It started with a finish line. It ended 17 years later, with a fresh start for dozens of children who weren’t likely to have one without Monique Boekhout.
“It’s mixed emotions because it has been my baby,” said the Kenya Orphanage Project founder, who recently announced the Lake Wylie nonprofit will dissolve. “I love those kids. I grow older as they grow up, together. So I have to let go now. But I let go knowing that I helped.”
Boekhout lives in Rock Hill now. For almost two decades in Lake Wylie she was the face of an organization that brought children out of Nairobi, Kenya, slums and offered them hope. Her organization fed and clothed them. KOP educated them. All because of a birthday run down a path Boekhout didn’t see coming but is glad she took.
How it began
Boekhout turned 50 in 2002. She decided to run the Chicago Marathon. She’d never been on a mission trip.
“I realized how many miles I would have to train and I decided I may as well raise money for that,” Boekhout said.
Her church didn’t have an international cause. A church in Charlotte did. Soon Boekhout was in touch with Kenyan organizations. In early 2003 she took the first of what would become annual trips there. Starting with the $75,000 raised from her marathon, Boekhout began a seven-year effort to build an orphanage.
“It has changed my idea of being poor, definitely,” Boekhout said. “You cannot be as poor as those people.”
Churches, social services and other options are available here, she said. At that time in Kenya, there was nothing.
“If you were born poor, you would remain poor all your life,” Boekhout said.
Boekhout organized teams to go with her. They saw trash everywhere, open sewage, hopeless conditions. The first task for more than 30 children was to get them to a church, give them a bath and shave their heads to get rid of lice.
“Mainly the kids came from the slums,” Boekhout said. “And we had the opportunity, the whole team, to go to the slums and see the conditions they were in. And if you think that there are poor people in the (United) States, you have to go over there to see what being poor means.”
Boekhout recalls cutting bananas in half and giving them to children. One small child put it into his mouth before others showed him he had to peel it first.
“He had no idea,” Boekhout said. “He had never seen a banana in his life.”
Boekhout remembers that first trip. A praise band rehearsed in the church. She had an awful headache. She didn’t feel good, didn’t smell good.
“I’m thinking, why in the world am I here?” Boekhout said. “I should be at home, you know, playing tennis or playing golf. And then that little one took my arm and put it around him, and he looked at me and he smiled. And he had no front teeth. I knew why I was there at that time.”
House of Hope
While working toward the orphanage, Boekhout’s board in Lake Wylie and Kenyan partners Jubilee Children’s Center came to crossroads on how money should be spent. She reevaluated. In 2009 KOP partnered with House of Hope, a new boarding school for more than 300 children.
Boekhout’s group paid for school uniforms, shoes, field trips. They helped with sports equipment and musical instruments. KOP funded some of those items not just for the few dozen children it enrolled and supported — KOP agreed to sponsor 10 more in 2018 — but for the entire school.
“We have been instrumental in the lives of at least 350 kids,” Boekhout said.
All of the original 35 children sponsored by KOP at House of Hope in 2009 were given the opportunity to go to college. In 2015 one child, Rosemary, graduated from Kenyatta University with a hospitality degree. In 2016 KOP opened the 3M Skills Center, a 6,500-square-foot facility.
“When we first started to take kids, we were wondering what are we going to do with the kids if they don’t go to college, if they just finish high school and then, boom, they go back to the slums,” Boekhout said. “So we decided it would be good for them to learn a skill.”
Children can take up to two, two-year skills programs in four years of high school.
“We offer carpentry, welding, tailoring, baking, farming, animal husbandry, auto mechanics and computer repair,” Boekhout said.
A dozen children graduated skills programs. Six are finishing various stages of college now, including two in four-year programs. Paths vary greatly, but they aren’t leading KOP children back to the slums. Unless, of course, they want to visit.
“We have school teachers, we have a farmer, we have a seamstress, we have a social worker,” Boekhout said. “We have an entrepreneur, Rosemary, she works for hospitality and on the side, in the slums where her mother lives, she has a little business selling cosmetics.”
House of Hope is now a complex. It recycles water. Children have tablets and Internet access. There’s technology turning cow manure into gas used for cooking. And there’s plenty of cow manure.
“The dairy farm is very important at the House of Hope,” Boekhout said. “And we bought additional cows, and we’re going to buy the equipment. They were milking by hand. So now they have milking machines, they have refrigeration by now, and we’re buying additional equipment to make cheese and yogurt.”
Three years ago Sharon Odemba visited Lake Wylie. She earned a degree in counseling psychology from Kenyatta University thanks to KOP. Having graduated high school in 2004, Odemba was too old for KOP to fund her education by the time Boekhout started it. So KOP hired Odemba in 2009 to help the younger children.
Having to figure out her own path after her mother died, Odemba understands the challenge orphans there face. And, why KOP is so important.
“It’s giving them hope,” Odemba said during her visit. “They learn to dream and dream big.”
Monique and husband Bob returned from that 2003 trip and gave a presentation at River Hills Community Church. Bob still recalls the impassioned call then associate pastor Bob Young gave. All 35 children were sponsored that night.
“Those sponsors just stuck with us,” Bob Boekhout said.
Then came the Kilimanjaro trip. A group — including then Fort Mill Times writer Mac Banks and Herald photographer Jim Stratakos — went to scale the highest mountain in Africa in 2006 to raise money for KOP. They also visited children and slums in Kenya. The trip generated more than $100,000 and an endowment.
“That fundraiser gave us the ability to build a skills center,” Bob Boekhout said.
It also gave them faces. Banks, now a freelance sportswriter for The Herald, and Stratakos, in particular, took award-winning photos from the trip. Some later made a book. The Boekhouts would use those image for years when explaining why KOP existed.
“They really showed what life is in the slums,” Monique Boekhout said. “You had the misery at the time of AIDS. AIDS was epidemic there. You had those little kids playing in the sewage. He has a picture of a lady who had AIDS and was dying, and her face was dying. So we could really show that to the people.”
Sometimes people question why Monique or anyone else would devote so much time and energy to Africa, when there are people in need much closer to home. The pictures helped make the case.
“They don’t understand the difference,” Bob Boekhout said. “If those kids could live like the poorest kids here, they would be so thankful. It’s so severe it’s unbelievable.”
More people than not, Monique said, understood. Especially people in Lake Wylie and Clover, where KOP joined organizations like Sweet Repeat, Habitat for Humanity and Clover Area Assistance Center.
“If they see a good project, they identify it and then they stick with it,” Monique said.
The Boekhouts tally a combined about 30 trips to Kenya.
“It’s getting to the point where I don’t really have a reason to go to Kenya,” Monique said.
Before dissolving the nonprofit she spoke with House of Hope leaders. KOP provided enough money for its original children to finish college. The 10 more children added two years ago will be able to finish high school. The change provides the Boekhouts more time at home.
“It wasn’t all pleasant,” Bob said of the 8,000-mile, often tiresome trips with an eight-hour time difference. “It was never a vacation to go to Kenya.”
Her hope is the money will continue to improve the lives of more generations of children.
“I will die promoting education because it’s the key to your future,” Boekhout said. “It doesn’t mean you have to go to college. But you have to be educated in one field. It can be plumbing or electrician, but you must be educated. Otherwise you have no future.”