Name: Kellie O’Brien
Family: Husband Barry, four children, eight grandchildren.
Profession: Owner of English Gardens, founder of the O’Brien School for the Maasai.
To help: Tax deductible cash donations can be made directly to The O’Brien School. For more information or to donate, go to www.obrienschool.org.
Far from the city lights, the crowded streets and the political banter on television, children’s laughter and song fill the air of a Maasai village in Tanzania.
Their homes are made of cow dung, their meals are cooked over a homemade fire and their only toys, if any, are sticks and wheels of wire.
Kellie O’Brien left behind her Chicago suburban life at the end of 2005 to travel with her daughter to Tanzania in hopes of making a difference. She returned home with 300 children in her heart.
While there, O’Brien discovered a Maasai village that wanted nothing more than a good school for its children. Restricted by the government and no longer able to be a nomadic tribe, more than 80 percent of the Maasai are illiterate as they spend their days herding cattle to survive.
O’Brien fell in love with the children the first day she arrived.
"I think what I feel when I am with the Maasai children is their complete innocence," O’Brien says. "They are filled with joy when you simply stop and acknowledge them. … I love their big smiles, and they so love to hold your hand and be connected to you."
In January 2006, O’Brien promised to build a school. She returned a year later for the opening of the first three classrooms. Since then, with the help of family, friends and contributions, she has not only constructed six classrooms for nearly 300 students but also built the village a library, health clinic and women’s center.
The O’Brien School for the Maasai is not only providing the tools for the children to read and write, it is giving them the opportunity to take their lives beyond the pastures.
Many government schools in Tanzania are crammed with 100 students per classroom and have virtually no teaching aids. In contrast, O’Brien’s classrooms are filled with visuals, which help children understand concepts for the first time—whether that be an airplane they’ve never seen or a snowman far removed from their 86-degree heat.
"This is why it is so important to have a school that has a library; they need books to show them what is outside of their village," O’Brien says.
Help for the children
O’Brien, or "Mama Kellie" as the village calls her, is motivated by spirituality. While her life remains busy at home—9,000 miles away from her Maasai family—she continues to pray for them daily. She knows she’s made progress in the village, but her personal journey is never-ending as she constantly brainstorms new projects to help improve the Maasais’ lives.
One of the most joyful parts of returning to Tanzania each year is when she first arrives—men, women and children gather around her, shaking her hand, giving her hugs and singing her praises. The children stand up as a class, welcoming her back by singing, "We love you, Mama Kellie."
Growing up in a large family, O’Brien says she always felt very loved and taken care of by her parents. These children, she says, also feel that way.
To the Maasai, children are considered gifts from God, and O’Brien says that with such large families, the parents are strict, and obedience and respect become innate. In her years of traveling to her long-distance family, she has never heard one parent shouting at a child to behave; the children know what is expected of them and they don’t disobey their parents’ rules.
"Seeing so many examples of bad parenting (in the U.S.) makes me wonder if parents realize that if they just stopped what they were doing and paid attention to their children, even for a few minutes, children would not have to ‘act out’ so often to get their parents to notice them," O’Brien says. "Sometimes it is difficult to be wise enough to not give our children so much that they lose the basic values of just being good, honest human beings."
Much of the Maasai village’s possessions are donations from local Chicago families. So far three containers, each the size of a semi-truck, filled with everything from desks and school supplies to food and shoes, have been distributed throughout the village.
"Each trip seems to leave our village just a little bit better off because of the efforts of so many," O’Brien says.
After turning on the electricity for the first time in January, O’Brien returned with another group this past spring to continue working on building a well and garden for the school. Since much of Tanzania is experiencing a drought, the garden, nourished by the well, is already providing food for the village.
Over the next year, O’Brien plans to raise enough money to purify the well water for drinking and build a teachers’ dorm. She also hopes to expand the school to include six more classrooms as more than 200 children are already on the waiting list to attend her school.
Like all the parents in this Maasai village and across the world, O’Brien wants nothing more than to give each child the opportunity to succeed.
Alexa Jenner is a freelance writer living in Chicago.