This Women's History Month, A Plus is featuring a series of "History Makers" — women who are having the kind of impact that we think will make them future Women's History Month honorees.
It started with a Google search.
At 64 years old, Kate Fletcher had just lost her husband. She'd been teaching for 35 years, but suddenly felt unmoored without the cornerstone of her life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, so she typed these words into Google: "AIDS orphans Africa volunteer."
What came up on the Google results struck Fletcher, whose husband had been the mission director at her church: pictures of HIV-positive children playing, praying and studying in Africa, and write-ups about Catholic relief services and the Lutheran Mission Society.
"I said to myself, 'if I don't think this is the answer to my every prayer of what shall I do next, I am not paying attention to my own life,'" Fletcher said.
She wrote to one of the schools — an AIDS orphanage called Nyumbani Children's Home — and asked how she could help. Her resume was straightforward: she'd taught primary school for 15 years and sociology at the university level for another 20. She was newly widowed, 64 and in good health.
The response was just as straightforward: "teachers and nurses, that's what we need. Come."
So Fletcher packed up her things in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, left her house, car and dog in the care of a neighbor, and moved to a village just west of Nairobi, Kenya to volunteer at Nyumbani Children's Home. For two years, Fletcher worked with HIV-infected orphans at the home. But throughout that time she knew there were other orphans — especially girls — who weren't HIV-positive and weren't getting the care and attention they needed.
"There's the horror of the poverty up against the beauty of the people, their wonderful faith, their hospitality," Fletcher said of her newfound home. "The people are so resilient, and nobody more so than the children."
One night, after a disagreement with a Nyumbani staff member, Fletcher went to go stay at a rental apartment. Sitting at the desk in her room, looking out the window, she noticed a three-story stone building, meant to be a dorm room for a girls' secondary school, that had apparently been empty for years.
The owner said he didn't want to give the space to businesses — he preferred it go to something involved with education — so Fletcher inquired about opening it to children. If she got a board together back in the States, wrote some bylaws and raised some money, she thought she could take in children who would otherwise not have access to stable housing and an education, and give them a future.
And it was in that building that the first 22 girls, all orphaned by HIV and AIDS, moved in with Fletcher and two helpers to begin Hekima Place.
Today, Hekima Place — a word that means "wisdom" in Kiswahili— has grown to support 85 girls and moved to a new location. It provides them the meals, health care, education, and guidance necessary to succeed in real world once they are adults. Fletcher is hoping to build the next generation of Kenyan leaders.
But why just girls? For Fletcher, the school is a reflection of the need in Kenya.
"It comes down to the fact that they are the least respected and the most underserved," Fletcher said about what she's witnessed in Kenya. "It's very patriarchal, Old Testament in Kenya… women should shut up and get back in the kitchen, or be pregnant, or both of those things. It's Abrahamic."
In the beginning, relatives would simply come and knock on the front gate to get a little girl into the home. But now, because of its positive reputation, orphans typically enter the school through a more complex process. The most common, Fletcher said, is that the police will find an orphan left on a street corner or outside the station, take her to the hospital. The hospital then contacts Kenya's District Children's Office (DCO), and the DCO helps facilitate entry into the home.
It can take up to a year to get a girl into Hekima, but they have taken girls as young as one month old. Many live at Hekima Place until they are teenagers or complete secondary school; some have stayed into their early 20s.
"When they're 18, I have to send them away," Fletcher said. "Except if they're 18 and they haven't finished high school. I'll go to any court and tell any judge 'they lost time during the death and dying, I'm not sending them away… they can't go away until they are old enough to be away.'"
The gap between being 18 and being ready to go live on your own can be wider than you might expect. At Hekima, some 18-year-olds are only in 8th grade. While things get trickier with the older girls, there is little disagreement about the babies. Everyone from the "mothers" — or the employees who help out at the home — to the kids, love having young children around.
"I didn't think we could take care of such tiny young children, because I thought we'd just be taking care of kids who would go off to school every day and that left the mother available to the laundry and whatever else," Fletcher said. "We took our first baby in 2006, and the staff loved her so much, and the children loved her so much, they fight to get a baby in their houses now."
Still, the challenges are many. 11 of the 85 girls are HIV-positive. Some get pregnant while they're at the school, which forces Fletcher to send them away. Others have learning disabilities. She suspects one student might have fetal alcohol syndrome. Malnourished from birth, some of the girls they take in don't even look their age — Fletcher referenced 7th graders who are built like 2nd graders.
They all, according to Fletcher, have a laundry list of horror stories: physical abuse, drug addicted relatives, abandonment, sexual abuse — basically every challenge you can imagine for a child.
And yet, Hekima Place has managed to create a loving, warm and stable environment for the girls. Most get visits from family members, a day that excites the girls because they know it means food and candy.
And once they're out, Hekima alumni have had plenty of success. One former student is running to be student class president at her college, another is going for her master's degree, and a student who studied cabin crew and wants to fly Kenya Airways finished first in her class. Five of Fletcher's girls have finished university education, thanks in large part to Hekima Place.
Some alumni even come back to work at Hekima Place after they've graduated from college.
During the day, most of the girls at Hekima go off to regional schools nearby, though Fletcher has become frustrated with teachers in the area who she says have beaten some of her children. One girl came back with fingers so swollen she couldn't hold a pencil, let alone do her homework. Despite several complaints to the school administration, she hasn't seen much of an improvement — which is why her next goal is to open a school of her own.
"I would like to have it be a school that invites any girl who is willing to study," Fletcher said. "I have this weird philosophy that if it was built on Christ, and the children were respected and loved and had a little fun in their learning, they would be successful."