GRAFTON, Mass. - Sarah and Phil Boyer followed their dreams to Africa -- and now they're hoping to make the dreams of a Kenyan village a reality.
The Grafton couple are the founders of the Open Minds and Hearts Foundation, a charity formed to build and maintain a school in the small village of Kokoth Kateng, a poor community in western Kenya near Lake Victoria.
"We don't want to look like the big white people coming in with all the money," Sarah Boyer said. "It doesn't give the community any independence. We want them to feel that this school belongs to them. We've made decisions based on what the community says it needs."
The Boyers' journey to Africa began in a roundabout way. Phil, raised in Ohio, met Sarah, raised in England, at Lehigh University, where they married in the chapel. The new couple moved to Great Britain for what they thought would be only a few years as Phil started his career in the pharmaceutical industry and Sarah worked as a psychology teacher.
They were living comfortably -- but something was missing.
In 2003, Sarah took a sabbatical from her job to travel to Tanzania with a volunteer organization, where she taught English.
"Africa's always been a draw for me," Sarah said. "I've always been fascinated with it."
It also became a fascination for her husband after he visited her there. After a similar volunteer trip to Ecuador, the pair made the decision to drop their lives in England entirely and head to Kenya, where Phil began working with a provider of an anti-malarial drug.
Sarah again turned to volunteer work. And then she met Edward Odhiambo.
"Edward was working as a teacher, but his heart was back in his village (Kokoth Kateng)," Sarah said. "There wasn't a lot of work there for him. There is poverty, there is AIDS. Their economy relied on fishing, but the water hyacinth has taken over the lake."
Education is key to getting out of poverty in Kenya, but there's a catch. While there is technically free primary education in the country, there are also school uniforms -- and any child who is too poor to buy a uniform is turned away from the school.
"Having a school uniform lets you in the school. It's kind of a status symbol," Sarah said. "And then there are fees for textbooks and exercise books. At one school, they were even asking parents to pay for the child's desks."
There was no primary school in Kokoth Kateng and no one could afford the "free" school.
"I talked about it with Phil and said 'We don't have the money. So why don't we try to raise the money ourselves?'" Sarah recalled.
The Open Hearts and Minds Foundation was founded in Kenya in 2009, with the Boyers raising money both in Kenya and through the efforts of friends and family. When the Boyers moved to Grafton so Phil could work at a pharmaceutical company in Hopkinton, they began the process of qualifying their charity for tax-exempt status.
The hope is to eventually build a school in the village but they realized the best way to show the need for a school was to... well, have a school. To get the charity off the ground, the couple and Odhiambo held a community meeting in the village, under a big tree, to discuss the options.
"We wanted them to not only feel like they were involved with this but actually be involved," Sarah said. "We kept telling them that we didn't have the money, but we could raise it. We wanted them to help us raise this school up."
A mud hut once used as a church became a school house for 10 children, chosen by Odhiambo and the village chief from the poorest families, in 2009. The hut's walls were repaired, a crude outhouse was constructed and a kitchen was established just outside. The kitchen was a key component of the school: the students cannot learn on empty stomaches, so they arrive to a snack of fruit, a bowl of uja (a thin cereal) and have a hot meal and milk for lunch.
Overall, the cost per child for the school: $360 a year or $30 a month. The couple worked out sponsorships for each child in the 2009 class and again for the 10 children who joined them in 2010. A third class of 10 will be added in January.
"The children's progress has been amazing," Sarah said. "When we went back to see them and I saw the school as a school for the first time -- I walked into the room and, for the first time in my life, I was literally speechless. It was covered with posters. The children were singing. It was a classroom."
There has been sadness. One of the more promising children died of cholera. Another was diagnosed HIV-positive, acquired from her mother, who died of AIDS. The charity is now paying for her medication, as well as mosquito netting for families who are vulnerable to malaria.
"There are so many things we want to do all at once, but we can only do so much," Sarah said.
The charity is looking for help to establish a website and continuing to fundraise while keeping their costs low.
Back in the United States, Phil's sister, Barbara, was raising money for the foundation by making bangle bracelets with hand-made glass beads. Sarah, in turn, taught Barbara and Phil's other sisters how to make Maasai bracelets, colorfully beaded and woven. Together, they started a fundraising project for Open Hearts and Minds they call Shanadada Jewelry, named for the Swahili term "bead sisters." They have also been selling Kanga Kan bags, crafted by women in the village.
"People seem to really value them as gifts," Sarah said, showing off the garage workshop where she crafts the flat glass beads. Her sisters-in-law have had luck selling them at local fairs and farmers' markets; Sarah herself sold them at the Grafton Farmers Market for the first time last week.
For more information about the Open Hearts and Minds Foundation, email email@example.com.