Date posted: 01/12/2016 5 min read

Charity begins with a home

A stolen bag in Kenya changed James Woodward’s life, and will continue to change the lives of some of Nairobi’s most disadvantaged orphans

In brief

  • With a graduate role at KPMG secured, and his manager’s blessing to travel for five months before starting, Woodward researched Africa, and decided on Kenya
  • Back in Australia, Woodward registered Kickstart Kids International as a charity to work with impoverished communities in sustainable ways
  • By 2009 the charity was ready to establish another facility, but Woodward was not keen on the traditional orphanage model

Photography by Kickstart Kids

James Woodward CA put Africa on his travel plans in 2007, expecting to do a short stint of volunteering before hitting London, then returning to Sydney to start a new job at KPMG.

“The idea was certainly that this would be once in a lifetime,” he says.

But his life changed after his bag was stolen en route to Uganda and he was confronted by orphan children living in conditions his conscience wouldn’t let him ignore.

Today he lives in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, and runs a charity helping “the worst of the worst cases” of Nairobi street children and orphans find new, loving homes. And that’s just in his spare time. The 30 year old is KPMG’s East Africa Market Lead for the infrastructure sector.

Confronting Kenya

With a graduate role at KPMG secured, and his manager’s blessing to travel for five months before starting, Woodward researched Africa, and decided on Kenya.

“There was no more connection to Africa at that point than a desire to go and see,” he says.

He’d planned to go on a safari, do some charity work and see as much as possible.

A friend put him and his travelling companion in touch with a local Kenyan woman who offered to show him parts of Nairobi few foreigners saw. By this she meant the Kayole slum, and she arranged for Woodward to volunteer at an orphanage.

“I thought I had mentally prepared myself for what we were going into but it was a shock to me that any adult, anywhere in the world, could allow children to live in the kind of conditions that these children were living in.”

There were 20 children and just two beds. They were fed one meal a day — just cabbage and rice. There was no formal education and no medical help.

“Worst of all, when it rained the small septic tank would flood so sewerage would be on the floor where the children were sleeping.”

But he says while the situation felt unacceptable, he viewed it as “a good life experience”, and after six weeks he set off for Uganda. But his bag was stolen at the bus station when he was leaving Kenya and upon arrival in Uganda he discovered he’d have to backtrack to Nairobi to fulfil insurance requirements. When he visited the orphanage, he found the situation had worsened. The children hadn’t been fed for more than a day and had minimal supervision. So he and his friend used the remainder of their travel money to buy some beds and books, and to fund medical treatment.

“Then we left and the director came back, put a padlock on the front door, kicked out all the kids and the two ladies who were caring from them… and walked away.”

By now, Woodward’s conscience wouldn’t let him give up on the children. He helped relocate them to a small farm outside of Nairobi and began fundraising once he got back to Sydney.

“I walked straight back into my boss’s office in Sydney, he asked me how my trip was, and I said I needed to go back to Kenya and I explained why.”

Then head of audit, Peter Nash FCA, now chairman of KPMG Australia, was initially dubious.

Once convinced, KPMG was “amazing” and paid Woodward half of his graduate wage while he returned to Kenya for two months to help the children. But he was unable to find orphanages for the children, with inappropriate solutions offered, including payment for pre-teen girls.

“It became apparent quickly that the only way to really take care of these kids would be to start a new orphanage, so that happened.”

A kickstart in life

Back in Australia, Woodward registered Kickstart Kids International as a charity to work with impoverished communities in sustainable ways. He established an orphanage in Nairobi in 2007, travelling there from Sydney 39 times in four years. This is now run entirely by locals — a rarity in Kenya, he says.

By 2009 the charity was ready to establish another facility, but Woodward was not keen on the traditional orphanage model.

“We have to start from the premise that each child deserves to have one adult who is absolutely crazy about them. You’re never going to get that in an institution. You’re also never going to get that if you take them straight off the street and force them into a family.”

He wanted to help break the poverty cycle and prevent further abandonment. So the charity built Olturoto Children’s Village to simulate a home environment, then reintegrate children into loving families.

The children

Woodward says on any given night there are 3,000 children in their district who need a bed. So how does the charity choose its children?

“We’ll take the worst of the worst cases. The little babies who don’t know what’s going on, they look cute, they’re easy to resettle. But the kids aged five to ten… they’re damaged goods.”

Kickstart Kids focuses on girls, who are considered less important than boys in the region. Children’s backgrounds include sexual abuse or having been kicked out onto the street. Many are HIV positive. He says a lot of the homeless children end up in the slums in Nairobi or in the sex trade.

“We’ve got others who stayed with a dead parent’s body for three days, not knowing what to do and drinking toilet water. They don’t know what it’s like to be in a normal family. We simulate that for them in preparation for them moving on, after a period of 18 months to two years, into a family.”

The quality of care is designed to replicate a Kenyan home environment with eight children in each of the four houses. The children have a carer, they go to school, and they have chores and responsibilities.

There are currently eight children in the village which will have the capacity to hold 32 children once all facilities are up and running.

A home away from the home

Woodward says while a lot of institutions consider their work done once they get children in the door, with Kickstart Kids, the aim is to get the children back out the door.

“From before day one we’re looking at how we’re going to reintegrate them into a family, where we’re going to do that, how do we prime that future family from now for the next two years to make sure they’re ready.”

Under a kinship adoption model, Kickstart Kids seeks to find someone from the child’s extended family, or their village, then work out how the community can take care of the child.

Towards self-sufficiency

Woodward, whose father and grandfather are CAs, has been based in Nairobi since 2014 as KPMG’s East Africa market lead for the infrastructure sector.

“It was way too senior for me,” he says of the East Africa role, but “the firm structured a role to give me the ability to be based in Nairobi.”

Woodward chuckles when asked how he juggles his fulltime role with his charity work, saying he tries to no longer say he cuts out sleep.

“I’m getting married this year and my fiancée doesn’t like me saying that because I also need to be making space for more things in my life.”

Openness and transparency with the people he works with has been key.

“They’re aware that I do have this other commitment. Very rarely do I need to do something on work time.”

He spends about an hour a day working on the charity, then all weekend, but plans to reduce his involvement to empower the local community.

“We’ve got a general manager now so what’s really important is the transition from my role in day-to-day management moving into a true, non-executive, trustee position.”

The personal nature of the work, and getting to know the children, has kept him going through challenges.

“It’s easy to think ‘I’m a chartered accountant and I have this skill set that doesn’t really seem naturally aligned to caring for orphaned children in Africa’.

“But through the skill sets that I’ve got I can absolutely make a difference and I can see it every single day. That just gives an incredible sense of purpose to every aspect of my life.”

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.

Ensuring sustainability

  • Sustainability key to future of farming

    The long term plan is for the local community to run Olturoto Children’s Village without international assistance.

    A commercial farming operation on site employs nine Kenyans and produces vegetables that are exported to the UK.

    “It’s not even frozen — it goes fresh — it leaves our farm at lunch time … and it’s landing in Birmingham at 6am, ending up on the shelves in Tesco by 9am,” Woodward says.

    A separate NGO has been established to run Olturoto Children’s Village and the farm.

    The village aims for zero emissions and minimises its environmental impact by using solar, wind and biogas energy and sourcing its own water, treating all waste on site.

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