Not Your Usual Summer
Ever since Jacob Shimkus was a little boy, he had dreamed of going to Africa. He’d asked his parents to paint animals and a jungle all over the walls of his room so he could pretend he was there, as he drifted off to sleep at night. His mother Deborah, also dreamed of going to Africa, her desire flamed by travels to South America with her father who studied and wrote books about reptiles.
Together this mother and son duo immersed themselves in humanitarian and environmental causes. They founded the activiist organizations Green Teens, Beyond Our Bubble, and The Teen Challenge, all uniting and educating young people and encouraging them to become involved in a world that was “Beyone Their Bubble.” Though these organizations were extremely successful, the call to the parched soil of Africa still called to them, and they searched for months to find the right “Africa connection” that would allow them to follow this passion.
So it was that on a night last October, they attended a presentation given by Kenya Keys (formerly Koins for Kenya) at Lakeridge High School. Anthony Yama, a schoolmaster from the bush of Kenya, talked about what it was like to long for an education and be locked out of opportunity by the bonds of poverty. He also shared how Kenya Keys had changed the face of his world by building libraries, providing scholarships, desks, and classrooms to an area once devoid of such luxuries. Jacob and his mother were captivated, as was Rishi Rajani, the president of Lakeridge’s Model U.N.
That’s when life began to change for another young man 12,000 miles away in Kenya. Stephen Kabani had grown up in the bush that Jacob had dreamed about as a child. One of eight children, he had known hardship a child from Lake Oswego could never have imagined, but he was determined to find a better life and he knew education was the key. Rising to the top of his class every year, he made it through primary school (grade 8). He passed the rigorous national exam with high marks, but his family’s inability to pay for him to go on to secondary school had left him grounded, like so many of his classmates. Refusing to be discouraged he made himself useful any way he could, helping his younger sibllings get through school. Five years he spent, hoping somehow he could return to school. The local Catholic priest had long respected Stephen. Stephen’s bright mind, his musical ability, and his extraordinary kindness had distinguished him, and Father Katana determined he would use his own scarce funds to get Stephen through secondary school. And he did. Despite the five years he’d spent out of school, Stephen soared through secondary school, soaking up every piece of knowledge he could acquire. Again, he performed well on the national exam. Again he was grounded due to lack of funds. Proceeding on to a university education seemed an unattainable dream, despite his bright mind and outstanding grades.
Come with me back to the Pacific Northwest, where Jacob Shimkus and Rishi Rajani had just heard the presentation by Kenya Keys. Stirred by a desire to help, Rishi asked how Model U.N. could help these kids who long for education. Jacob and Deborah knew they had found the organization they wanted to join forces with. Rishi and the students of Model U.N. decided they wanted to help by giving a university scholarship to Stephen Kibani. (Can you imagine the excitement when Stephen got this news?) Jacob decided he would somehow get to Kenya to meet these students in the bush and see how he and his mother could mobilize their considerable skills and connections to help.
And so it was that Jacob Shimkus of Lake Oswego was able to meet Stephen Kabani in Kenya during the summer of 2010. Jacob arrived with photos and letters from the Model U.N. students. Stephen stared in disbelief. Could it really be true that these young people across the world had really made it possible for him to attend the University of Nairobi to study business and economics? As I watched Jacob, tall and blonde, with Stephen, short, skinny and dark, share their stories, laugh, hug, and forge an amazing friendship, I was reminded of why it matters to build bridges across the world. The joy of making such a connection is indescribable. As Jacob and Stephen met with the students in our sponsorship program to assess their needs and give them motivational talks, it became apparent that Stephen had a gift. At first he was hesitant. “What do I say?” He’d never realized the power he had as a role model, or how gifted he was with words. With each speech he became more confident. He saw those young eyes locked on him. He saw in them the same longing for learning that had kept him going through the years.
“Jacob, my brother,” he said, “please tell your friends in America I can never thank them enough. Without them I never could have known what I was capable of. They have given me a future.”
What is Jacob’s next dream? To bring Stephen to Lake Oswego to share his stories with students of all ages. His story is not to be forgotten.