Australian College of Applied Psychology (ACAP) graduate Jade O’Brien spent September 2016 in the hectic dual role of student and trainer. As she approached completion of her Diploma of Community Services (Case Management) studies, the former English language teacher and founder of Kenyan charity, Freedom Write Inc. (FWI) was also busy conducting orientation for four fellow students and ACAP teacher, Tim Cunningham, as they prepared for their first trip to East Africa as community volunteers.
The crew of six will work side-by-side with local project leaders and community members on initiatives Jade commenced solo, in 2011. Back then, while working in Africa, Jade realised she had the opportunity to contribute far more than teaching a new language to the Kenyan community where she was immersed in a job she loved.
Empowerment through wellbeing
Jade’s organisation began with small steps towards educating locals about essential life skills they were missing in basic health management and wellbeing. Today, FWI has grown to become a nurturing entity of local and Australian contributors of time, expertise and sponsorship empowering a community of enthusiastic learners.
“I was teaching in a small village school in the west of Kenya and was moved into action when I realised the simple health knowledge many of my students, their families and my colleagues were lacking, especially in the areas of hygiene, puberty and sexual education, stress and grief. The youth also had an insatiable curiosity about my culture and lifestyle in Australia,” she said.
“Freedom Write Inc. was started with one, and then two programs which were focused on health and cross-cultural communication, and it evolved from there.”
In the five years since it began, Jade and her small team have expanded FWI’s services to include health and sexual education programs at primary and secondary schools, individual and family counselling, home repairs, sponsorships covering school fees, and training in social enterprise to sustain local economic independence.
Learning by letter-writing
Unsurprisingly, given Jade’s background teaching English, literacy started out as a high priority on the FWI agenda. Activities to improve speaking, reading and writing in English remain key attractions for young Kenyan participants in the group’s programs, particularly the pen-pal program connecting Kenyan teenagers with Australians.
“Our pilot program, the International Letter Exchange Program (ILEAP) initiated an ever-strong partnership between Kenya and Australia. We distribute letters from Australia to teenagers who've developed global friendships for years and countdown the days until the next replies arrive,” said Jade.
“The growth of friendships and cultural awareness built in to ILEAP led to our Australian volunteers forming the first FWI Board, organising fundraisers and community events and becoming personally connected. The cause was personal for all those who had gained a friend in Kenya, and the Kenyan students knew their story was finally being shared.”
This enthusiasm for learning English is harnessed in a program where the Kenyan youth involved in ILEAP help to teach English to village elders, under the supervision of FWI leaders.
Adventures ahead for ACAP graduates
During study at the ACAP Melbourne campus, the conversation among Jade’s cohort naturally turned to FWI’s objectives and achievements in Kenya. As practical examples of the potential for community services and their evolution in real-world scenarios, Jade’s colourful stories inspired four classmates and one teacher to put their skills and textbook theories to the test on the ground in Kenya, from October.
“The students in my class often heard from me about my work in Kenya in relevance to the course. They are all new to the welfare sector and thought volunteering for FWI would be the perfect initial exposure to the industry, having all had prior interest in travel and aid work in Africa,” said Jade.
“I feel really honoured to have the opportunity to show these students our work at FWI and to introduce them to the stunning culture of the Kenyan people.”
The volunteers’ duties will directly relate to their studies as counselling, case management, program development and policy creation will feature among hands-on tasks while at FWI. But according to Jade, woven into this satisfying practical work – and the ubiquitous dust, mud and mosquitoes – she promises the visitors many unique personal rewards.
“The volunteers can expect the warmest welcome they’ve ever experienced, laughter, soccer, food that has been cooked with love, friendly curiosity and stories that will change them, open their eyes and touch their hearts. As well as the chance to truly make a difference,” she said.
Taking theory to the field
In December Jade will hand over her Kenyan-based duties to Melbourne ACAP teacher, Tim Cunningham. It will be Tim’s first trip to Africa, where he will stay until February, working with the FWI program manager to build programs and work on policies.
Though Jade had laid the foundations of FWI ahead of her case management qualification, she has relied on her studies to fine-tune her procedures and sustain future growth. She has found little cross-cultural barrier to practising her new skills overseas.
“The processes of Program Development, reflective practice principles and OH&S, including having strong practice standards, are areas from my studies that affect my work in Freedom Write Inc.,” said Jade.
“The Australian course content is relevant in so many ways in Kenya and other nations, in the way it empowers you to approach a situation with a client and in the ethos of welfare work, though some aspects need to be tweaked to suit cultures and systems.”
The course content highlight for Jade was the skill underpinning success in every profession: communication.
“I love learning about communication – in all of its forms. ACAP's course had wonderful subjects that highlighted the subtleties of communications, especially in body language, that I believe every person should study, no matter their field,” she said.
“I think the simplest, most ‘common’ bits of knowledge, like how we communicate, can have the biggest impact and in a culturally diverse society this knowledge is essential.”
Being taught by such authentic and experienced educators at ACAP was a genuine privilege.
Launching new talents abroad
Liz Mousley is one of Jade’s four former Diploma of Case Management classmates heading to Kenya. She plans a stay of between four and six weeks and looks forward to applying and comparing her home-based volunteering expertise to an unfamiliar environment.
“I decided to go to Kenya because I was curious about experiencing life in another culture. I love traveling, but I've only ever been a tourist in other first-world countries,” said Liz.
“I've volunteered at crisis relief organisations in Melbourne, so I've worked with a good deal of people experiencing or recovering from homelessness, poverty, drug dependency and domestic violence. It's going to be very interesting to see what hardship looks like in another country, and how people cope with it.”
The FWI volunteers completed a pre-departure orientation session run by Jade, who outlined their roles, the various programs’ objectives, the general health risks of the region and the cultural considerations to observe. The team members were invited to discuss how they wanted to focus their skills and experiences during their stay and were assigned roles to best suit those preferences and desires.
“While I'm in Kenya, I will be working in a case manager role with a few of the kids; getting to know them one by one and helping them decide on goals,” said Liz.
“I’ll also be teaching classes on feminine hygiene and I hope to also teach an art course to help the kids harness their creativity. My prior learning is in creative art and it’s still a huge passion of mine. I'd love to take some of that passion with me to Kenya.”
ACAP will report on the FWI volunteers’ achievements and adventures as the graduates return from Kenya between November 2016 and February 2017. Like us on Facebook to view their photos and watch their video blogs. To find out more about the charity, visit the Freedom Write Inc. website.