After Sue Vaickauski returned from a trip to Kenya in 2004, she couldn’t sleep at night.
“When you see children eating grass because they’re so hungry, it haunts you,” Vaickauski said.
The Westmoor School secretary traveled to Africa because her daughter, Maryanna Gibbs, was working on a master’s thesis on Kenyan cooperatives and talked her mother into coming along. Vaickauski and Gibbs, who is now a seventh-grade math teacher at Viking School in Gurnee, spent six weeks in Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, then two weeks in a rice farm. The extreme poverty Vaickauski saw was unforgettable, she said.
She describes trash piled up so high it nearly covered people’s houses, up to 12 people living in nine-foot-square cardboard shacks, and an unemployment rate of 80 percent. One bright spot for Vaickauski, however, was Spurgeons School. Started by a former street boy in Kibera, Fred Outa, the school provides education to 420 orphans who range in age from two-year-olds to eighth graders. For many students, the one meal the school provides is the only meal they eat that day.
“I literally could not sleep at night until I decided to do something,” she said.
So Vaickauski decided she wanted to set up a foundation to support the school—and she enlisted her own school to help. Westmoor School adopted Spurgeons School as a sister school the same year Vaickauski returned from Africa. And Vaickauski and Gibbs officially launched the Fred Outa Foundation in 2006, which has sent $70,000 to Kibera to provide food and medicine for the orphans and help maintain the school. The foundation’s latest initiative is to build a high school for girls.
“Basically, girls are sold. They’re sold to older men who have money to make money for the family,” Vaickauski explained. “Our dream is that they become nurses and teachers and doctors and lawyers.”
The Fred Outa Foundation is supported by private donors as well as a yearly concert held by Northbrook School District 28. This year’s concert will be held Jan. 28 from 6:50 to 8:30 p.m. at Northbrook Junior High School. Traditionally, the concert features performances by District 28 bands. This year’s lineup includes Westmoor teacher Chris Lundholm, the Northbrook Junior High School band teachers, Glenbrook North band 42 and Northbrook Junior High bands Axidents and Radio Edit.
The school fundraiser is not just a fun event for kids; it’s also a way for the students to learn about poverty abroad—and about what they can do to effect change.
"Our kids are pretty limited in terms of understanding what a global crisis is like, what life in a Kibera slum is like," said Carol Hirsh, Westmoor School teacher and Student Council sponsor. Members of the student council will be hard at work Friday night, painting faces, selling t-shirts and collecting tickets.
"They're hungry for engagement," Hirsh said.
During presentations last week at District 28 schools, students got a chance to see how their hard work had already changed the school. Showing before and after pictures from Spurgeons School, Vaickauski explained how the school’s old walls with holes were replaced with new, freshly painted red and white wooden walls, and how a dirt playground that created lots of dust and aggravated asthma was replaced with a clay surface with grooves in it that allows runoff during the rainy season and prevents mosquitoes from living in standing water.
"This is a great way to bring the world to kids," Hirsh said.
Of the $70,000 the organization has sent to Spurgeons School thus far, $30,000 has come from funds raised over the years at the concert, Vaickauski said. Admission is $10 and includes pizza, water, the concert and a glow-in-the dark jelly ring. The school will also sell pizza and baked goods before the concert begins, starting at 6:15 p.m.
Editor's Note: This article has been edited to include information about Westmoor's Student Council.