summer holidays and at the same time to do some travelling and meet new people, so I volunteered with a programme that placed me in the KYEEDA School for 8 weeks.

At the time, KYEEDA had 400 students but was on the brink of closing down – the land was expensive to rent, the school had no government funding and many of the students were orphans and unable to pay any fees. Joshua, who was from Korogocho himself, had started the school in 2009 but now, with no money to keep it going, he didn’t know what to do.

Back in 2008, elections in Kenya had triggered riots between 2 warring tribes which resulted in a lot of displaced people. The location of the KYEEDA (Korogocho Youths for Economic and  Education Development Association)school was on the borderline between the two tribes – Joshua wanted to bring kids into the school from both sides with the belief that school is for everyone.

I came back to my life in Hong Kong at the end of my 8 week placement, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the school and how we could help these kids and help Joshua to keep his dream of educating these kids going.

I thought the best way forward would be to purchase land to build a school so that there would be no ongoing rent burden. I thought this would make for a more sustainable school and I spent the next  6 years fundraising back in Hong Kong with the help of my Mum, my sister in law and a close friend. 

It is extremely difficult to get NGO status and we have not yet been able to do so. Because of this, we are unable to give tax receipts for donations which pretty much ruled out corporate donations. Fundraising was thereby very much dependent on family, friends and friends of friends – I needed people to believe in the school and to trust me.

It cost over HKD $150,000 to buy the land and we then had to build the school – that’s a lot of fundraising coffee mornings! Luckily, I had lots of help from family and friends in fundraising – like my Grandmother back in Australia who had a craft sale, a friend organized a drinks evening, another friend had a coffee morning, my old school in Australia had a dress down day, some schools made donations and the Discovery Bay Rotary Club contributed some of the proceeds from their Ball last year.

When Joshua found the land to build the school, I had to very much remain in the background and only emerge as the purchaser at the end – a white woman negotiating a land purchase in Korogocho would have been extremely difficult! 

Once the school was up and running, fundraising lost its momentum and we are now struggling again to keep the school going.

We were running a Teacher for Teacher sponsorship programme whereby an annual contribution (HKD $14,400 for the year, payable in 4 instalments) pays a trained local teacher’s salary but we have had to put this on hold as, with not having NGO status, we cannot issue tax receipts for corporate donations.

There are currently 250 kids in the school, girls and boys aged between 3 – 16 years old.

What are biggest challenges facing these kids?

Firstly, the immediate basic necessities – food, water and a stable home. Many of the kids are orphans.

Then, employment opportunities. High schools are either government funded where the kids have to do extremely well academically to get in or they are private schools which these kids can’t pay for. If these kids don’t get into high school, then there are very few opportunities for employment for them. 

What would make the biggest difference to these kid’s future?

Education – it’s their only chance.

Kids in the KYEEDA school are there because the want to be, they know it’s their only shot. They come in early before school, stay late and come in at the weekends to study.

The school is guided by the Mandela Principle “Education is the key to success”.

What is the biggest challenge facing the continuing running of the KYEEDA school?

Funding to pay the teachers and the ongoing maintenance and upkeep of the school, to keep the school sustainable.

What can we in Hong Kong do to help the KYEEDA School continue its great work?

Fundraising and donations!

Books (for 3 – 16 years) , stationery, art supplies, chalk etc.  are also appreciated – these do cost us money to ship over though and we have had shipments that have never made it there so it is preferred to purchase the items in Nairobi.  

I try to remind my young daughters that they are very lucky, that not all children have the wonderful advantages they do. How do you think we could maybe get our children involved to help others less fortunate?

I think that It has to be something that the child is interested in, it has to come from their heart – if the child loves animals then maybe they could get involved with an animal shelter.

If the child sees a man begging on the street or a woman pulling one of those heavy carts, this can open a conversation about recognizing that there are people in the world that need our help. Helping out doesn’t have to be by way of big gestures, the little things are important too – like maybe buying the man begging on the street in the hot sun a cold bottle of water.

What was the moment in your work with KYEEDA that touched you most emotionally? 

There’s a boy called Oliver who is a refugee from Rwanda – he is so intelligent and the hardest working kid I have met. I met with the some of the high school boards to vouch on his behalf and he got into high school. He finished high school and wanted to go to University to study Finance but he was unable to find the funding and now he is just stuck, struggling to find employment. This boy worked so hard in school and he’s so smart– if he was born here in Hong Kong, I don’t doubt that he would have gone on to become a high flyer in the word of Finance but because of circumstances he can’t change, university is not an option for him and he is now struggling to find a job. I don’t know how to help him.

There’s another boy called Lolick, he’s now 22 – he also worked very hard in school but did not manage to get into high school. He’s just living at home with his mother now, in the real heart of the slum, just doing little odd jobs to try and get by. There’s no future for him.

Do you have a Facebook / Instagram / website page where people can find out more about KYEEDA?

Yes!

Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/kyeedaschoolredevelopment/

Instagram:

https://www.instagram.com/kyeedakids/

As a young girl growing up, what women were role models to you / who inspired you?

My Mum, my Teacher at school and the School Receptionist – they understood me. I wasn’t a natural learner; it could be a bit of a struggle and they really encouraged me.

What ladies inspire you now, as an adult?

My Mum again! Now, as a Mum myself, I understood what she did for me. I understand that love.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing young girls in Hong Kong today?

To make the best choices for them – they are so influenced by social media and trying to keep up with each other in material things. I think they are growing up too quickly.

What advice would you give 16 year old you?

Listen to your Mum – the rules are because she cares, it comes from love.

Finally, can I ask you, what is your favourite product from the Our Girls Gang store?

Well, I just love the models! 

Along with my daughter, Steph also used to teach some of her friends, who are also some of the models on Our Girls Gang website – she was also tickled reading my blog piece “What do 5 Year Olds think about…” as some of the girls were her former students and she immediately saw their personalities coming out in their answers.

Thank you Steph for talking with me!

My daughter, who was taught by Miss Steph last year, was very put out when I told her that I had been to visit “her Miss Steph” at her apartment to talk to her for my blog. 

When I told her and her older sister about the KYEEDA school, they got excited to help and are already planning on organising a little book and toy sale at home after the summer holidays to raise some money to help the school. 

Is there something that you could maybe do to help the KYEEDA Kids? Maybe you could host a coffee morning, have a book sale or make a little donation. Any amount raised, no matter how small, could make a real difference to one of these kid’s lives. Every little bit would help the school to keep paying their teachers so that these kids have a shot at a better future.

You can contact Steph through the KYEEDA Facebook page or I would be happy to pass on any messages to Steph!

Lucky KYEEDA kids to have Steph in their corner!

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