Simbolei Community Assistance Association

Archive for the ‘volunteers’ Category

Up and Down the Rift Valley, Summer 2016

Friday, August 19th, 2016

As volunteers sort through photos and souvenirs, I am already making plans for our next trips to Kenya. While most of my posts focus on the work we do in Kenya, I wanted to share some images and memories from lighter moments of Literacy Outreach 2016.

Volunteers on boat tour of Lake Baringo. Weaver bird nests are visible in the upper part of the photo.

Volunteers on boat tour of Lake Baringo. Weaver bird nests are visible in the upper part of the photo.

One of the things I always tell potential volunteers is “In Kenya, the unexpected is expected.” Our Saturday drive down to Lake Baringo had a few rough spots such as motion sickness from the steep, curving roads and Lake Bogoria hot springs being flooded over. But, we did get to Lake Baringo for our boat tour and we did have lunch at the lovely Tamarind Restaurant. Anyone who felt chilly had a day of warm sunshine on the valley floor.

Allen playing around at the volunteer's hotel dining room.

Allen playing around at the volunteer’s hotel dining room.

Volunteers had comfortable lodgings and wonderful meals at the Elgon Valley Hotel in Iten. Those of us staying at the cottage on the construction site found the food and company enticing too, and spent a good amount of time there. Allen, Felix the manager’s son, especially enjoyed the chips and the adoring adult attention.


Andrea and Ellen meet some encouragers on the forest hike.

What is life without challenges?  A “moderate” two hour hike turned into something a bit more challenging when we ended up starting from the wrong trailhead. Nevertheless, we all made it to the top, even Professor K. We had lots of help and encouragement from people we met along the way.

Waterfall on the escarpment.

Waterfall on the escarpment.

Thanks for being Simbolei Academy’s helpers and encouragers as we work our way toward the opening of Simbolei Academy.

If you are interested in coming along for either the Runner’s Winter Break/Construction trip in January or the Literacy Outreach trip in July 2017, send us a message at

Visiting Kiptingo Primary

Thursday, August 4th, 2016

I’m going a bit out of order with my story today. I’ll post more about the volunteers and their arrival etc., later, but I’m eager to tell you about our first literacy program with the students.


The main group of volunteers joined us in Iten on Sunday and first thing Monday morning we hit the road for our literacy visits. First stop was Kiptingo Primary. I had a special surprise for these students. In the past, our supply of crayons was limited, so at each school I would collect the crayons at the end of the activity for use at the next school. At the end of the week, though, I would always go back and deliver the leftover crayons to the kids at Kiptingo Primary. As one of three very remote schools and as the one that gets the fewest outside visitors, I felt they most needed the encouragment of keeping the crayons to use for the rest of the year.


But this year, through the generosity of our volunteers and through the a grant from the Denison, Iowa Rotary Club, we were able to purchase enough crayons to leave a big bag for each school. The kids love drawing pictures based on the storybooks we share with them. Now they can continue to use the crayons for many weeks to enrich their education.


In the past, one task no one liked at the end of a fun day of literacy activities was to recollect the crayons. Volunteers disliked doing this and I disliked requiring it. But since we needed the crayons for use in the next school, we had no choice. What a joy this year to tell the kids that the crayons will stay with their teacher for use in their classroom along with the books and paper we always donate to our cooperating schools.



On behalf of myself, the students and our volunteers, I want to thank our generous donors who added another pe next year you can join us to share the crayons and the fun.

Look What You’ve Done!: Simbolei Academy is Moving Forward

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

Today I received more photos from the construction site in Kenya. I especially wanted to show the picture below, which I happen to know Felix Sirma obtained by climbing a tree to get the right angle on the construction site. It shows the metal plates being laid so that concrete can be poured.

Humor me for a minute. Stop and look at the size of this project. This photo shows HALF of the main building. This image just brought home to me the size of the project we have undertaken and the amount of work that has gone into it thus far. After this portion of the roof is poured, the remaining work will be the roof, the second floor walls and the interior finishing.  So, yes, we have some things to do yet. Yes, we still need to raise money and do some hard physical labor, but we ARE getting there. As the motto on our homepage points out, all of us together can accomplish amazing things and this building and the educational opportunities it will provide are amazing things.

We hope to keep construction going on schedule through this year so that we can open in January 2018.  With your continued support we will make it. We have come so far with so little that I know we can do the rest. Please consider how you might further our work this year. Also, please consider serving either as a volunteer in Kenya or as a board member in the US. We have positions open in both areas as well as lots of other volunteer and internship opportunities. Send us an email at to find out more. But, don’t forget to take a few minutes and celebrate our successes so far.

Andrea carrying books for literacy outreach, 2015. We are now accepting applications for volunteers for literacy outreach, 2016, July 2-10, 2016.

