School of Arts and Sciences

Education major learns life lessons volunteering in Kenya

Monday, December 07, 2009

Education major Michael Suppa with students in Kenya.

When Michael Suppa decided to spend part of his summer vacation in Kenya, teaching children who had been abandoned as a result of HIV/AIDS, he took the first step on a life-changing journey.

The Point Park elementary education major says he became intrigued by the story of Hekima Place, a boarding school in Kenya's Southern Rift Valley that provides a stable home and education for girls who have been orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS. Founded by Pittsburgher Kate Fletcher, the school is supported by donations, including the efforts of volunteer teachers. 

Before coming to Hekima, many of the girls had spent time in other homes where mistreatment and rape were common. Hekima's mission is to provide a chance to mature and learn in a place of safety and love. "It is inspiring that Ms. Fletcher made so many sacrifices, including selling everything she owned, to move to Africa to help these girls," says Suppa. "It was an opportunity to be part of that."

A visit to a baby elephant sanctuary in Kenya.

Suppa spent five weeks last July and August living at the orphanage as a volunteer teacher. He spent most of his time helping third graders learn such subjects as math, science, social studies, French and English. "My main role was to provide reinforcement of English, which for most is their third language and very difficult to learn." It was an eye-opening experience. Electricity is rarely used and school materials are in short supply. Students were thrilled when he brought in some rubber erasers, for example. In spite of the challenges, he says, they love learning.

 "I appreciated the time we spent getting to know the girls and their stories," recalls Suppa. "For example, many had watched their own mothers die. Others had been raped at other orphanages before coming to Hekima. Their stories are very compelling."

Before returning to Pittsburgh, Suppa had the opportunity to experience other aspects of African life, such as a memorable visit to a baby elephant sanctuary and a giraffe center. He also participated in a three-day safari and visited the city of Mombasa. But his most enduring memory, he says, was the privilege of teaching the girls of Hekima Place.

 "I am so fortunate to have had this experience," says Suppa, who is a member of the Green and Gold Society, the Future Educators of America, and the College Now mentoring program at Point Park. A former volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters, Suppa has been invited by various University faculty members to speak about his experiences. 

"I spent 14 years at private elementary and high schools, and I now realize how sheltered I was from what is going on the other side of the world," says Suppa. "I have a whole new perspective now."

For more information about Hekima Place, visit www.hekimaplace.org

Article by Cheryl Valyo

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