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Helping Kenya's children

A learning center is helping to get them off the streets and on to better lives.

Janelle Larson is an associate professor of agricultural economics and head of the Division of Engineering, Business, and Computing at Penn State, Berks

Paul Maina King'uru is founder and director of the Children and Youth Empowerment Centre

There are 50 million orphaned or abandoned children in Africa. Many of these children are disillusioned and disenfranchised, yet they are also a source of hope. Their potential must be developed if the continent is to meet the twin goals of economic growth and poverty alleviation.

One boy, Peter (not his real name), had lost both his parents to AIDS by the time he was 10. He was forced to fend for himself on the streets of Nairobi. With limited education and no support, he engaged in petty trading to survive.

Peter's future took a turn for the better in 2006 when he came to the Children and Youth Empowerment Centre in Nyeri, Kenya. The CYEC is a remarkable center, focusing not just on education but empowering vulnerable children and youth and encouraging them to imagine and create a better future for themselves.

The CYEC strives to embody the traditional Kenyan value of developing the gifts of each child for the benefit of the community, and uses the Swahili word zawadi (gift) to reflect this. Thanks to the CYEC, Peter has studied computing and is now in an accelerated secondary school program, completing the four-year curriculum in just two years. He's studying for his final exams and hopes to attend college and become an engineer.

The transition to independent living for former street children isn't easy. Because Kenya's unemployment rate is nearly 40 percent, and these young people don't have homes, they are at high risk of returning to the streets. The CYEC, in collaboration with Penn State University, is developing a comprehensive strategy to assist youths graduating from the CYEC and other centers to become independent and self-reliant. This strategy includes identifying and developing entrepreneurial opportunities and establishing a system of Zawadi eco-villages, where they can live, work, and further their skills.

The first village will be in Lamuria, a small farming community in the Rift Valley. As in many regions of sub-Saharan Africa, access to water is limited, so we will adopt technologies appropriate for a semiarid region, including sand dams and slow-sand filters to harvest water and manage its use. In addition, we'll take advantage of local resources for building (stabilized soil blocks or earth bags) and for renewable-energy production techniques (solar, wind, and bio-fuels).

For long-term success, the eco-village must be economically viable, so agricultural production and processing will play a central role in providing food and generating income. Another livelihood option, ecotourism, will be developed. The village will also provide education for the surrounding community regarding technologies, agricultural practices, and entrepreneurship.

By working with street children, CYEC addresses broader societal problems, such as poverty, family breakdown, and disease. The eco-village model helps address other major concerns such as environmental management, food security, and the education of vulnerable children. The project is an ideal means of applying university research and innovation in a wide variety of social and technical fields.

The CYEC is developing real, sustainable solutions to give children like Peter the opportunity to develop their gifts. As each child has opportunities for personal growth, they bring positive change to Kenya, Africa, and the world.