Justine McNeil traveled to Kenya to help further her education and came back with a new school of thought.
“When we stepped off the bus, the children were singing a welcome song in Swahili,” said the 22-year-old graduate of Humber’s Child and Youth Worker program. “They took our cameras and started taking pictures.”
The lack of electricity and running water pulled McNeil out of her comfort zone, but she wasn’t the only one experiencing culture shock.
“One kid was afraid of us. His mom explained he’d never seen someone with white skin before. He thought we were ghosts,” she said.
McNeil had flown to Kenya last May with 24 other students to build a school in the Maasai Mara region.
The volunteer trip through the Me to We Foundation inspired her to start her own fundraising campaign called We Build Schools for Kenya.
McNeil witnessed how a lack of education snowballs into larger problems, like lack of healthcare and sustainable living.
“They don’t understand things as simple as proper hygiene and water,” she said. “The stream where we collected water was so brown and disgusting, but they hadn’t been educated on why that may be harmful.”
Joining locals on their “water walk” was something McNeil says she will never forget.
“We had to carry 20 litre jugs of water on our heads,” she said. “They do that four times a day, and sometimes have to walk six kilometres.”
McNeil said she and her colleagues were exhausted after one kilometer.
Katherine Sloss, coordinator of Humber’s Child and Youth Worker program, said McNeil was dedicated to addressing issues facing youth and always wanted to know more.
“The fact that she’s turned one experience into a larger context that will have far-reaching impact is really powerful and exciting for us at Humber to see,” said Sloss.
Nabila Tisha, Youth Engagement coordinator at Me to We, applauds McNeil for her continued efforts.
“After her Kenya experience, Justine knows who she wants to be,” she said.
Tisha encourages students to look into volunteering in other countries.
“There are moments of realization that are lived on these trips. For the first time they understand what their priorities are,” she said.
McNeil, Tisha, and Sloss agree that perspective is the most valuable souvenir.
“Often history books and data we collect are written by people in power and aren’t necessarily the (experience of) minorities,” said Tisha. “Getting first hand perspective is so crucial.”
Sloss said it’s important to understand there’s not just one Western way of living, being, knowing and working.
“You do come back a different person,” said McNeil, who is trying to raise $10,000 to build another school in Kenya through donations, bottle drives, fundraisers, and a speaker series.
More can be learned about the campaign at the We Build Schools for Kenya Facebook page or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information on volunteer trips is available at MeToWe.com.