The Silver Lining For A Small Non-Profit – How shifts during the Covid-19 pandemic led to long term changes

A group of young women in the Neema Project work together building various skillsets
A group of young women in the Neema Project work together building various skillsets

The Silver Lining For A Small Non-Profit – How shifts during the Covid-19 pandemic led to long term changes
by Greg Lusby and Emily Nelson

While much of the developed world is on its way to being vaccinated against the Covid-19 pandemic, enabling a light at the end of the global pandemic tunnel, much of the developing world still remains in the dark. By some estimates, it could be six years before effective global vaccination occurs, and the vaccination rates of the world’s low-income countries pale in comparison to the world’s wealthiest.

One of those developing countries is where the non-profit, Neema Project, is located. Based in Kitale, Kenya (approx. 240 miles northwest of Nairobi), Neema is a trade school that exists to serve and equip vulnerable young women through skills training, counseling, and discipleship. But like the rest of the world, when the global pandemic hit, Neema’s usual course of operations were forced to shift. On a recent zoom call, Neema’s in-country Program Director, Winnie Kiunga, shared about pandemic life in Kitale.

One of Neema Project's young women and three children
One of Neema Project’s young women and three children

Mostly rural and agricultural, Kitale is essentially “the bread of the nation,” producing the maize that feeds the rest of the country. But while many of the people in Kitale are farmers, the farming land is owned by families who are well off. For those not well off, personal plots of farmland are either nonexistent or so small that the yearly yield is not enough to feed a family, and most people live off of one meal a day. So while Kitale is feeding the nation, many of its inhabitants go hungry.

As a way to supplement income, the parents of these poorer families do casual work – selling vegetables at roadside stands (mostly women, called Mama mbogas), cleaning houses, physical labor, and the like. Even so, many people still make very little, around $2/day, and this day’s wage is needed to put food on the table at night. But when the pandemic hit, a nation-wide lockdown was ordered.

Noel is a Neema Project 2020 Alumni
Noel is a Neema Project 2020 Alumni

With the lockdown came the closing of businesses in town centers and rural areas with the only people allowed to work being bankers and hospital staff, no access to public services, closed intercounty boundaries, a mandatory mask mandate, the closing of schools, and a curfew where everyone was told to remain in their homes.

The casual work that used to be available was now non-existent. Mama mbogas and laborers were forced to stay home. With no source of income, no daily wages, and a mandatory curfew, people began going hungry in their homes.

And unfortunately, the Neema students weren’t immune to these effects. Because Neema is classified as a trade school, it had to shut its doors along with other schools on March 15, 2020. The young women and their children who normally live at Neema during the school year – with adequate food, shelter, and medical care – were forced to go home. And since all of them come from backgrounds of extreme material poverty, the home environments they were returning to were like those mentioned above.

Neema’s all Kenyan, in-country staff, though, made every effort possible during the lockdown to remain in contact with its students. Through this effort, they heard from one of the students that she hadn’t eaten anything in two days. That’s when they realized that people in rural areas were beginning to starve in their homes.

Food being served to young women of the Neema Project
Food being served to young women of the Neema Project

With this realization, Neema immediately shifted its focus. Normally they operate under a developmental model of restoration, education, and transformation. Because of the extreme poverty the young women at Neema come from, they are left vulnerable to all forms of abuse – prositution, child marriage, intentured servitude, etc. So Neema starts by restoring in their hearts and minds the truth that they are valued and loved as human beings.

Through their trauma counseling program, Neema helps students find healing in some of the deepest places of pain and hurt they’ve experienced. And their discipleship program offers theological teaching to aid in the student’s spiritual well being, teaching them about the unconditional love offered through Jesus.

At the same time, they’re educated and taught a trade. Through Neema’s skills training program, they learn tailoring and have the opportunity to test and become nationally certified tailors. They also receive business skills and leadership training. All of this helps them to be employable, either working for others after graduation or starting their own businesses. Most importantly, it breaks the cycle of extreme poverty and allows them to provide for themselves and their families.

Young women learn to become nationally certified tailors through one of Neema Project's skill building programs
Young women learn to become nationally certified tailors
through one of Neema Project’s skill building programs

Finally, Neema believes and has found that when one young woman is empowered, the change she’s experiencing can, and often will, extend to her family and community as well. The unhealthy, preconceived notions that women aren’t a valuable part of the community are shattered, and transformation happens holistically across the board from the individual to the community. Slowly, the oppressive systems of gender inequality are changed.

