Seeking to change life in a Kenyan village
Therese Hjelm speaks directly and with purpose. Her wide eyes rarely break contact, and her voice is steady and pleasant. With this demeanor, it’s not hard to imagine her easily convincing people to donate to her cause.
That cause is this: she wants to raise enough money to build two wells in the Ewaso Nyiro region of Kenya, so that local girls can spend their time going to school instead of walking six to eight miles each way to the nearest river, where they obtain all of the water their village uses for drinking and for all other purposes.
“The Masai women have an indentation here on their head,” Hjelm says, pointing to the top of her forehead, “because they have a strap that they hook up to the water buckets that they’re carrying. You can imagine walking seven, eight, nine, 10 miles with these on their back. I mean, it’s amazing. The women are so strong. They’re incredible.”
Hjelm, who lives in Aptos, has been involved in charity since she became a candy striper at Stanford Hospital at age 16. She first visited Africa in 1997, when she says she fell in love with the people and the culture. When asked what she appreciates so much about the region, she grows quiet for a minute, then responds:
“Have you ever been someplace and you just feel like you’re at home? I just feel very comfortable there,” she says. “There is a different pace. I love the children. They have nothing, and yet they all have smiles on their faces.”
She has returned to Africa six times since that first trip, most recently in January 2010. But it’s something that happened much closer to home that influenced her to start the well project.
In October 2008, she was at a charity event in the area and met Sabore Ole Oyie, a Masai warrior and advisor to his community who was in the United States to speak at different charity and cultural functions. Hjelm got to talking with Oyie, and he and his companions ended up staying at her home in Aptos. They kept in touch, and she went to speak with him at a school in Palo Alto the next time he was in the area.
After they finished presenting, a student approached Hjelm and said she wanted to help the Masai people. She then handed her 15 crumpled dollars.
“I thought, ‘this girl just told me what I should be doing,’” she says. “And that was my first $15.”
She and Oyie set up a charity through the Blue Planet Network, whose website describes itself as “a group of passionate people, working with a global network of experienced water groups, to bring sustainable safe drinking water to people in rural communities around the world.”
They have since raised more than $19,000. It will take $25,000 to build the first well, and the goal is to build two. The money has mostly come from different events they speak at and from selling Blue Planet coffee table books, but occasionally the kindness of strangers will take Hjelm by surprise, such as what happened when she got to telling a flight attendant from Texas about her work while on her way to Kenya.
“She just got all misty eyed and said, ‘I’m contributing,’” she says. “And so I thought, ‘OK, I was meant to take this trip. Meant to take it.’”
In addition to the well project, Hjelm also sells jewelry and Christmas ornaments made by two different widows’ villages in Kenya. The proceeds go to supporting the widows, who are not allowed to marry again after their husbands die.
Helping Africa is especially important to Hjelm, she says, because “they don’t have the same resources that we do here. They have no Second Harvest or Community Garden or anything like that.”
It’s important “knowing the difference that the well will make in the community,” she adds. “Everybody feels my passion, and people have been very generous, but I’d really like to get to my first well. It would just be awesome.”
She also enjoys networking with other people who are passionate about Africa, and has some advice for others who want to start their own project: “Get out there and meet other people and learn what they went through so that you don’t have to recreate the wheel, because there’s a lot of help out there.”
For more information, or to donate, visit blueplanetnetwork.org/sabore.
Photo caption: Aptos resident Therese Hjelm has organized an effort that aims to build wells in Kenyan villages. She is pictured here with local children on a previous trip to Africa.