The Joy of Useful Work: Literacy Workshops and Gifts

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

In the US, November is the month when we reflect on why we are thankful.  I think one of the greatest gifts is finding something you enjoy doing that benefits others. So, this month, I am reflecting on the joy of sharing books with kids. I have always loved books, which is why I became a college writing and literature professor.  Reading with my own children when they were small has also always been a joy to me. But, it wasn’t until middle age that I discovered how much fun it is to share stories and ideas with groups of children.

Sharing stories at Simbolei Junior Academy, Kessup, Kenya.

As we begin to plan our Summer 2016 Literacy Outreach, think about challenging yourself to try something new. We need volunteers to share stories with kids, we need volunteers to help organize fundraising activities in the US and lots of other activities that make Simbolei’s work possible. What would you like to try in the coming year?

Creating something new at Literacy Outreach, 2015.

Enriching the “Book Experience”: Incorporating Art Projects

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Sharing “Pretty Salma,” a crowd favorite, at Kiptingo Primary.

One of the great things about returning for our fourth year of literacy outreach workshops is seeing growth. The students have grown in their appreciation of literature and we have grown, although more slowly, in our resource base and skills. In the beginning it was me, Andrea and maybe one volunteer. The first year, Jelimo helped out and the second year it was a one woman show. This year, there were five literacy volunteers, plus Nicholas Kiptoon, our photographer. The addition of Felix Sirma to our team for the past two years has meant we have a fluent Kalenjin and Kiswahili speaker in our team, so kids can have instant translations whenever they are needed.

With more hands available, we can also add more activities. As I reviewed research concerning how to enrich children’s experiences with books and literacy, one theme that emerged was that children learn best when they can repeat and reproduce ideas from the stories they hear and read. Drama, music and art are all good ways to do this. Considering our resources, we decided to start small by providing the students with crayons and paper so they could create their own pictures after listening to the story.

Students at Kiptingo Primary work on drawings while other students who are on recess observe through the windows.

At first, we just asked students to draw a scene from the story or a character that they liked. We thought they would enjoy the creative freedom of drawing whatever they wanted. But, we quickly found that for many students the new experience of using smooth white paper and sharp new crayons was a little overwhelming. They needed more guidance to get started. So, now we use prompts to suggest specific ideas from the story as a basis for their drawings. For example, one story “Three Little Dassies” by Jan Brett, is an Africa based version of “The Three Little Pigs.” After listening to a story about the three little dassies building houses of grass, wood and stone, we ask the students to draw a picture of their own ideal house. The kids love this activity. They are very meticulous and creative in designing their dream houses.

Some of the “dream house” pictures students created.

More artists with their work.

Crayons and paper and picture books may all seem like ordinary parts of childhood to us. But, without these simple resources, Kenyan children are less likely to develop rich and enjoyable associations with words and reading that will lead them to become lifelong readers. As we look forward to the growth of literacy program, we hope to eventually make it an integral part of Simbolei Academy’s community programming. If we want students, especially girls, to excel in high school, we have to nurture a love of reading and learning in the elementary school children. We hope that each year we can continue to expand this program.

You can help in so many ways!  I invite you to consider joining us as a literacy volunteer in July 2016. If you cannot come with us this year, consider donating this year. Funds can be donated to Simbolei Community Assistance Association either as a general donation which we can use for both construction and literacy or as a designated donation to either the building program or the literacy program. Also, consider taking part in our spring book drive which takes place in March each year to collect good quality picture books for the hundreds of children who take part in our programs each year. We couldn’t do what we do without your support and the kids’ smiles show how much it is appreciated.

Art critic in the making.



Summer Programs and Plans, 2015

Saturday, May 16th, 2015

We are shipping books and packing up for our summer literacy programs, 2015. I will be traveling to Kenya at the end of June and our literacy program begins on July 13th. Working with the kids and teachers to promote fun reading and active literacy is always the highlight of the year.

Artists at work during the summer literacy outreach program.

This year, however, we are asking donors and volunteers to help out an “old friend” as well.  Our volunteers’ cottage at Kamariny provides a simple, comfortable home base for all of us during the literacy outreach and also during the winter construction work. 25 years ago, it was built to house the manager of the sawmill then operating on the site.  When we purchased the sawmill site for Simbolei Academy, the cottage was a bit…well.. unsightly.

The volunteer cottage as it appeared in 2006, when the land for
Simbolei Girls’ was purchased.


In 2010, our building committee in Kenya renovated the cottage, including installation of running water and electricity. Since then, it has been our home away from home.

The cottage in 2011, after renovation.

Interior of the cottage, 2012.

Young volunteer, Jelimo, enjoys one of our favorite activities in the volunteer cottage, 2012.