However, once Covid hit and Neema realized its students and their families were going hungry, they shifted from development mode to relief mode, and the US and Kenyan staff worked in tandem to alleviate some of the suffering caused by the pandemic.

On the US side, a Covid-relief fund was coordinated, and a handful of specific donors were contacted and asked to give. With the relief fund, Neema’s Kenyan side began making food deliveries to all of its students and their families. Staff members, Enoch and Irine, loaded up Enoch’s motorcycle, traversed the muddy, unpaved terrain of rural Kenya, and safely delivered food to one family at a time. In total, 20 family units – 76 adults and 40 children – were provided with regular food deliveries from April to August.

One of Neema Project's Food Deliveries
One of Neema Project’s Food Deliveries

One of Neema’s first year students shared, “I knew that at home, we would soon be sleeping hungry. You see, both my parents are jobless, and with a curfew, there would be no casual work. At some point, we were so hard pressed that I even considered moving in with a guy I didn’t even like.

“But then Irine, our matron from Neema, called home to say she would be coming to visit. And surprise! She brought food … That food would last our family at least three weeks. I was overwhelmed by love and kindness. How did they know that we badly needed help? And hadn’t I heard that the US was worse hit than Kenya? What generosity—that people who were also suffering were still giving so that we could eat.

“My parents were so touched. That help came at our greatest time of need. My parents are not lazy—my mum sells second hand clothes, vegetables, and anything that she can lay her hands on. She tries to put food on the table for us and her grandchildren. But small businesses like my mum’s have been hit the hardest by Covid. Getting food donations has been so helpful.”

The Neema Project is based in Kitale, Kenya
The Neema Project is based in Kitale, Kenya

Although relief was being offered, Neema’s staff still wanted to do what they could to help the young women progress emotionally and spiritually. So the counseling program shifted from in-person sessions (no longer an option with the pandemic) to phone sessions when possible. Neema’s counseling staff was diligent in contacting the students, checking in, assessing their wellbeing, and giving guidance. While school wasn’t in session, 408 phone counselling sessions happened, and the counseling extended beyond the students to their guardians and Neema alumni as well.

A young woman of the Neema Project sets clothes out to dry
A young woman of the Neema Project sets clothes out to dry

Over time, the lockdown restrictions were eased, and Neema’s third year students who were interning at the local Neema shop were able to return. This allowed Neema to start filling a hole that became apparent in the surrounding community—the need for masks.

Many of the residents in the rural community of Kenya either didn’t have access to a mask or the money to pay for one. Understanding the importance of mask wearing to mitigate the spread, the students, as tailors, began making masks for the community.

They were free for their families, for children, and for older individuals, and sold at subsidized prices for all the rest. Over 1,200 masks were made at the Neema shop for the local community.

Neema’s US partners got in on the action too, making over 150 masks with African styled fabrics to raise money for the program. All together, Neema made over 1400 masks in Kenya and the US.

Finally in October, all of the Neema students were allowed to return to school. But the potential return posed another problem that hadn’t been anticipated. The buildings where school was previously held (and also housed some of the students and their children) were no longer available. External issues related to the pandemic forced Neema to look elsewhere. Thankfully, new accommodations were found in time for the return, and all Neema students (except one) safely returned to school.

These hands will soon become the hands of Nationally Certified Tailors
These hands will soon become the hands of Nationally Certified Tailors

In the US, operations shifted as well. Like other nonprofits, Neema’s in-person events had to be cancelled, and all of its fundraising went virtual. So the US team got creative and utilized the virtual aspect to mobilize people around the world.

One of the highlights was their virtual run, Solidarity Stomp. It was a 7.248 run/walk/hike (the distance between Neema’s US base of operations and the Neema school in Kenya is 7,248 miles) that people could participate in throughout a selected weekend. Participants registered to “run to Neema” and could set up campaigns to gain support. Throughout the weekend, these participants from five different countries – Moldova, Jordan, Canada, Kenya, and the US – posted pictures of themselves and/or their families doing the stomp, “standing in solidarity” with the young women at Neema.

