Steve James

Kenya Relief Director Steve James speaks with Solomon Nyaoge, head teacher for the Kenya Relief Academy, by phone Wednesday, July 8 in the nonnprofit’s Cullman headquarters.

CULLMAN, Ala. – As lockdown orders took hold, service organizations that coordinate lifesaving mission work in the field have have felt the same COVID crunch as students, churches and businesses. 

For Cullman, Alabama-based Kenya Relief, that has meant setting aside medical fly-in assistance to the nonprofit’s campus in Migori, Kenya — a  campus that has marked a beacon of health, safety, sanitation and educational opportunity for nearly 20 years. 

Since March, Kenya Relief’s medical flight teams, assembled from top surgeons and health professionals from throughout both the United States and Europe, have remained grounded as international travel is on hold.

“We’ve canceled 15 teams, just in the last four months,” Kenya Relief founder and director Steve James said. “And, it looks like it’s going to stretch out for the entire year. We’re already at about 7,000 patients who weren’t seen, and about 700 scheduled surgeries that aren’t going to be done. And some of these people had waited for years.”

Since its founding, James — a Cullman native and retired nurse anesthetist — has leveraged his passion for Kenya Relief’s faith-based mission into a broad-consensus outreach juggernaut, coordinating doctors and medical staff from U.S. hospitals and research universities, as well as educational leaders, social workers, builders and missionaries from all religious backgrounds. 

“In Cullman, a lot of people have heard of us, but a lot of people also may not realize how much we do, and how much faith doctors and all kinds of high-level professional people and institutions have placed in us, joining our missions and becoming personally invested over the years,” James said. 

“In addition to all the care providers and surgeons who’ve become a part of our family who are really disappointed in how COVID has affected us,  we’ve got 94 employees who have families — and in Kenya, they themselves have a lot of kids and take on a lot of orphans. Often they might be the primary breadwinner in their families.”

Last year marked the busiest in the organization’s history, with 20 short-term medical and non-medical mission flights; 10,000 Kenyan patients visiting the organization’s Migori clinic for general medical and vision care; and an enrollment high of 690 young learners at the nonprofit’s on-site Kenya Relief Academy — all orchestrated from Cullman, using the volunteer efforts of 400 people hailing from more than 10 countries. 

It all came to a near-standstill when the pandemic hit. The school has been closed since March, and, James said, faces uncertain prospects for reopening for the upcoming academic year under the Kenyan government’s strict pandemic precaution policies. No one from the U.S. has been able to fly in to perform critical surgeries that help patients’ mobility, correct vision problems, remove goiters, and provide the type of high-level operations that, as James notes, simply aren’t readily available in sub-Saharan Africa. Kenya Relief Academy teachers, who earn about $200 in U.S. currency per month, have been furloughed. Through a special arrangement with the Kenyan government, James and his staff were able to successfully plead that Brittney’s Home of Grace — the Kenya Relief orphanage that houses nearly 200 children — remain open, even as other orphanages in Kenya were ordered to close.

“COVID came with a lot of challenges for us,” Kenya Relief Academy head teacher Solomon Nyaoge said in a phone interview from the organization’s Migori campus. “We have had to sort of put on a brave face. We are struggling financially now, and we are having to be tough to ensure that our children continue to have quality food; nutritious meals to keep their immunities strong. It’s expensive, but we are struggling to give them the best under the circumstances.

“It was only yesterday (July 8) that the government, through the president, opened the Kenyan economy again, but a lot of restrictions are in place, and a lot of questions remain for our future. The greatest challenge we have is anticipation; prospecting when COVID-19 will end here. Our academic calendar of 2020 was sort of canceled, and there are kids who will have to retake their school grade year when we are allowed to reopen. It’s really a difficult time for Kenya Relief — but, as an organization, we are very much proud of Steve, our CEO ‘who does not sleep.’ He works tirelessly, even throughout this pandemic, to ensure things are right.”

Financial difficulties at Kenya Relief have become a central concern as COVID-19 has prolonged into the summer. James estimated the Kenyan unemployment rate as a result of the pandemic at 45 percent, and noted that it’s an unsettling time as Kenyans look to the United States as the standard-bearer of how to cope with a global crisis.

“Kenyans look at us and they believe we’re the greatest country in the world — but it creates a fear that, if we can suffer here, how can they survive if something like this breaks out there?” James said. “Their health care system could not survive something like this, if the pandemic begins to affect them as it has in countries that were late to institute a response. There are more ventilators in New York City than there are in all of Kenya…I’m not sure there’s even a single ventilator in all of Migori.” 

Even as nonprofits everywhere have struggled through the pandemic, the businesses and organizations that conventionally help support them have likewise had to scale back their giving — and that has affected Kenya Relief along with everyone else. James has improvised short-term solutions that have kept essential services going and retained his campus staff in Kenya on a payroll — but those kinds of one-time stopgaps aren’t sustainable over the long term.

Still, he said, there’s plenty of optimism that the infrastructure (and the relationships) that Kenya Relief has built over the past two decades will help the organization weather the current hard times. “We’re using this time to retrench, and to adapt to new conditions that, really, are going to become the new long-term reality in Kenya.” 

“Through all of it, it’s my job to share the need with others. I feel I’ve met my responsibility to humanity only when I share what I see as life-changing issues, and let others know how they can answer that call. Hopefully, we’re doing that in a way that’s honest and straightforward. It’s one of our goals to be the kind of destination that provides the very best for the teams that come to Kenya — not just in terms of accommodations, but in terms of offering a safe environment, good equipment, and the assurance for the people who work with us that, if you’re going to do missions, you want to do them with Kenya Relief. Above all, we want people with a heart for giving to know: The best you have to offer will be rewarded here.”

Benjamin Bullard is a reporter at The Cullman Times. He can be reached by phone at 256-734-2131 ext. 234.

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