For children living in the Lake Minnetonka area, attending school primarily means freedom to learn. For children trying to survive in the Kenyan slum of Kibera, located in the city of Nairobi, a chance at an education also means freedom from abject hunger and thirst and the high chance of sexual assault. In light of that contrast, a local couple is raising awareness and money for a scholarship program to take Kiberan children away from the slums and into boarding schools to set them on the road to freedom.
Growing up in Denmark, siblings Ulrich and Connie Nielsen had what Ulrich calls the essentials—a home, health care and education. Those were a given, and any charitable work that was done in their country was extended outward. Ulrich recalls organizing food trucks and spending time in Poland and other European countries to aid those in need. “That’s what I grew up with,” he says of serving others.
Now Ulrich and his wife, Lynn Younglove, who live in Watertown, continue charitable outreach through the Road to Freedom scholarship program, which offers scholarships to children from the poorest sections of Kibera. The program was started five years ago by Connie, an actress, who first recognized the need to educate Kiberan children during the 2010 filming of the Danish film Lost in Africa.
During a break from filming, the actress visited the Kibera Hamlets after-school program. Many of the children were orphans or were living with extended family, with little or no knowledge of the whereabouts of their parents. Despite their familial situations, which were compounded by a crushing lack of nutrition and clean drinking water, Connie discovered the children still had a strong appetite for learning. One girl had lost her parents a short time before arriving in Kibera to live with relatives. “She looked undernourished, in shock and afraid, and yet she was able to whisper that she wanted to go to school,” Road to Freedom’s website says.
Connie was also inspired to create the Human Needs Project to build a town center in Kibera. “Out of that,” says Ulrich, “we saw there were a lot of young girls who didn’t get to go to school.” In fact, only 8 percent of girls in Kibera receive an education. “It’s a huge problem that these potential contributors [to society] don’t get to go to school at all,” Ulrich says. “First, it’s about getting kids away from the slum and getting an education at the same time… When you see firsthand how people live and measure it up with how we live, it’s impossible not to help.”
While the nonprofit organization is based in California, Ulrich and Younglove hope local residents will be inspired to donate to the program. Younglove, who grew up in Minnetonka, has organized fundraising events, including an all-day scrapbooking party that raised money to pay for the students’ uniforms and a portrait session for grandmothers, mothers and their children that included professional makeup and hair stylists.
Her efforts, plus the efforts of others, have raised more $250,000 to send 17 students to Laiser Hill Academy, a Kenyan boarding school, for $3,000 annually, says Kirsten Jackson, the program’s executive director. Scholarship funds tend to the students’ tuition, materials, books, clothing and transportation. In addition, they receive three meals a day, access to clean water and medical care, and freedom from the threat of sexual assault.
Connie Nielsen wants to remind potential donors of the ripple effect the program can produce. “If you invest in someone’s education, they will do what they need to do for themselves and for their community,” she says. Perhaps more importantly, she explains that Road to Freedom doesn’t focus on top academic performers, as it also welcomes children with learning difficulties. Says Connie, “It’s about the dignity of every human life.”
Donation information is available at roadtofreedom scholarships.org; check the website for local fundraising events. Checks may be sent to:
Road to Freedom Scholarships
1550G Tiburon Blvd. #702
Tiburon, CA, 94920