by Jacinta Sherlock

Currently finishing off her final year of studies Esther Rijk took some time out of her day to share with the Dietitian Connection readers how she is combining her degree in Dietetics with her passion for supporting some of the most disadvantaged children in Kenya. At only 21, Esther founded The Kickstart Project Inc, supporting students from Kenya to attend secondary and tertiary education.

Esther was inspired to study dietetics after spending a year in Africa, travelling around 10 different countries in South, East and North Africa. She spent one month volunteering at the primary school orphanage in the Kibera Slum, an area where it is normal for children to grow up malnourished. Here she became passionate about addressing the health disparities, food shortages and enormous need for all aspects of healthcare and ongoing education.

The children she spent time with and is continuing to support were from some of the most disadvantaged families and who otherwise would have ended up on the street. Meals provided in the school were previously funded by a charity, however when the funding was no longer available, these children were served “porridge” a paste comprising of flour, water and sugar. With zero nutrients available, these children spent the day sitting blank faced in the classroom. They had a desire to learn, yet with grossly inadequate nutrition the sit there blank faced, unable to process the lesson as they just have no fuel on board.

Following her return from Kenya with a burning desire to help out, Esther commenced work on the development of a greenhouse project. This project was designed to demonstrate a more sustainable form of farming capable of generating higher yields for the remote, rural village that was heavily reliant on agriculture. Supported by Rotary the greenhouse provided the community with the chance to improve their own lifestyles and health with more stable crops.

With a steadfast commitment to addressing the inequity, Esther developed a sponsorship program supporting children to continue their studies beyond primary school and achieve a quality secondary education that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. Within this program students receive regular mentoring and motivational speaking workshops to maintain focus and assist with goal setting and overall confidence. Sponsorship of a child covers the cost of their education, boarding, uniforms, books, transport, pocket money, toilet paper and in turn they have to maintain a C average.

On the ground the a local Kenyan and Kickstart Project committee member, Serah Mucha monitors all the projects that operate in Kenya and is a major part of the sponsored student’s lives organising school enrollment, uniform fittings, text book shopping . She meets with the students at the completion of every term to discuss their progress, receive their report cards and hand written letters to their sponsors in Australia.

In April 2015, The Kickstart Project Inc was formally registered as an Australian Not For Profit organisation. Their success to date sees 12 children currently in secondary school program and 2 studying at Tertiary level. Tertiary students are supported by a student loan, in which the students sign a contract to gratefully pay back 50% of the total cost of their university or college sponsorship once they have completed their degree and accessed fulltime employment. This teaches the students ownership, and allows for each student to contribute towards the education of another student – Kenyans helping Kenyans!

Truly remarkable when these are kids that came from nothing, are being given the opportunity to have an education, develop a passion and they now have the opportunity for follow their dreams, have a career and give back to their country.

Moving forward Esther has visions to work with agricultural communities and build on current health promotion activities utilizing her dietetics degree to run simple diabetes nutrition education programs. She is currently setting up a medical clinic in the remote village of Wongonyi in partnership with Kenyan charity The Ronnie Fund.

She describes the interest in the community to improve their health as “phenomenal”. With currently no knowledge in these communities to manage NCDs such as Diabetes or Hypertension, there is significant opportunity to intervene with simple screening and nutrition education messages to reduce the suffering and premature mortality.

For anyone interested in pursuing work in developing countries, Esther’s advice is to “start talking to people and get your questions out there. There are so many volunteer organisations out there doing amazing work, it’s safe, it’s got a magic you can’t describe unless you experience it for yourself – it’s so much easier than what you think. Just do it. “

To connect with the Kickstart Project Inc follow the links below:

Email: [email protected]

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kickstartproject/?fref=ts

Annual fundraiser Event: https://www.trybooking.com/KRZY

Donations are always more than welcome. As little as $20 can send a child to school for a week, including 3 nutritious meals per day, clean uniforms, text books, personal hygiene products, stationary and so on.