Another highlight was Rafiki Friday, Neema’s 25-hour day of giving, and it was organized in lieu of their yearly in-person gala. Conducted all on Instagram, this day of giving featured Instagram live portions with the Kenyan staff and students, such as Chai Tea with Winnie and an interview with students, pre-recorded videos like Cooking with Enoch (Neema’s kitchen administrator) where he taught watchers how to make traditional Kenyan dishes, a kid’s corner with activities for kids and parents who were stuck at home doing virtual learning, and a live virtual trivia night. Throughout the day, Neema’s US staff posted giving updates, and after 25 hours, they exceeded their goal. They ended the event with an Instagram live celebration with their Kenyan staff and students.

While the changes Neema made are in no way exhaustive, they’re brought up for a reason. Neema realized after looking back that many of these changes positively benefited the organization as a whole. And while it took a global pandemic to cause these shifts in their organization, they all agreed as a team that some of these shifts need to become a regular part of Neema and should be implemented long term.

A young mother and her son
A young mother and her son sit in the bottom bunk of several closely lined bunkbeds

For instance, Neema still operates, and will always operate, as a developmental model. But when they were forced to go into relief mode and deliver food to the families of their students, the community took notice. Neema isn’t just a school operating day to day. They’re committed to long term transformation, which includes the people in their immediate community where the school is located and their students come from. But Covid gave them an opportunity to show that by helping in whatever way they could—making masks, supporting local business, etc.—and they became even more integrated into the community during the process.

The transition in how Neema counsels also helped them gain a further reach. When their counselors shifted to phone counseling, they found that their students’ parents and guardians wanted to talk as well. Thankfully, these guardians took advantage of the new found access to Neema’s counselors, and engaged in the counseling process. So not only were the students being cared for, but their guardians—the guardians they go home to and interact with while not in school—were also being cared for. Family counseling was opened up as a result of Covid, allowing for a more holistic approach by bringing not only individual change, but familial change as well, and it’s something Neema is continuing today.

The accommodation change they had to make has also proven beneficial. For the past seven years, housing for Neema students was at two different locations. But when Covid forced Neema to move, all the students ended up in one location. The Kenyan staff observed that this has been better for the program all around. The students’ relationships with one another are developing and growing, and it allows for a level of camaraderie that wasn’t previously there. Moving forward, it’s Neema’s plan to keep all the students together, and they’ve even started the process of acquiring land to build their own school and residential buildings.

Two of Neema Project's members, Winnie Mtebo and Marcy Barasa, share a moment of laughter
Two of Neema Project’s members, Winnie Mtebo and Marcy Barasa,
share a moment of laughter

In the US, the shift into virtual fundraising gave Neema an unexpected benefit—it allowed the US staff to more fully integrate the Kenyan staff into the fundraising process, and they loved it! Prior, most fundraisers were held live in the US, giving the Kenyan staff no chance to be immediately involved. But with the virtual fundraisers, the Kenyan staff were able to have a direct impact on and participation in the fundraising.

For instance, they joined in the Solidarity Stomp and encouraged others to do the same. Knowing and seeing that the Kenyan staff was participating all the way from Africa took the fundraiser to a new level.

And with their Rafiki Friday day of giving, the majority of the content either featured or was from the Kenyan staff. When Neema reached its goal, it wasn’t just the US team that made it happen, it was the entire Neema team that made it happen. And the Instagram live celebration afterwards was a genuine reflection of the Kenyan staff’s key contribution.

The Kenyan team’s involvement in fundraising has carried over into 2021—they once again participated in this year’s Solidarity Stomp and will be involved with this year’s virtual fundraiser on Giving Tuesday.

And lastly, with the virtual events came the need for media content. The inability of the US staff to travel to Kenya forced them to look elsewhere, and they began partnering more with local Kenyan photographers and videographers. Some of the content they would have once done themselves was done through the local community, and it’s a welcome change that they continue to utilize to this day.

Like most non-profits, Covid upended how The Neema Project operates. Their program director, Winnie, summed it up when she said that Neema wasn’t prepared for a pandemic, but they adapted and adjusted. Fortunately, as a result, 36 of the 37 students who started at the beginning of 2020 completed their year of enrollment, all 16 third year students who were scheduled to graduate did, and all the students who were eligible (and wanted to) safely took the National Dressmaking Exam (Neema was the only trade school present at the testing site they registered with to do so).

Elizabeth, a second year Neema Project member
Elizabeth, a second year Neema Project member

Like the rest of the world, Neema didn’t start 2020 anticipating a global pandemic. And while there’s still a long way to go before global normality returns, the shifts and changes Neema made serve as a silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic because it brought transformation to the organization that will continue on. They’re taking it one day at a time, but also looking ahead, and they’re hopeful for the future.