YCI Alumni Jessie Gresley-Jones launches the Mombasa-Canada Scholarship Fund

When I volunteered for Youth Challenge International I never thought it would have such a long-term impact on my life. I was fortunate enough to volunteer from January to June of 2009 in Mombasa Kenya. While in Mombasa I volunteered at Kwacha Afrika, YCI’s local partner, organizing workshops, events, forums and community events, focusing on health promotion, leadership, human rights and equality.

While at Kwacha Afrika, I worked closely with many youth including, a 16 year old boy whose amazing dedication, hard work and passion for helping those around him always amazed me. After working with him for many weeks I began to understand the difficult circumstances he faced, orphaned and living with his older brother, barely able to afford 3 meals a day. He expressed many times how much he wanted to go back to school, but couldn’t return because his brother could not afford to send him.

I sent an email to my parents describing the boy’s situation and they quickly decided to send money so that he could return to school. During the following months in Kenya, Michael Kalu (our local officer) and myself began the paperwork to establish a scholarship fund for youth in Mombasa. Within my six months in Kenya we had received enough donations from friends and family back home to support 7 students in returning to school.

Upon returning to Canada, we began the application process to become a registered charity with Revenue Canada. In March we were approved and are now fully registered and fundraising to continue supporting the seven students currently in school, as well as accepting additional students each year.

The scholarship fund is intended to help youth who have no financial means of funding their education and provide them with the opportunity to pursue their educational goals. The scholarship fund also provides support by mentoring the youth in their pursuit of education.

Preference is given to those youth whose parent, or parents are deceased, or who do not live with, or gain financial support from their parents. Proof of parental income or of a guardian’s income is required as a determining factor of each applicant.

Once students have been accepted to receive a scholarship, our local program officer Michael, helps them select a suitable school and make all necessary arrangements. Because many of the students do not have any family members, Michael accompanies them to the school, helps buy school supplies and ensures they are settled. Our preference is to find boarding schools for all of our students. This ensures they have a safe place to live, access to three meals a day, access to water and no distractions from their school studies. Although tuition is more for boarding schools, we think it is worth the added cost!

So far we have managed to raise money simply through word of mouth and a large group of very supportive, caring friends and family. We always welcome donations and are constantly amazed by the generosity of those around us!

For more information check us out at:


– Jessie Gresley-Jones, YCI Youth Ambassador. Jessie volunteered on back-to-back YCI projects in Kenya during the Winter and Spring of 2009.

Want to learn what other YCI alumni are up to? Check out our blog’s Alumni Update category.

In the Shade of a Tree, in Africa

Sunrise. When the sun rises over Mombasa, it takes but a few minutes. It’s as if someone has turned on a light switch and a heater at the same time. It is nighttime and cool, and then all at once, it is daytime and hot. And it is noisy – 5am rap music mixes with prayer calls, matatus (Mtwapa! Mtwapa!) and vendors selling their plastic buckets and bananas – making it impossible to determine where one sound ends and another begins. When I leave for work, I am greeted by taxi and tuk-tuk drivers – Where are you going? Do you want a taxi?

There is also no shortage of greetings from strangers.

Jambo. Welcome.

How are you?

I am fine.

Already it is hot. The buildings provide little shade. The walk to the matatu stage is not long, but upon arrival, I am already sweating and thirsty. This bright, hot and sticky city is the Mombassa I experience everyday the light switch gets turned on.

The Munhope volunteers get a slightly different perspective. They live with families outside Mombassa’s downtown hub. Their communities have palm trees, small shops and a variety of concrete and mud homes located along twisting dirt roads that have no rhyme or reason. I am told sometimes the power shuts off and the water stops running. One volunteer bathes by candlelight, another gets a cold shower. The 5am prayer calls act as alarm clocks. So do the roosters and the rap music. They get a lot of food. Dinner is a time for family to gather, converse and eat. And then eat even more – Are you full? Your plate is empty. Let me fill it again.

There are many children – I am convinced Mombassa is home to more youth than adults – and they greet the volunteers each morning as they walk to work.

Mzungo! How are you? HOW ARE YOU?

I am fine.

Our work is located in three rural communities outside of town. You can calculate our distance from the city by looking at the faces of children as we drive by: The further away we get from Mombassa, the more terrified expressions are found on their faces. I am told this is because children in these areas are told that if they do not behave, ‘the mzungo will take you away.’

The road to the project sites is bumpy – driving some of us to the point of nausea. We pick up workshop participants along the way. They walk far – it would be considered too far for a Canadian or European to walk. Hence the bus.

Suddenly our ride stops. A herd of cows blocks our way and our driver has to nudge the animals with the vehicle. It makes no difference – the bus cannot access the road ahead (it rained last night), so we walk the rest of the way. Our feet soon turn an orangey-red color.

The dirt here is red. The homes are made out of this dirt – giving them a reddish tint. The dirt is also on your clothes, on your skin and sometimes on your food. The dirt cakes on your shoes two inches thick. Everywhere it is red.