As our activities increase however, and as more volunteers use the cottage, the passage of time has brought about the need for repairs to keep our home base usable. This year, the cottage needs painting inside and out. This is not only cosmetic, as in Kenya’s tropical climate, woodboring insects will destroy our little yellow house quickly if the wood is not kept well-painted. Also, we were told last year that our electrical wiring was not up to safety code and needs an overhaul in order for us to continue to have electric lights and a small refrigerator. Finally, with more occupants, including paying tenants during the tourist season, more furniture and storage space is needed. Fortunately, in the Kenyan economy, a little goes a long way.  All of the painting and repairs needed can be completed for about $600.00!

If you are considering a donation to Simbolei, now is an excellent time to see your donation go right to work, preserving our volunteer cottage and keeping it available for tourist season tenants and for our volunteers. Of course, we invite all members of the Simbolei community, donors, volunteers, and community members, to visit Kamariny and make use of the cottage. We hope to see you there soon!  In the meantime, please consider a donation to keep our work thriving and growing this year and in the years ahead.

Reading and Running: An Interview with a Simbolei Volunteer

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

This week’s blog is by Katie Dooley, one of our writing interns for this semester.  Katie interviewed Marcus Tomiuk, who will be traveling to Kenya in July to help with Simbolei’s literacy outreach activities.

As most of you already know, many of the best runners in the world are from Kenya—there are a lot of lists online that name countless successful runners who were born in Kenya. This week, I interviewed Marcus Tomiuk from Montreal who is a new volunteer for Simbolei. He is also an avid runner.

The town of Iten was what originally attracted Marcus to Kenya:“Iten is a small town in Kenya which stands at almost 8000ft above sea level! Iten has managed to produce many of the top athletes in history and continues to do so today,” he said. “There is a good chance that if you have ever watched a world-class race, the winner was either living in Iten or spent time training in the ‘home of champions’.”

Marcus enjoying one of his favorite activities.

This made Marcus’s decision to become a volunteer for Simbolei very easy. “My interest in going to Kenya stemmed from wanting to absorb the Iten running culture,” he said. “Training at altitude and learning from the best in the world is invaluable to me –and to any runner who wants to be better. When Andrea [Kaitany] presented the volunteering opportunity, I immediately said yes. Thankfully training and volunteering was something that we were able to work out as part of my trip.” Simbolei is a perfect match for Marcus, and not only because of the location of Iten or the running culture.

Education, researching, and reading have all been important in Marcus’s decision to become a volunteer. He studied business in college (college is called “Cegep” in Quebec, he says) and he currently works for a business called Silanis Technology in Montreal. He has also been researching Kenya frequently to prepare for his trip. “I had some knowledge about Kenya from watching running documentaries and hearing travel stories from friends and family,” he said. “Once I officially decided to go, I started doing more research and continue to do research when I have time.” Keeping up with current events going on in Iten and in Kenya as a whole is important and will definitely be beneficial for Marcus—and for anyone else—upon arriving in the country.

Marcus also discussed some of the things that he enjoys reading. “I like to read any book that will help me reflect and self-improve. With the internet being readily available, I probably read more online articles and blogs than anything else. Also, as you can probably tell, I’m open to all books about running. I am in the middle of reading ‘Born to Run’ which my sister bought for me as a Christmas gift.” He said that his favorite book is “Awaken The Giant Within by Anthony Robbins.”

He brings up an interesting point about the Internet and how  information is consumed all around the world. Aside from some of the negative factors regarding the Internet, it can be a great educational tool and gives those who have access to it many more resources than we could probably ever imagine. Even if you are not connected to the Internet or technology, or online frequently, you can still be connected to education because of books. They are the roots of information and education and will always be an important learning tool.

Hope Marcus is in good racing shape, as our literacy outreach kids will definitely give him a run for his money!

There’s Still Time to Volunteer For Literacy 2015

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Just a quick note in amongst these wonderful posts by Katie and Debbie to remind everyone that we still have a couple of volunteer spots left for our Kenya volunteer trip July 10-20, 2015. We will be hosting a workshop at Simbolei for teachers from area primary schools and then traveling to each of our cooperating schools to share stories and activities and deliver donated books to the kids.  Plus, there will be time for exploring Iten and the Rift Valley also. We have a good crew assembled, but we would love to have you along also!

We’ve included a few photos of the area and our previous outreach activities. If you would like more information about volunteering this summer or about other volunteer or internship opportunities, send us an email at  and we will send you further information.

Change Lives this Summer. Volunteer with Simbolei in Kenya!

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

Just a reminder that we have a few spots left on our volunteer team traveling to Kenya on July 10, 2015. Sharing books, stories and activities with kids in rural primary schools is a pure joy. The reading habits we introduce and encourage will foster academic achievement in all the area children. Do something extraordinary this summer.

If  you would like to volunteer or want more information, send us a message at

Andrea and Jack sharing a story at Kimuchi Primary in July 2014.

The Great Rift Valley is part of a huge tectonic rift in the earth's crust that also created the Red Sea and the valley of the Jordan River.

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Simbolei Girls Secondary School, Kenya