What you need to know:
- I was inspired to start The Action Foundation in 2010 when my experience as a volunteer at a sports program for children with disabilities exposed me to the realities of their lives. Working with the children was a life-changing experience.
- I studied Foods Nutrition and Dietetics in School. I have learnt how to handle children with disabilities along the way through research and reaching out to experts in the field.
- Kenya has ratified international human rights instruments that protect the rights of children with disabilities. Among these are The International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability and The Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Maria Omare, 28, is the Executive and Founding Director of The Action Foundation (T.A.F), an NGO that aims to break the barriers that prevent the inclusion of children and young people with disabilities. She was listed in this year’s Top 40 Women Under 40 list in the Business Daily.
You started taking care of vulnerable children when you were a student at Kenyatta University. What motivated you?
I was inspired to start The Action Foundation in 2010 when my experience as a volunteer at a sports program for children with disabilities exposed me to the realities of their lives. Working with the children was a life-changing experience, and at the end of the programme, some of them achieved milestones such as increased mobility, confidence and improved social skills.
As a result of holding disability awareness events, we were able to recruit more people to be part of the work. We encountered cases of neglect and physical abuse particularly in the slum areas. Girls with disabilities suffer double discrimination because of their gender and impairment, and are more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse. This led us to specifically focus on children with disabilities in low income areas, as we felt that is where help is needed the most. We currently employ five people. Our offices are at Frepals Building, Mashimoni, Kibera.
Is what you do related to what you studied in university?
I studied Foods Nutrition and Dietetics in School. I have learnt how to handle children with disabilities along the way through research and reaching out to experts in the field. My background in nutrition has helped us established a feeding program because we found that special needs children are at risk of nutritional deficiencies because of feeding related problems.
How hard is it to raise money and other needs that your require to run the programme?
Resource mobilisation is a challenge, and especially when we were starting out. I am glad we kept going; it takes a relentless spirit, prayer and moral support. When we were setting up our therapy and learning centre in 2012, we learnt that the greatest resource we have is the community members. Caregivers of the children volunteered to look after the kids, and would even donate food and utensils.
What is the best part of your every day job?
The positive change our work at The Action Foundation has on the lives of children with disabilities and the community inspires me every single day. It is really exciting when they learn to walk, talk, feed themselves, bathe, groom and clothe themselves. It is also rewarding when they are included in the society and no longer viewed as social isolates and when they gain social skills to play and even to interact with their peers.
What’s a typical day like for you?
It’s never the same, but generally, I work at home from 7am to 10am because the office has no internet. I then walk or take a boda boda to the office where I help out with the kids and monitor what is going on. In the afternoon I might have meetings before I call it a day.
What are your fund-raising strategies apart from personal donations?
Our fundraising activities range from writing grant applications to selling our merchandise in local malls. The mothers make upcycled hyacinth bags, which are awesome, and are our most popular sell. We also sell t-shirts and other branded merchandise.
How open are Kenyans to talking about the disabled?
Disability rights are an area that Kenyans are still not very open about, including sharing their experiences. This is due to lack of awareness and the social prejudices in our communities. The situation is even direr in the case of intellectual disabilities.
What are the legal constraints (or legal assistances provided) when dealing with these children, while building schools or protecting their rights?
Kenya has ratified international human rights instruments that protect the rights of children with disabilities. Among these are The International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability and The Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Constitution of Kenya 2010, also promotes equality and non-discrimination.
There exists a cash transfer program for persons with severe disabilities and the elderly to improve their livelihoods and mitigate the effect of the disability to the household, funded by the government. Many of our kids are assisted by this money. After registration with the National Council for Persons with Disability, you get an ID to prove the disability, then you get the money in a couple of months as a lump sum. We usually encourage caregivers to register with the National Council for assistance.
There is a lot of work to be done to raise public awareness about the rights of persons with disabilities and the assistance available to them.
What comes next for the Action Foundation?
We would like to collaborate with other like-minded organisations and individuals to make inclusion and equal access to opportunities a reality to all children. We are currently raising funds to build and pilot an inclusive community centre in Kibera that will address the health and social needs of children with disabilities as they interact with their peers. Long-term, we intend to scale our work to other urban slums and rural areas.