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From Ghana to Rwanda, Dublin High School Alum Kelsey Finnegan Leads with Hope

February 2, 2015
Kelsey hiking a volcano in Rwanda

Kelsey hiking a volcano in Rwanda

Of the hundreds of stories we’ve shared over the past five years, few are as inspiring as Dublin High School Class of 2007 graduate and UC Santa Barbara Class of 2012 alum Kelsey Finnegan.

Kelsey last spoke with us in April 2013, separated by continents and time zones, from a cafe in Kigali, Rwanda. Fast forward to 2015 and that’s where we reached Kelsey once again, the Skype connection less shaky but the vibrant, bustling backdrop of Rwanda’s capital unchanged.

It is remarkable to consider that just twenty years go Rwanda was in chaos amid one of the worst genocides in history which saw neighbors slaughter neighbors, leaving millions displaced and over 800,000 murdered. Twenty years ago Americans fled the country while their Rwandan friends and colleagues remained trapped in the chaos. In the years following the massacre, the Rwandan population fell by nearly 2 million as refugees poured into surrounding countries.

From this chaos, it is hard to imagine a better day is possible or that hope can be found. Yet hope survives, and Kelsey’s work with the non-profit Survivors Fund, the first organization focused on the challenges of Rwandan genocide survivors, is one of the reasons why. Kelsey is not only a Project Officer with Survivors Fund, but also the Director of the Happy Kids Orphanage and School in Ghana.

Our story begins in Ghana, were Kelsey’s journey in the African continent began back in 2009, while she was working towards a Bachelor of Communication with a minor in Global Peace & Security at UC Santa Barbara.

James Morehead: How has Happy Kids in Ghana expanded and grown since you first got involved with the organization?

Decorating Happy Kids for Christmas

Decorating Happy Kids for Christmas

Finnegan: “Happy Kids has grown a lot. When I first started working with Happy Kids, which I first visited in 2009 and started managing in 2010, they only had 12 kids living there, in a room the size of a closet. They didn’t have a school and had only one classroom, and the rest of the kids learned outside under the trees. The kids had never seen books. If you handed them a book they’d immediately tear it apart. It was absolute chaos, so in the beginning we were targeting very basic things – building bathrooms, getting running water, building a dormitory, classrooms and a library, and hiring educated teachers. We’ve also implemented projects with the goal of creating a self-sustaining organization.

“What’s interesting with Happy Kids is that when I started working with the organization I was 20 years old and had no idea what I was doing. As a result I just tried things that I thought would address their basic needs and generate income. As the years have gone by, I’ve grown as a person and as a professional, and so has the staff, so we’ve grown up together. For example, the woman who started Happy Kids is a very smart woman but had low literacy, and we had to work really hard on financial management and basic organizational skills in the beginning. We’re a much more organized non-profit from where we started.

“We have a number of projects now – an ongoing sewing project, an Internet cafe, the kids are farming, learning vocational skills, and we have a wide variety of animals. The organization is much more complex to manage now. When I started working with Happy Kids the kids were vulnerable and physically hungry. Today, I feel like they are normal kids. One of our oldest boys, Wisdom, was given an iPod by a volunteer and at Christmas wouldn’t stop reminding me that he needed a new iPod charger, which is so different from the problems the kids faced back in 2009! I think it’s great that we’ve crossed a line and the kids are no longer desperate. They have possibilities and opportunities.”

Morehead: What was it like seeing the kids experience the Internet for the first time, in their Internet Cafe?

Happy Kids child playing a violin

Emma – Happy Kids youngest child

Finnegan: “It was great, it was crazy! One of the things that was most shocking to the kids was the availability of knowledge. The kids spent hours thinking of random things to Google, even picking out random words from textbooks, and going to Wikipedia. One of our oldest girls spent the longest time reading about the anatomy of cells, and was shocked that she could type something into a Google search bar and look it up. I thought that was really amazing.

“I also found it really funny that I had to immediately start implementing rules for how the Internet was meant to be used as an educational tool. Everybody has mobile phones in this area and a lot of adults use social media. The kids had heard and seen Facebook, but had never experienced it. At one point the boys were telling me they wanted to create a Facebook account and I said ‘no, you’re too young, we’re going to use the Internet as an educational tool’. I left the cafe and five minutes later I had ten friend requests.

“I’ve been very surprised how incredibly quickly the kids have learned about technology. They do have an ICT (Information Communication Technology) class every week, but like normal kids somehow end up ahead of us. There have been times where I don’t know how to fix something on the computer, and one our kids will walk up and immediately fix it, and I think I’m pretty technology capable!”

