Here is an interview with our founder, Lori Wood, about how WH got started.
It was the Summer of 2000. I was turning 40—looking at life, meaning, impact. I was looking for a way to make a difference, a way to give back. Living in Michigan where it gets very cold in the winter, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be without warm clothes or shelter in such a harsh environment. I decided to give out warm gloves and scarves at a local soup kitchen downtown at Thanksgiving. I chose the name Warm Hearts Foundation and got right to work. I bought the gloves and made the fleece scarves myself. I wanted the recipients to know someone cared so I attached a tag, which simply said: “With Love from Warm Hearts Foundation.”
In the summer of 2001 while I was working on my next batch of gloves and scarves for distribution at Thanksgiving, I saw a story on TV about a young boy who had been instrumental in drilling a water well in an impoverished village somewhere in the world. To this day I don’t know where it was but the impact was incredible! Over the next 6 months, the idea would NOT leave me alone! The impact one young boy had on the health and well being of an entire village thousands of miles away was astounding! Could I possibly do something like this? Could Warm Hearts Foundation impact lives in such a profound and uplifting way?
Fast forward to May of 2002, I met up with a group I had found online that was taking volunteers to Kenya, led by Kindee Dixon (who has been on the WH board since the beginning). The organization had drilled water wells in the past, however, this trip was not about water. The purpose of the trip was to deliver medical supplies, school supplies and to work in the schools. I was excited to get on the ground in Kenya to see what the needs were.
We spent most of our time at one particular school in Molo, Kenya. As our time was drawing to a close there, the Director of the school decided to take a couple of us down to see the dormitories where the high school girls lived. We stood outside the lavatory which consisted of stalls with holes in the ground. I asked the Director about a tall stack of plastic buckets in the corner. He explained that each morning the high school girls had to get up at 4am to load huge canisters onto a truck which then drove to find water. When the truck got back they would each get their bucket of water (the size of a 2 liter Coke bottle) for drinking and bathing for the entire day. It was a dangerous situation. Girls were being hospitalized with water borne diseases. His next words were: “What we really need to do is to drill a water well!” What?!?! Of course!
The Director had already done all the Engineering and had all the plans in place to drill a water well and build an entire plumbing, sanitation and irrigation system for the school. He just needed someone to raise the funds to make it a reality. I had no hesitation in promising on the spot to go home and do everything in my power to make it happen no matter how long it took.
Thanks to hundreds of generous donors from all across the US, in December of 2003, Warm Hearts Foundation announced the success of our first project in partnership with dedicated locals on the ground in Kenya to drill a water well and build a plumbing, sanitation and irrigation system that would uplift the whole community.
Once the well project was complete, the school was self-sustaining. They didn’t need us anymore so what was next for Warm Hearts? Kindee suggested we visit a school a young couple had started outside Nairobi. She thought we should meet them and see what they were creating. The school was called Kwa Watoto Centre and School.
Nehemiah Ndeta and Carolyne Daisy were creating an oasis of love and learning in the middle of very challenging circumstances in the Soweto slums of Nairobi. We were taken with them, taken with the children and taken with what they were creating. We knew right away we wanted to assist them with their dream at Kwa Watoto. There were many needs. The most urgent was that there were 14 children they had identified as desperately needing a place to live. We agreed to partner on a project to open Warm Hearts House, a safe house for the children. By the time we opened there were 18 children. We started out in rented space around the corner from the school. In 2006, again, thanks to many generous donors in the US, we were able to build our own house right on the grounds of Kwa Watoto which was wonderful for the children!
Today, two of the Warm Hearts “kids” have graduated from Medical School and are practicing Medicine, four have completed College, five are studying in Trade and Technical Schools, two are taking advanced studies in the US and the two youngest are completing Secondary School. Several are contributing further to their country and culture by participating in nonprofits that serve the less fortunate and others are involved in music and athletic accomplishments. We couldn’t be more proud of them!
HOW DID WARM HEARTS START WORKING IN MALAWI?
While raising funds for the first water well project in Molo, Kenya, several people I spoke to mentioned a young man named Clement Chiwaya from Malawi who was studying nearby at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids. They said he was doing similar work in Africa. He was planning to go back to Malawi to lead his village after graduating from Aquinas in December of 2003. I met with Clement. He and his story were very inspiring. When he went back to Malawi, he emailed me with a proposal to build a school in an area in his District where children were walking 2 hours to get to the nearest school. It sounded like a great project. Since we were going to Kenya in January of 2004, we decided to add on a side trip to Malawi to explore it further.
When we arrived at the proposed site of the school, we found out that water was a serious problem. The villagers were using the contaminated river for all their needs. Water borne diseases were running rampant. It was also very dangerous because there were crocodiles in the river. We were excited to get started on the school, but, clearly we had to get a water well drilled first. Right up my alley!
As of today, we have drilled 325 water wells in villages and near schools in Malawi which they call bore holes. These are deep water wells which are professionally drilled, ensuring a safe quality of water. In the beginning, we had plaques made for each well which said SHARE A CUP OF OUR LOVE.
We are privileged and honored to be in a position to assist in providing a safe source of water for hundreds of thousands of villagers in Malawi.
During that trip to Malawi in 2004, we also traveled to visit the site of a proposed project to build a school for children who were currently walking 2 hours to get to the nearest school. Upon arrival, in Namatanda village, it became clear that the first order of business was to get a water well drilled to give the villagers access to safe water. Once the water crisis was handled for the village, we could go back to the school project.
The villagers demonstrated their commitment to the school project by hand carrying thousands of bricks up the mountain to the school site in their village. It was incredible to see the pile of bricks when we arrived after our harrowing ride up the mountain in a truck! Their excitement about the project and what it would do for the children and the village was contagious. The villagers were singing and joyfully celebrating nonstop during our visit! I wish you all could have experienced it!
We got together with the village elders and through a translator, decided to go off separately on our own to think about what we would like to name the school. As you may know, Malawi just happens to be called the Warm Heart of Africa so we had that in common already! When we reconvened, we each shared our suggestion. Theirs was Chiyembekezo School. Ours was the School of Hope. The translation of Chiyembekezo School is: The School of Hope! We all had the very same choice! Perfect! To date, 4500 students have benefited from the School of Hope which opened its doors in January of 2005 for grades 1-4 and expanded to include grades 5-8 in January of 2006.
Since 2010, WH has greatly expanded the kinds and number of projects in both Malawi and Kenya. If you would like to read summaries of the WH programs today, click here.