ChangeMaker: Susie Marks caring for children of Kenya’s slums

“Changemakers” is our series exploring how young people, connected and globally aware, are working to change the world. If you know a young person (think “Millennial” or “Gen Y”) committed to change, global health and the fight against poverty, please send the person’s name, short bio and contact info to Jake Ellison at jellison@kplu.org.

By Lisa Stiffler, special correspondent

Susie Marks, 27, is executive director for the Seattle office of Hamomi Children’s Centre and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Susie Marks

All that Susie Marks had meant to do was to drop off a donation from a well-meaning friend at an elementary school in Nairobi.

Somehow she wound up executive director of Hamomi Children’s Centre.

When she was a junior in college, Marks spent a year volunteering at a different children’s center in Kenya. She loved her host family and she sponged up the language and culture.

But the volunteering left her disillusioned. Instead of making a real difference, she wound up acting as a part-time sub for a paid teacher when he needed a classroom break. All around her she saw volunteers like herself either under-utilized or burdened with massive tasks for which they weren’t qualified.

When she walked into Hamomi that fateful day it 2007, they mistook her for a volunteer and put her in front of a class. “I felt like, ‘Here I go again. I’m going to teach and be ineffective,’ ” Marks said.

Then she realized that Hamomi was something special. The school, which serves children living in the area’s slums, had been running since 1999 on volunteer power alone. Its three Kenyan teachers were largely reliant on handouts themselves to survive. Their dedication amazed Marks.

“I was totally blown away by what they are doing. They are the best organization I’ve ever seen,” she said. She was thrilled to see a project that was initiated and sustained by people in the community. The model made sense – and it was working.

Marks spent three days at Hamomi. She realized that her best contribution would be helping the center outline its goals, and helping with the fundraising to achieve them.

She returned to Seattle and set to work – work that was also unpaid. Marks serves as executive director as a volunteer, earning her income working as a nanny. If the group raises enough money, the position may become paid, but it’s unclear when that might be. Marks returns to Nairobi for two months each year to do an audit and work on ideas for improving the program.

Kids at Hamomi school

In addition to providing an education for kids from pre-Kindergarten to 8th grade, Hamomi offers extracurricular activities such as sports and music, breakfast and lunch, healthcare, scholarships for secondary school, and as the kids age through the program, Hamomi’s leaders hope to provide financial support for university education and entrepreneurial endeavors. The program currently supports 144 students.

“These kids come from places where they should not be all day,” Marks said. In the slums, the children often are put to work or must take care of younger siblings, and are exposed to drugs and prostitution. Hamomi provides an alternative.

“If our children get all of the services that they need,” Marks said, “then they can go home to loving families in subpar conditions.”

Here’s why and how Susie Marks got involved in global health and development:

Q: Why is “global health and the fight against poverty” an important issue for you?

Marks spent most of her childhood in Bellevue. “I was surrounded by a lot of money. It was instilled in me that with great power comes great responsibility.”

Q: What personal experience inspired you? What idea is driving your commitment?

Marks is motivated by the selfless, lasting dedication of the Kenyans who founded and volunteer or work at Hamomi. “Their passion drives me.”

Q: Do you think your generation is more attuned to global issues such as global health and the fight against poverty?

With Facebook, smart phones and other technology, “we know a lot more about the world now than ever before.”

Q: Do you think your generation will make a difference?

Yes, but in a different way than in the past. We’re engaged in “a quiet revolution,” Marks said. In the past, change came from working against “the machine” or “the man.”

With her generation, “instead of being about counterculture, it’s about being a part of culture and influencing culture…. We’re never going to take down big business, but we can change big business.”

Marks says she can remain true to her values, but still have a job and a family. “I can be radical and respectable,” she said.

Q: How did you land a job in this field?

Marks has a bachelor’s degree in international studies and spent her junior year of college in Kenya volunteering at a children’s center in Mombasa and living with a host family.

Q: If you were to advise someone on how to get a job in this field, what would you tell them?

“Go get your experience (abroad),” she said. “It’s not that scary. The world is really globalized, we’re so connected.”

Marks puts a premium on immersing yourself in another society as opposed to racking up degrees.

“You don’t need the masters in nonprofit development to do it,” she said. “You don’t need permission or a title to do the work that needs to be done.

Hamomi kids

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

  • Resultsbob

    A wonderful story about a young American woman who is making a difference in the lives of poor children.  Very inspiring.

  • Susie

    Just want to let everybody know that you can join Hamomi’s newsletter list at hamomi.org/contact.html. We’re very happy about the press and hope that it can lead to more connections, participation and awareness. Stay in touch!

  • Bonnie

    I have been to Hamoni twice now.  My daughter is currently volunteering there.  It is an extremely amazing school.  The leaders were wonderful to work with.  Both times I taught problem solving math via games (Connect 4 this time) to the different grades.   The students are so attentive.  We were very impressed to walk into a classroom full of 3rd grade students reciting information — the teacher had not arrived yet.  WOW. Can you imagine that happening in the US?  Anyway, I met Suzie on my first trip and she too is wonderful. Hamoni and these kids have been blessed in so many ways.  Thanks Suzie, Daniel, Raphael, etc.  

    • Susie

      I’m so glad you reminded me of the Connect 4! The students love it and are constantly requesting it during their breaks. I am in love with this picture and I’ve been meaning to show it to you. Thanks for all your support and kind words.

  • Jodybirnbaum

    Great job Susie, keep up the amazing work, so proud of you!