Newton Atela’s eyes sparkle when he talks of all the things he’s planning to tell his children when he gets back to his native Kenya.
“A store full of toys, I couldn’t believe it. They will not believe it,” Atela tells The Telegram about his trip to Toys R Us in St. John’s.
When he speaks of his beloved children — all 108 of them — and the things some of their small bodies endured until the day he took them in, his eyes take on a more serious, concerned appearance.
Life alone on the streets. Prostitution. HIV and AIDS. Caring for an entire family at just eight years old. A former primary school teacher, Atela quit his job in 2006 when the pain of seeing children suffer as a result of poverty and famine became too much to bear.
“Sometimes they would come to me and say, ‘Teacher, we have not eaten in two days,’” Atela says.
“One day, one of my students fainted. I asked him what was wrong and he couldn’t tell me. After I bought him some food and some milk, I asked him again. He hadn’t eaten in days. That really boiled me. It hurt my heart.”
Atela is the director of Gideon’s Orphanage in the village of Rambu, Kenya. He and his wife — who have four children of their own and had already taken in six orphan students while Atela was teaching — started the orphanage in their home, eventually expanding it by building a group of mud huts on 10 acres of land Atela owned. With next to no help from the local government, apart from a one-time donation of 10 sacks of maize, the children slept on mats on the floor and had to walk up to six kilometres for fresh water, since there was no nearby well.
St. John’s native Jeannette Howat and her husband, Ian, were missionaries who went on a three-week mission to Kenya in 2009. While there, they were introduced to Atela through a mutual friend, and heard him speaking about his orphanage.
“When we heard him say how they had no water, we thought, ‘Oh my God, maybe we can help?” Jeannette explains. “We approached him with the idea of maybe getting a well dug. We visited the orphanage and put the process in place before we left Kenya.”
“When they went to my village, it was like, ‘What is happening?’” Atela says. “I had no idea what their plan was. I thought, ‘What? A well is so expensive.’”
The Howats eventually helped Atela with other tasks, including clearing his land to make way for vegetable planting and building a three-room, six-classroom school, which now educates and provides a hot lunch of boiled beans and maize to 300 children, including the 108 “Gideons,” as Atela calls his orphans.
In late 2009, the Howats were in St. John’s on a visit when they told Jeannette’s aunt Margie Stead and friend Esther Slaney Brown about what they experienced in Kenya.
“Aunt Margie got really excited and said she wanted to help the kids, too. I thought that was wonderful, but how was she ever going to do that? We weren’t living here, and she’s in a wheelchair with MS,” Jeannette says.
“A month or two later I got a phone call: Margie had collected about $1,500 and was wondering how to send it.”
Stead had collected the money simply by making phone calls to family members and friends, asking them to donate. That first donation went a long way, Atela tells The Telegram. With it, he was able to do some renovations on the girls’ dormitory (previously his own home), and constructed a shower room for the children. He also bought mattresses and built bunk beds.
Stead and Slaney Brown have since formed a registered non-profit organization called Matthew 25 Outreach Inc.; named for the Bible’s Book of Matthew, Chapter 25.
“Jesus says anyone who feeds the hungry and clothes the poor does so for him,” Jeannette says of the chapter.
Since its inception, funds raised by Matthew 25 have assisted in building the school, began a banana farm, given the children a proper Christmas dinner and toys, and continue to help buy food and pay small wages to about a dozen women who work at the orphanage, cooking, bathing the children and washing their clothes. Atela’s staff also uses four industrial sewing machines to sew school uniforms for the children and traditional Kenyan shirts, which they sell.
“Some people donate every month, and we have card parties, dinner and dances, and African-Newfoundland nights,” Slaney Brown says of the group’s fundraising efforts. Their latest African night was held in St. John’s this past weekend, with Atela in attendance.
The group also supports local charities, Slaney Brown says, like food banks and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
“It’s like a mission to me,” says Slaney Brown, her voice cracking and eyes welling up. “When I think of the children and I see my own grandchildren, who have too much, it just boggles my mind.”
“We have so much,” Stead adds. “They have nothing.”
The next project Matthew 25 plans to undertake in Kenya is buying the orphanage a proper stove. Right now, Atela says, they cook meals in a tin hut over an open flame. Stead and Slaney Brown say they’re also interested in finding a local school willing to partner with the orphanage, to exchange pen pal letters and participate in other activities.
Atela’s “Gideons,” the youngest just under two years old and a handful of them living with HIV/AIDS, have come to him in a number of ways, he explains. Many of them were orphaned when they lost both parents to HIV/AIDS and were left with a grandparent, aunt or uncle who couldn’t support another mouth to feed.
“They don’t want the extra burden. After they finish burying the parents, everyone just walks away,” Atela explains.
Some children lost one parent and were left with a parent too sick to take care of them, Atela says, while others were abandoned or chased away by their own families and had been living on the streets, in some cases for years. Atela has rescued children from the streets and tells The Telegram the story of a two-year old girl whom he found in a bush, crying for her parents, who had abandoned her.
A few of the Gideon girls had been involved in prostitution before they were even teenagers, Atela says; many of them because they were forced to take care of younger siblings on their own and had no other choice.
Atela says he’s amazed by the generosity of the Howats and Matthew 25, as are others in his community, some of whom have asked him, ‘Can you help me get a white person?,’ he says, laughing.
“It humbles me a lot. It’s not like everyone is generous and not everyone wants to help,” he says. “I just can’t believe it. I don’t understand it.”
Anyone wishing to contact Matthew 25 can do so by emailing Stead at email@example.com or calling her at 364-6492.