From Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond magazine
By Timi Eckes
It was a baked potato, of all things, that changed the course of Chris Kincaid’s life.
It happened in 2005, when she and her daughter, Val Kelch, attended a Christian music festival in the Fox Cities. As Chris recounts in her book, A Time for Every Purpose under Heaven, she stopped at a food booth to order a baked potato. While she waited, the man who had taken her order handed her a brochure about a mission trip to Kenya planned for the following summer.
Recalling that incident recently, Chris says, “I laughed and said, ‘I can’t go on a mission trip, I’m too old.’ He returned my laugh and told me that he had just returned from such a trip. I was in my early forties then and he looked about twenty years older.”
Val, however, had also seen the brochure and she had every intention of going to Kenya. She soon convinced her mother to go along. Since their first trip in 2006, they have returned to Kenya to work with some of the poorest people in the world, and Chris most recently traveled there in October.
In a sense, her journey to Africa began long before she ordered that baked potato. She has always wanted to make a difference in others’ lives. “It started when I was a kid and I dreamed of being able to change the world, make it a better place for those less fortunate,” she says.
As an adult, Chris has done more than dream. The Tomahawk native, wife and mother of two has worked as a certified medical assistant for almost 30 years. She also volunteers for her church as well as the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life and Kinship of the North, and she sponsors a Kenyan child through an international child development program. As if that weren’t enough, she has published two devotional books and the aforementioned memoir of her first trip to Kenya.
Along with Val, she’s also the co-founder of Tumaini Volunteers Inc., an organization dedicated to helping underprivileged communities by implementing sustainable projects. In Swahili, the word “tumaini” means “hope,” and that’s what the organization strives to give to underprivileged people in Kenya.
Straddling the equator, Kenya is located on Africa’s east coast. It’s a land that sparks the imagination, where Out of Africa author Karen Blixen lived on her coffee plantation, where the Mau Mau uprising raged against British rule in the 1950s and where tourists today marvel at the wildebeests, lions, giraffes and other wildlife roaming across the landscape.
Unfortunately, poverty in Kenya is rampant. In a 2012 report from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the poverty rate there was estimated to be about 43.4 percent. The CIA also reports that in 2013, the unemployment rate was about 40 percent, and that Kenya’s per capita income was about $1,300.
In recent years, the country has been in the headlines as Al-Shabaab, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, has fatally attacked people in various locations there.
The horror of such brutality isn’t lost on Chris, but she refuses to let fear keep her from doing what she feels called to do. “How many attacks, by individuals, have we had in the U.S. at schools, colleges, theaters, etc.?” she asks.
“We can’t live in fear. We shouldn’t take unnecessary chances, but I think we need to continue living our lives as we always have, doing the things we love doing and traveling to the places which mean a lot to us.” Chris says she has never felt unsafe while in Kenya and explains that security is taken very seriously there.
Instead of focusing on fear, those involved with Tumaini Volunteers work to ease inconceivable poverty and help people who are desperately in need. They do it not by giving free handouts, Chris says, but by helping people to help themselves.
When Chris and a friend went to Kenya in October, their purpose was to research projects that Val can implement when she travels there in the future. One such project is chicken production at Southern Cross Academy, a school at a camp for displaced people outside of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Although the camp has existed for several years, Chris says secure shelter, electricity and running water have only recently become available to the 4,500 people who live there.
At Southern Cross, there aren’t enough school supplies and the teachers’ salaries aren’t paid consistently. Chickens are raised there to provide eggs for school lunches, Chris explains, but if the school could sell enough eggs to realize a profit, that money could go toward supplies, teacher salaries and other expenses. With funds and education to implement the project, it’s hoped that egg production and sales will keep it sustainable. The goal of Tumaini Volunteers is to raise enough money for the chicken project in time for the school to begin expanding chicken production in early 2016. “When Val and her team return to Kenya in the spring, they will review the progress already made and oversee further expansion of this program as well as research future projects,” Chris says.
“Sometimes people will say to me, ‘But we have poor people living in America; shouldn’t we help them first?’” she continues. “That is true, but at least there are programs in place to help many of these people, although I realize that a lot of them slip through the cracks and that these programs run out of money. In Kenya, however, there are very, very few government programs and no one among the general public has resources to make a difference on their own.”
Besides everything else she does, Chris is a writer. In the last year, she has finished writing a third devotional book as well as a novel set in Africa. “I have an outline for another novel started and also have been kicking around the idea of writing another memoir about my last two trips to Kenya,” she says.
With all of her accomplishments, it’s surprising to find that Chris has thought of herself as a dreamer, not a doer. Of her lifelong desire to change the world, she says, “In my younger years, I didn’t have the confidence to make strides in that direction.”
She credits her mother with setting a good example for her, explaining that by seeing her mom helping people in need, she began to do the same. Chris also credits Val for the path she is on now. It was her daughter, after all, who convinced her to go to Kenya in the first place.
“I think anyone can make a positive difference,” Chris says. “You don’t have to invest a lot of money or travel the world or work yourself into a frenzy. Just follow your passion. Volunteer at the food pantry, help out at your child’s school, open a door for an elderly gentleman. Sponsor a child through an organization like Compassion International. It doesn’t have to be anything big.
“It used to be easy to say that when things went wrong, it was someone else’s problem,” Chris continues. “I think that part of the wisdom which age has imparted on me is that I realize I can be part of the problem or part of the solution.”
For more information, including volunteering opportunities, visit tumainivolunteers.org.
What does it take to start and run a nonprofit?
Setting up Tumaini Volunteers Inc. required a lot of time, effort and dedication, more than Chris and Val expected.
“Forming this nonprofit organization was way more work than either of us realized,” Chris says. “In all of our research, I ran across a statistic stating that over 80 percent of new nonprofits fail within their first five years. It caused us to stop and wonder what we were doing, but we plowed ahead anyway.”
For months, Val spent hours online, researching information about how to start a nonprofit. She and Chris drew up bylaws, set up a bank account for the organization, applied for tax exempt status, wrote a business plan, elected officers, filed articles of incorporation and raised money.
Raising funds and finding time to run an organization while also working at a full-time job and honoring other volunteer commitments is a sizeable challenge. But Chris notes that the biggest challenge is getting enough volunteers to help run Tumaini Volunteers. “My daughter and I have been blessed to have wonderful support from our family through all of this,” she says.
“To start this kind of venture, you need to have a passion for what you are doing which nearly blinds you to reality,” Chris continues. “Even now, Val will sometimes say to me, ‘What are we doing? Maybe we should quit.’ To which I answer, ‘We have this much time and money invested, let’s not quit yet.’ And after coming back from Kenya in October, I won’t be ready to quit for quite a while.”