Rhinah Ondiso was born in a rural village in Western Kenya and is a living example of education as a means of escaping poverty. Ondiso was able to attend high school, university, and graduate school thanks to the support of the Kijana Educational Empowerment Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in Florida. She now lives and works in the greater Boston area, serves on the board of directors of Kijana, and is paying it forward.
Ondiso was born in Vihiga County, where 62% of the population is impoverished. From 2001 to 2005, she attended Ebusiloli Secondary School, the Kijana Educational Empowerment Initiative’s Flagship School. When Ondiso’s mother couldn’t afford secondary school tuition in 2003, Jim Cummings, the founder and president of Kijana, stepped in to pay for the rest of her high school education.
“$200 over the course of a year for me was not that much in comparison to the potential gain of having the best students in the school stay at the school–a school that had given me my first teaching experience and to which I was investing a lot of time and effort in building up. I was happy to do it,” remarked Cummings.
Ondiso became the first female from Ebusiloli to pass the Kenya national exam and go on to university. She began her university studies at The University of Nairobi in 2007 thanks to a government-subsidized program. Ondiso later applied for and was awarded a scholarship to study in the United States by Zawadi Africa. In the fall of 2008, Ondiso enrolled at Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock, Arkansas.
She holds a Masters in Business Administration from Lynn University in Boca Raton, FL, and a Master of Science in Project Management from Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Harrisburg, PA, in addition to a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. She now lives in the greater Boston area and works as a Talent Program Manager at Global Atlantic Financial Group.
As Ondiso continued her undergraduate and graduate studies, she traveled to Florida on a regular basis to help with Kijana fundraisers and with office work and nonprofit development.
“I benefited from Kijana while a student at Ebusiloli. Kijana helped pay for my tuition. When I arrived in the USA in 2008, I partnered with Kijana to spread the word across the country on the vital work the organization is doing in Kenya,” stated Ondiso.
Since June 2020, Ondiso has given Kijana’s diverse board of directors firsthand knowledge of the communities it serves. She assists in ensuring that the organization is sensitive to local cultural elements and needs. She advises Cummings and collaborates on fundraising campaigns. Her academic background is also useful in her board role as co-treasurer.
Since 2002, Kijana, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, has played a critical role in transforming education in Vihiga County, Western Kenya. Vihiga County, one of Kenya’s poorer areas, had very limited educational resources and relatively low educational outcomes. There was little opportunity for advancement to higher education. Kijana changed the educational trajectory and raised citizens’ expectations by investing in more than 30 schools across the country with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Partnerships and funding from community members in Palm Beach County, FL, and Racine County, WI, transformed a few Kenyan schools, including Ondiso’s alma mater Ebusiloli Secondary School, from dilapidated remains to thriving institutions. Kijana’s investment and redevelopment of schools in this area resulted in a 140% increase in students obtaining a high school education in the area from the late 1990s to today, as well as a significant increase in students from the area matriculating into universities.
Outside of her career, Ondiso supports her home country and gives back to Kenyan youth who are financially impoverished, as she once was.
“The work Kijana is doing is changing the community one family at a time. For example, because I was able to succeed, I paid my neighbor’s child’s high school tuition while in college, and he’s now one of the students from Ebusiloli that went to university. Now, not only is my family in a better place but his is as well,” commented Ondiso.
Kijana’s vision, driven by a diverse Board of Directors that includes the leadership of both Ondiso and Cummings, continues to enliven our global youth’s educational experiences so that more of the hundreds of millions of young people who need greater and more creative educational opportunities will find them. Kijana is currently constructing a modern pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade independent school, Kijana Global Innovation School (KGIS), to serve primarily low-to-average-income and highly talented Kenyan youth and to infuse new options into our global educational capacity.
KGIS opened its doors in January 2020 with 15 students and one block of administrative offices and pre-k through second grade classrooms. Enrollment is currently around 160 students and growing, with classes ranging from pre-k to seventh grade. KGIS intends to grow and continue to build classrooms, enroll up to 500 students by 2024, and graduate its first high school class in 2026.
According to Ondiso, “It is important to understand that education may be the only gateway out of poverty for some children. The poverty index is so high that most families cannot afford to educate their children. A few dollars can change an entire generation. Kijana has a proven track record for supporting students, and schools succeed. It is the best organization to support in this endeavor.”
Cummings added, “I think education is a gateway to human advancement for all people–whether rich or poor. Education is not just about providing people with skills to get good jobs and sustain themselves and their families financially, but it should provide us with a larger perspective and the ability to work with other people and appreciate and respect other people and help us advance as humans.”
Our traditional socioeconomic and global educational systems underutilize and fail to fulfill significant human capital. Kijana’s mission is to advance all of human society by connecting Kenyan youth with youth and communities in the United States. In addition to allowing some people to ‘escape financial poverty,’ investing in rural Kenyan youth opens new doors for untapped talent to enrich society as a whole.
“Kijana invests creatively and energetically in this underutilized global human capital, improving our collective global well-being. Their expanded opportunity will be the world’s gain as these young people fulfill their academic, social, and creative promise, becoming positive world change-makers–just like Rhinah,” said Cummings.
Kijana Educational Empowerment Initiative promotes and cultivates youth empowerment through educational development, cross-cultural dialogue, and sustainable and environmentally friendly economic growth, among under-served Kenyan school communities and American school communities. For more information or to provide financial support, visit: kijana.org.