Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction • Humanitarian
By Marie Sutton
When Grace Jepkemboi, Ph.D., delivered the keynote address at a United Nations conference in New York City in March, she took inspiration from a small village in her native Kenya.
It’s the same village that rallied around her and her seven siblings when her mother died. Jepkemboi was just 10 years old and heartbroken, but the village swarmed in with love and support, she says. That is the custom in Africa when a child experiences a loss, she explains, and it’s the reason why there were no orphanages in her community. “It was unheard of because the community raised the children,” Jepkemboi says.
Today, however, orphanages exist in her village and hundreds of others across Africa. HIV/AIDS has left thousands of children orphaned and with no one to rally around them. “When both of your parents die, it can destroy your destiny,” Jepkemboi says.
She is determined to do something about that, and as a faculty member in UAB’s School of Education, she knows the solution: “Education is the most powerful tool you can give a person,” she says. “Feeding them is OK, but they finish that meal, and the next day they will be hungry.” While it is important to meet daily needs, focusing on empowering a person to be self-sustaining and independent in the years to come is more profitable, says Jepkemboi, who first came to UAB as a student in 2003. She received her Ph.D. in child development, child advocacy, and early childhood education from UAB in 2007.
The following year, Jepkemboi founded the Kenya Heritage Foundation (KHF), with a goal to “give every child a chance at life.” The organization supports children and families affected by HIV/AIDS through education—providing children with school supplies, shoes and clothing, power breakfasts, and financial assistance to stay in school. In addition, it encourages community empowerment and poverty eradication by helping families become self-sufficient through sustainable projects. It also promotes health through partnerships with local hospitals to provide medicine and home-based care to people with HIV/AIDS, provides adequate nutrition to people affected by HIV/AIDS, and works to improve food and water security.
In 2011, the foundation supported 20 children and adopted two families, one of which included a grandmother raising nine children by herself.
Several School of Education faculty serve on the KHF board of directors, and friends in UAB’s Department of Social Work and School of Public Health also help with the program. Last year, UAB students in the Kappa Delta Epsilon education fraternity raised enough funds to help six Kenyan children.
Jepkemboi shared information about KHF in her United Nations address, which could raise the foundation’s profile and help her realize bigger goals: to build a boarding school for girls in Kenya, establish a training facility for teachers, and provide seed money for families to develop sustainable projects. Jepkemboi says her work honors the village that helped her when she needed them years ago. “It takes a whole village to raise a child, and the whole village raised me,” she says. “I did not grow up thinking people didn’t care for me.”