Rebecca Rowson has traveled the world as a teacher, but she has never been anywhere as poor as Rusinga Island in Kenya. When she left last year, she couldn’t stop thinking about the hungry children, including those who were deaf, blind or sick. So she and her husband started the Rusinga Island Children’s Fund to help provide food.
Q: Why did you become so passionate about feeding kids on the island in east Africa?
A: When my husband and I were in the Peace Corps teaching math in the high school, we were trying to get the kids to focus, but they were hungry all the time. We realized education was not the big problem – people were so hungry. Food was the most important thing.
Q: How did you discover the plight of disabled students?
A: As it happened, we were living right next to a school for physically challenged children. The kids come in the morning, and they’ve had nothing to eat and then they’re told to go home for lunch. They might get water, but it’s probably not clean. And then they come back to school, so they’re hungry all day long. And they hope that if there’s anything available they’ll get to eat at night. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.
Q: Does the Kenyan government help schools provide food for students?
A: Over there, if you have any kind of deformity or you’re blind or deaf, it’s (considered) a curse from God, and many of those children are hidden away and never sent to school. The government does not spend very much money on children who are not likely to be a big help to their society.
Q: How many people have you been able to help through the children’s fund?
A: Twenty-six are in the regular feeding program, but we also have six additional children we send to the school for the deaf and blind.
Q: What have you learned from this experience?
A: We’ve learned we can only focus on a few children whose lives we can hope to change, because there are hundreds more that are just as desperately needy on this little island. We’ve also learned how thoughtful and generous people here are when they realize it’s such a different life for these children. Just a small thing means so much.
Q: Sending a physically challenged child to school and feeding him or her for a year costs between $125 and $450. How are you promoting awareness and raising money?
A: We’re both retired teachers and on a smaller salary, so we just ask anyone we can. Our church, Unity Church in Raleigh, has helped out, but it’s a brand new program.
Q: In addition to being food-challenged, Rusinga Island has a high rate of HIV and other diseases. What is the life expectancy?
A: One doctor who is head of a clinic near the island has said that the life expectancy on Rusinga Island is 27. That takes into account all the small children who die. Two of the children we support were born HIV-positive.
Q: You and your husband lived on Rusinga Island until early last year. Why did you come back to North Carolina?
A: My mother passed away, my dad’s alone and medical issues. My husband had malaria and typhoid fever.
Q: What’s on the horizon for you?
A: My husband and I are going back in April when the kids have their break.
Our main project is to get an indoor stove because all the cooking is done on three stones outdoors. The idea of cooking or having a toilet inside is phenomenal and otherworldly (to them).
Q: What inspires you to continue despite the challenges?
A: We actually know these children – we lived and worked with them. We fed them almost every day, and we know what they’re living with and what their chances will be if they aren’t assisted. Here in the U.S. we have such a totally different lifestyle. It’s hard to keep in mind that people are literally living and dying based on the help that comes from here.
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Rebecca Rowson – Tar Heel of the Week
Born: Sept. 20, 1947, in Raleigh
Family: Husband, David; two grown stepdaughters and one grown son; one grandson
Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology from N.C. State University; master’s in statistics from University of Southern Mississippi
Organization: Rusinga Island Children’s Fund (rusingaislandchildrensfund.org)