Can a team of regular Intel employees bring a ray of hope to Kenya’s poorest kids?

IESC Kenya - Phil Davis and kids.jpgMuzungu! Muzungu!” shouted the bouncing crowd of Kenyan children as we walked through the blue metal gate that opened into the school yard of the Karibu Centre, in Thika, Kenya.

“Foreigner! Foreigner!” was what they were saying in Swahili, as they rushed toward us, eager for a look at the new visitors. In seconds, I was surrounded by a sea of little hands reaching out to touch us in greeting. Our team–Lonnie Hurst (part of Intel’s product-fraud protection team), Anna Powless (Fab 11x training), L.C. Gonzalez and Alonso Elizondo (Costa Rican IT professionals)–was overwhelmed. Many of the kids were in torn and shredded clothing. Some had mismatched shoes. They were from one of the poorest slums in Thika. But they had boundless smiles and love to give, and they held our hands as we walked down the red dirt path to the yellow and blue schoolhouse.

“Karibu!”–“Welcome!” called out Mercy, one of center’s young teachers. Somehow Mercy and the two other teachers–Millicent and Joycephine–manage to educate and entertain up to 140 children each day. The Karibu’s Centers facilities are simple but sturdy–there’s a playground with a multicolored picket fence, a large and airy classroom with big blackboards–and now thanks to Intel, a fleet of Intel-powered classmate PCs.

Our team is part of the Intel Education Service Corps (IESC). IESC is sponsored by Intel’s Great Place to Work Program and the Emerging Markets Platform Group. It is a unique chance for Intel employees to get out of their every day jobs and help children and teachers use education technology and classmate PCs in the classroom. (IESC is just part of a constellation of Intel programs promoting education, including the Intel Teach Program, which has trained more than 8 million of teachers around the world.)

IESC Kenya training at Kairibu Center.jpgThis month, five Intel Education Service Corps teams are fanning out across the globe, spending most of October in Kenya, Uganda, Vietnam, Egypt and India. Intel employees want to do good–more than 300 employees applied for just 25 spots in IESC.

In Kenya, we spent two weeks in country, and what an experience it has been! We brought with us four classmate PCs, educational software and immediately set out to work. The center already had 11 classmate PCs set up by another IESC team last November, so our donation brought the total up to 15.

But there were far from 15 working PCs in the centre’s computer room. Without the kind of consistent technical support that we are used to at Intel, many of the tough little laptops at the Karibu Center needed some TLC.

“Bad registries, viruses, drivers not working, many of them were not able to connect to the wireless network, and they were loaded up with a lot of software that was doing little but taking up a lot of computer resources,” my teammate Alonzo Elizondo told me. He and LC Gonzalez spent hours getting the classmate PCs back in pristine working order.

Meanwhile the rest of us were working with the teachers to better use the classmate PCs in the classroom. We found that time was a huge factor–even a few minutes spent booting up a classmate PC and opening up the software could lead to mayhem in the classroom when it comes to high-energy 3 to 5 five year olds. So Anna Powless–a former teacher–and I worked to come up with a simple way to align of specific programs with specific lessons that allowed the teachers to quickly access relevant applications when it was “computer time.”

IESC Kenya training at Kairibu Center 2.jpgThe pre-school is just one of the programs operating at the Karibu centre. There’s also a shelter for pregnant teenagers and unwed mothers. Though the teen moms are a happy and smiling bunch, their stories are uniformly grim. Without a husband and often without nearby family, even getting something as basic as a photo ID is very difficult for these young women. The shelter provides them with a place to stay while they are having their babies, and helps teach them a marketable skill such as sewing.

Computer skills and typing are also valuable, and we have spent a number of afternoons helping teach the young moms master basic computer skills–familiarity with the keyboard, how to move a mouse and click on files, how to navigate to a web page, etc. They are quick learners. They were shy at first, but have really opened up as we have spent more time with them.

But for me, the highlight of the week came outside of the classroom, when we walked out with one of the parents to see the poverty-stricken Umoja and Matherao slums where the children and their families live. Most of the students live in one room dwellings, often constructed of nothing more than scrap wood for walls and tin sheeting for a roof. There’s no running water to be found, sanitation is non-existent and there’s scant electricity. It made us all realize how fortunate we are working for Intel.

But it didn’t feel like a “tour” in the ghetto: the families were all happy to see us though, because they knew that we were helping out the Karibu Centre. And after just a week, we are starting to feel like part of the community.