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Staff member volunteers her professional skills in Kenya

A student in Eldoret, Kenya, listens to a presentation by the volunteer team for the Sister Cities program.
A student in Eldoret, Kenya, listens to a presentation by the volunteer team for the Sister Cities program.
Photo submitted.

Coventry Cowens, assistant director of Multicultural and International Programs and Services at St. Kate’s, traveled to Kenya as a guest of the Eldoret Municipal Council in the summer of 2011. She visited the town in Kenya as part of a team of educators, health care professionals and firefighters from Minneapolis, Minn.

Cowens, who serves as the coordinator for the Sister Cities program of the International Leadership Institute (ILI) of Minnesota, has volunteered to support projects in Africa, South America, the Caribbean and the U.S. for 14 years. She continued her service during the summer, answering the needs of the residents of Eldoret.  

“About two years ago, we shipped a donated Minneapolis 500-gallon Fire Pumper Truck, and then last fall we sent an Allina Ambulance to Eldoret,” says Cowens.

As a part of the program, the group planned firefighting and emergency medical services training for Kenyans, in collaboration with the Minneapolis Fire Department and Allina Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel.

“The team met for several months incorporating the specific requests of the Eldoret Council,” says Cowens. “We approached this program in a holistic manner for the city of Eldoret, making sure they knew their needs were going to be met. Twelve trainers were a part of the core group.

“As we continued to plan, we began to include our women and children’s health care program. We invited a nurse who was a St. Kate alumna, educators and college administrators to help us. Nineteen trainers went on this ILI technical mission.”

The Minneapolis firefighters and EMS trainers worked with 95 participants during the two-week program.  Cowens, along with the other educators, visited 20 schools and clinics, reviewing their operations and evaluating their needs for technical equipment and supplies. The key focus of the program called for the team to speak with pre-teenage girls to encourage them to stay in school and to educate them about personal health care and hygiene.

The team also ensured that school administrators were aware of a national Kenya program supporting girls and that administrators provided sanitary products at each school. The lack of female sanitary products continues to be one reason girls drop out of school in Kenya.

The assessment team also introduced the students to computers and science careers.

“Some schools were doing better than others, however all sites had pressing needs,” says Cowens.

Because many students live in poverty, school lunches are essential. Only three out of the 20 schools provided a daily lunch plan and the facilities needed to cook meals.

“Other schools sent the children home, where there was likely no lunch. Some of these children just waited in the fields surrounding the schools, to come back to the classroom even if they had not eaten. School is just that important to them,” says Coventry. “The clinics didn’t fair any better in regard to basic equipment and roadways for the ambulance to come and get critical patients for local hospitals.”

The technical mission to Eldoret Kenya was initiated by the ILI of Minnesota, which hosts the Minneapolis-Eldoret Sister Cities International relationship. The ILI is a nonprofit organization where volunteers can apply their professional skills in settings across the globe. The two-week trip included Minneapolis Fire Department Chief Alex Jackson, ILI President Judge LaJune Lange and Shirlynn LaChapelle, President of the Minnesota Black Nurses Association.

Cowens is being featured on KSTP TV, Channel 5, during the months of September and November, as the station broadcasts the activities of the ILI volunteer team in Kenya.

Nov. 7, 2011 by Melissa Kaelin

See also: Faculty, Healthcare, Leadership, Social Justice