Morehead: For people who are skeptical about how their dollars are used when given to charitable organizations, can you connect the dots with respect to how Happy Kids uses donated funds?

Finnegan: “We fundraise for specific projects, and fundraise separately for running costs, and all funds are used locally in Ghana. Running costs include food, teacher salaries, utility bills, etc. In terms of managing the organization there is me plus local management. Regardless of where funding is coming from, I think all organisations should be managed on the ground by local people who understand the context.

“When donating to a charity I believe it is important to focus more on the results of the work being done than the percentage of money that goes to administration fees. There’s too much emphasis placed on how much money is spent on a chief executive or director of a large international organization because large organizations wouldn’t function if that money wasn’t also going to administration. If an organization claims that no money went to admin fees then the organization is likely being mismanaged, because someone has to ensure donations are effectively spent on projects.

“When it comes to Happy Kids I’ve never been paid, and our Founder refuses to take a salary, as does our project manager. Because we’re so small, the majority of donations to Happy Kids go to projects, running costs like feeding our kids, and keeping the school going.”

Morehead: Do you see Happy Kids as a replicable model, or do your aspirations lie elsewhere?

Happy Kids in 2010

Happy Kids in 2010

Finnegan: “I think there are elements of Happy Kids and how the program has grown that are replicable, but I don’t think we’re ready to be a model facility quite yet. To be a model facility we’d need to be self-sustaining and not dependent on international donations. Because Happy Kids is an orphanage, school and NGO in one, it will always be difficult to become self-sustaining because feeding, clothing and housing 40 children is incredibly expensive. If Happy Kids were closer to Accra, the capital of Ghana, it would be much easier to access capital. For example, I’ve looked into growing high yield tomatoes which we could sell into a larger market like Accra, but if we grow the same tomato in HoHoe, where Happy Kids is located, nobody can afford to buy them. Development is contextual and as a result is hard to replicate in many cases.

“I stumbled into running Happy Kids and currently don’t have plans to create a second Happy Kids. It’s hard to explain how stressful it is to run an orphanage and a school, but it’s a lot. Happy Kids is very personal to me, and will always be my most important project, but my longer-term aspirations are aligned with the larger scale development and policy work that I’m pursuing in Rwanda. When running an orphanage it’s hard to be strategic because you are always dealing with the unexpected. These unexpected things can vary from larger issues to the kids needing new flip flops.

“For example, a few months ago a local farmer came and brought the kids a monkey, because everyone in the village knows that we have all kinds of animals – chickens, turtles, birds, rabbits, a dog. They adopted the monkey on a “trial basis” because they thought it would be fun. So then we had days where the monkey would escape and everyone would have to try to catch it. I then had to have a really serious (and comical) conversation with our program manager about how the monkey wouldn’t be beneficial nor income generating. Not to mention this was in the height of the Ebola crisis. So we got rid of the monkey. As much as I love those small things that give happy kids its character, looking forward, I’ll also be pursuing work in larger development and aid projects in conflict zones.”

Morehead: How did the Ebola crisis impact the work you are doing?

Income Generating Womens Group in Rwanda

Income Generating Women’s Group in Rwanda

Finnegan: “It didn’t affect us as much in Ghana or Rwanda. Africa is such an incredibly large continent and where the crisis was at its height was really far from Rwanda. While there was a lot of education, and screening systems put into airports, it didn’t impact Rwanda as much. Tourism has likely been impacted across the entire continent, even though that wasn’t rational. We tried to explain that people in the United States were closer to Ebola than people in Rwanda! Ghana is in West Africa and was much closer to the crisis, but the local government was very good at implementing local measures and managed to keep Ebola out of the country which was incredible. There were countrywide preventative measures in Ghana; all the teachers at Happy Kids, for example, had to attend mandatory Ebola training classes.

“One of the reasons that Ebola spread so quickly in Sierra Leone and Liberia is that their healthcare systems are incredibly weak. And while Ghana has challenges, we were confident that Ghana’s healthcare system could contain Ebola if there were cases.”

Morehead: Switching gears to your work in Rwanda, talk about the types of projects that play a role in conflict zones. 

Kelsey with widows of Rwandan genocide victims

Kelsey with widows of Rwandan genocide victims

Finnegan: “In Rwanda I work for Survivors Fund, the only international organization that exclusively supports Rwandan genocide survivors. We work through smaller in country NGO partners focused on survivors and implement projects through them. My role in Rwanda is very different from my role at Happy Kids, although at times the work is transferable. Survivors Fund also provides me experience working in a larger professional setting.