The volunteers worked hard – trying to raise awareness on HIV, present new ideas and bridge cultural and linguistic barriers. Each day they sought to achieve their objectives: Stigma. Prevention. Communication. HIV reproductive cycles.  They want to make meaningful connections with community members. They want to learn how to carry jerry cans full of water on their heads. It is a cultural exchange at its finest.

Most of the workshops have been held inside classrooms, but one of the last project activities was held outside. Youth played soccer in the morning and participated in an open forum discussion on HIV education. The sun weighed heavily on everyone, and so the forum was held in the shade, under a huge mango tree in the center of the field.

Sunset. We have to get back into town before dusk – if that term really exists here. The sun gets turned off by a light switch at night too. At one moment you can make out the faces of individuals passing by, and ten minutes later, you struggle to make out their shadows.

These past few weeks have flown by fast, and it is hard to believe that Donald is arriving this Saturday from Zanzibar to help facilitate our debriefing session.

It is apparent the volunteers have all benefited from this project – but I bet they won’t recognize their growth until more time has passed. They might notice a few differences right away – like how strangers do not ask how they are doing, what their name is and where they are from. They might notice how boring it is to drive into town, without the colorful mosaic of matatus. The food may taste a little plainer, the sunsets not so vibrant, and the clothing not so colorful. They might begin to forget things too – like how to make chapattis. How hot the sun feels. How the shade provided by a mango tree provides the greatest relief.

In a few months, they may notice other differences too. They may notice how they are better communicators and more insightful. They may be less quick to jump to conclusions, more flexible, more resourceful. Their world is a little broader – the borders more fuzzy. All good things. They might also notice how much they miss Kenya – especially when it turns cold and snow visits the East Coast. They want to feel the heat again. To sit in the shade of a tree, in Africa.


-Melissa Keehn, Kenya Program Officer. To read more about Melissa, check out her blog from two weeks into the MUNHOPE project and her staff profile Q & A.

. . .of Circus Buses and Ambitions

Volunteers walk through the Old Town Mombasa

It is a little over two weeks into project. Today is the referendum in Kenya—a topic much discussed since our arrival—and the volunteers are spending the day at their homestays relaxing and planning for the busy two weeks ahead.

I cannot say enough good words about these women. It is quite apparent they have come to this project with clear ambitions and objective—wanting their workshops to be effective and meaningful to their target audience. I love watching their planning meetings—they are not afraid to give suggestions, make changes and bring new ideas to the table. I have full confidence in their ability and anticipate effective workshops in the weeks ahead. I hope many of them continue to pursue careers that engage their talents in this type of international setting.

Kenya has been nothing short of a great experience. The daily matatus rides have added character to the project: The blaring music, cramped interior, the circus-like decals, the slogans adorning every available space, and the way the buses get around seemingly impossible impasses—collectively create a part of Mombasa I have come to love. You only have to show up at a bus stage before the shouting begins—where are we going? to Mtwapa? to Ferry? to V.O.K? (V.O.K takes you directly to the Kwatcha office, in case you are ever in the area.)

The location speaks for itself: The town is lined with white sandy beaches, warm turquoise waters, palm trees and camels. When in the right spot, the Indian Ocean provides a refreshing relief from the heat. The food (chapatis), the juices and the old sea-eroded charm of Mombasa town have added, in my opinion, great flavor to this project. The smell of this place is complex: It is the smell of roasting street food, sea salt, burning fires and smoke, tropical plants and city life. Mombasa town itself is busy busy busy—street vendors, noise and more matatus—and it reminds me of a city that has reproduced itself many times over. I am excited for the MUNHOPE volunteers to start their workshops at the project site, which is located in a quiet rural community along a long winding road. It was very peaceful when I visited two weeks ago.

And of the Kenyan friends we have met —the YCI volunteers and Kwacha youth have started the project with a positive relationship. I feel welcomed into the Kwacha office, as I am sure the volunteers would agree. I had the pleasure of meeting each of the volunteers’ homestay families—and I have to admit—I am quite envious of the food, warmth and hospitality each of them is getting. What better way to experience a true cultural exchange than to immerse oneself into the daily Kenyan lifestyle—something not to be obtained at the many resorts dotting the beaches. How unlucky these tourist are—they do not know what they are missing!

I hope this blog paints a clearer picture of Mombasa, although it is a bit hard to express the warmth, the smells and the atmosphere of this place in words. I also cannot truly speak for the volunteers – of their own sense of belonging and purpose in this project – but from what I have observed, I have a feeling they are pretty content at the moment.


-Melissa Keehn, Kenya Program Officer. To read more about Melissa, check out her staff profile Q & A.

Q & A: Donald Taylor, East Africa Regional Program Manager

Donald Taylor has worked within the nonprofit sector since 1993 in the areas of health, human services, education and international development. In 2001, Donald’s first international experience began in Ukraine. From 2005 -2010, he worked with Habitat for Humanity International in Thailand and India, where he managed a program  that involved over 20,000 volunteers annually. Based out of Zanzibar, Donald joined the YCI team in May 2010 as the Regional Manager for programming locations in Tanzania and Kenya.

What does your job with YCI involve? My role is to manage and support staff at three project sites in Tanzania and Kenya. In addition, to develop and manage programs with a commitment to best practices in youth-focused programming.

How did you get involved with YCI? After working in Eastern Europe, India and Thailand, I decided that I wanted to work in Africa, especially working with youth. When the opportunity was presented, I jumped at the chance.

Most memorable YCI moment: I guess I would have to say that when I see the smiles on the faces of local youth. . .and knowing that we have provided something tangible that will last a lifetime.

Which youth issue most concerns you? The most important issue for me as it relates to youth is access to opportunities and YCI opens a door to these opportunities.

What gives you optimism? I would like to think that the world is changing, forging ahead in a new direction of equality, hope and new beginnings, and youth are up for the challenge.

What else do you do? I live 15 minutes from Stonetown, 10 minutes from a beach and five minutes from local shopping. So when I have some free time I go site seeing, food shopping or watch the sun set at the beach. I also have a few books that I am currently reading and enjoy a good cup of coffee.

Afrofest: Music for Social Change in Africa

“How can we live in the hood, I think how my life will be, let’s take responsibility and stop doing drugs, let’s be enlightened and stop doing drugs.” – “Madawa” (“Illegal Drugs”) by Sounds of Change.

An Afrofest attendee with YCI volunteer, Andrew (from Athletes for Africa).

This past weekend, YCI attended Afrofest in Queen’s Park. (Thanks again to all our great volunteers for giving us a hand this weekend!) Afrofest is an annual free celebration of African music and culture presented by Music Africa.

While we have a range of programs worldwide, it seemed like a great opportunity–not to mention a perfect fit–to share how YCI uses music for social change in Africa:

Sounds of Change: the one-pager we distributed at Afrofest

Edutainment as a Key Methodology

YCI recognizes edutainment as a widely accessible and interactive medium that is uniquely youth-based. Working with partners in Africa, YCI uses music and drama as a means of conveying messages about HIV/AIDS, substance abuse and other high-risk behaviours.

To date, YCI has helped to support the Sounds of Change, a group of Kenyan youth who write and perform music that focuses on high-risk behaviours. Talent nights in Tanzania, where hip-hop artists perform about issues that concern them, engage thousands of youth annually. YCI has even used music to encourage youth to vote—leading up to the 2008 election in Ghana, volunteers recorded a radio jingle called “Why Vote” in Twi, Ewe and English.

Edutainment has proven to be a powerful medium for encouraging African youth to get tested for HIV/AIDS, adopt healthy lifestyles and engage in their communities. Moving into 2010, YCI continues to develop exciting new models for youth engagement through edutainment programming.

Edutainment in Action: HIV/AIDS & Music in Tanzania

In 2009-2010 alone, more than 780 youth in Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana learned their HIV status through YCI events.

Due to economic vulnerability and poor access to condoms, health services and youth-friendly information, Tanzanian young people are especially vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. In Zanzibar and Morogoro, YCI volunteers work closely with partners and local youth to plan youth-friendly HIV/AIDS awareness events called “Ushujaa kwa Uhai,” which is Swahili for “Courage for Life.”

Music plays a key role at the events, with messages about HIV/AIDS and substance abuse infused into hip-hop, dance and theatre. Along with condom demonstrations, testing is provided at the events, and bracelets—similar to the popular “Live Strong” bracelets—are supplied with to those who participate in testing, indicating that they have “Courage for Life.” Ushujaa serves not only to educate youth, promote condom use and provide testing, but also to reduce stigma. As a result, young people have been able to improve their knowledge, learn about methods of prevention, and address issues of marginalization for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Photo from the Field: May 29, Kenya

Photo from the Kwacha Afrika Facebook group.

On May 29th, Kwacha Afrika, dance4life and YCI hosted a talent show in Likoni, Kenya, with a focus on HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. Along with condom demonstrations, talent show attendees had access to free voluntary counseling and testing services. Not only was the crowd impressive (see the above photo!)–so were the performances. Following the show, four performers were awarded contracts with record producers for the best songs with messages about HIV/AIDS.

The 10-week Youth Ambassadors group that is currently in Kenya is halfway through their project and still have one month left in-country. This weekend the group, in partnership with Kwacha, will be hosting a free drama presentation with messages about HIV/AIDS at a local youth centre.

Next up? MUNHOPE will be starting their Youth Leadership Team project in Mombasa on July 26.

Turn Up the Radio

Want to learn more about YCI’s programs in Kenya? Then check out this great video that a member of YCI’s Volunteer Support Team, Ken Ip, created:

Interested in volunteering locally with YCI and becoming a member of our Volunteer Support Team? Contact us at generalinfo@yci.org.