“I manage young adult projects including an entrepreneurship project and legal counseling project. We established the only helpline available in the country for survivors. I also monitor projects such as income generating groups for women’s groups. Over time my role has shifted to project management for initiatives related to young survivors recovering from the long-term effects of genocide, such as being so traumatized at a young age so that they couldn’t focus on school. A lot of survivors have legal issues related to land and property because when the genocide happened people fled and their land was taken or given away. We also give out goats, cows and solar lamps, as well as fund micro-businesses through micro-loans. It’s dynamic and always changing.

“In the beginning I was just monitoring and evaluating projects. I spent most of my first year traveling around the country and interviewing people. I visited a lot of farms and boutiques (90% of Rwanda’s economic activity is based in agriculture), and talked to hundreds of women about the difficulties related to garnering sustainable income. That time really built my understanding of the challenges survivors face at a grassroots level, and now I do more project design, management, and fundraising.

“Last April I was incredibly fortunate to attend the Kigali International Forum on Genocide, which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The event brought together world renowned leaders, politicians, researchers and genocide experts into one room. It was a three day event I attended with colleagues on behalf of Survivors Fund. We were the only representatives of victims and tried to remind the attendees that the consequences of genocide still affect the survivors in Rwanda, even 20 years later. Because of our direct experience with survivors I found people more willing to listen to what we had to say, and there is still a lot to be done to provide justice for survivors. On the last day of the conference I managed to get the microphone during the final panel question and answer period and make the case for survivors. This opened the door to having more conversations with key people and brought attention to the need to remember survivors of genocide on an international level.”

Morehead: Despite the years you’ve spent in Ghana and Rwanda, do you run into skepticism about your motivations or commitment to the projects?

Finnegan: “I’ve never experienced a negative reaction. In Survivors Fund we have a very participatory approach that in the end means survivors are helping other survivors, which I think is really important. It’s pretty funny, I’m really small – just 5’2″ and 100 pounds. I look like I’m still 18 years old and people are sometimes surprised when they meet me. I’m usually called ‘small girl’ as in ‘Hello, small girl, welcome and what are you doing here?’

“While there has sometimes been some hesitation in the beginning, it never takes long before people begin to trust me and realize I’m capable. I’m leading a new project in April, the largest I’ve run so far, with a significant budget and 25 employees. There hasn’t been a doubt from my boss or the organization I work for about my ability to lead the project. Although I sometimes have to remind myself that despite my age, I am the best person to lead the project. Even though it is a daunting task, I couldn’t be more committed and determined to make the project work, based on the 2.5 years I’ve spent working with and for these incredible people.” 

Morehead: What role does a university degree play in the work you do for charitable organizations? 

Finnegan: “I got involved in my work in Ghana during my sophomore year of college, so it was quite early. At the time it was important to tailor my degree to international work, even though there wasn’t an international development program at my school, but I did manage to take some courses that were relevant and helpful for me in the organizations I work in now.

“At the same time, development is very experience-based, but the field is professionalizing so having a degree is crucial. I will definitely hit a wall in my career if I don’t pursue a masters degree in the future, so an undergrad degree was that much more important.

“I was ready to graduate when the time came because it was tricky balancing working in Ghana and completing my studies. It was nice to graduate and pursue full-time what I really wanted to do, and not have to spend all my time in classes, even though I love the process of learning.”

Morehead: Do you have a preferred path to a masters degree at this point?

Finnegan: “I’m a planner so I’ve thought a lot about where I’d pursue a masters degree and what program I’d like to apply to because I realized early on how crucial a post graduate degree would be. My goal is to attend an Ivy League school, perhaps Columbia or Georgetown if I can get in – schools with excellent international affairs and development programs. I had planned to go back sooner, but my work in Rwanda keeps making me change my plans. I was originally planning to apply to grad school this fall, but the organization I’m with received another grant for the work we’re doing so I’m delaying grad school for a few more years.”

Morehead: Given your experience, what advice do you have for high school and college students that aren’t sure about their role in the world?

Finnegan: “While I think it’s important to everyone to feel like they have a purpose in life, not everyone has to be an activist or move to Africa, or accidentally adopt 40 kids. I think everyone can find a job they care about and want to do. I think it’s unfortunate that so many young people end up doing work they don’t enjoy, or don’t think is worthwhile. My goal has always been to do work that I believe is important and that doesn’t always mean I’ll make a lot of money. I think it’s very important to pursue what you are passionate about before focusing on making money because we have our whole lives to work. You have to be open, trust your instincts and make some sacrifices because you never know when or where you’ll find your purpose.”

Both Survivors Fund and Happy Kids Orphanage and School are non-profit organizations. Consider supporting both when making your charitable donations this year. Read more about Kelsey’s experiences in Africa here.

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  1. Africa News Headlines for 2 February 2015 | Sub-Saharan Monitor

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