Following a trip to Kenya and India in October 2005, William and Joanne Cala were unable to forget the immense poverty they had seen.
“You can’t walk away and live your life exactly as before,” William Cala said. “You can’t. It’s literally impossible, because the pain and suffering is so great.”
That’s why they decided to start a grassroots charity to help ease suffering in Africa, even though it meant giving up their comfortable lives in Fairport and William Cala giving up his job as superintendent of the Fairport Central School District. The couple said they felt compelled to do something for the greater good.
Recently, they returned to Fairport to update their friends and supporters on the progress they have made in Kenya in the 14 months since founding their charity, Joining Hearts and Hands. The couple spoke Jan. 29 at Fairport’s Church of the Assumption to an audience that included several social-justice outreach committees and several Just Faith groups.
In a little more than a year, Joining Hearts and Hands has helped build a two-classroom school and latrines; had 156 uniforms made; purchased school supplies, classroom-learning aids and 450 textbooks; and provided $400-scholarships to 32 students.
Construction has begun on a four-classroom early childhood center and kitchen in Mbaka Oromo; two classrooms in Iranda for a project that includes nine classrooms, a kitchen and latrines; and latrines and a well for a project in Lufumbo. All three sites will get a health-screening clinic, and the charity also will purchase vocational-woodworking machinery for a trade school in Kisumu.
Joining Hearts and Hands also has established pen-pal programs with schoolchildren in Fairport, West Irondequoit, Greece and Webster, among other places. The Calas hope to journey to Africa three times a year and most recently went in February, when they checked up on a health clinic there that they are establishing.
William Cala said the Catholic parishes supporting the charity include Church of the Assumption, St. Joseph in Penfield and St. Louis in Pittsford.
“People need to know where their money is going, and they need to know what they do is appreciated, and they need to see that what they do is valuable,” he said.
The charity is supporting a small brick-making business and has started a livestock project so families can sell goat’s milk for income. Kenyan Kiwanis, Lions and Rotary clubs have joined in partnerships with their Rochester counterparts, and one goal of the clubs is to establish a restaurant in a Kenyan village, William Cala said.
The charity also has partnered with two schools for the blind, and the Monroe Board of Cooperative Educational Services No. 1 sent 11 boxes of Braille materials for the schools.
“We try not to give people things, to give them money or food,” William Cala said. “Everything we do is with the intention of creating self-sustainability.”
The charity also is providing women’s groups with $6 solar cookers and education in using them. While the cookers are nontraditional, they are more efficient; they are not fueled by wood, which saves the depletion of tree resources; they do not require constant monitoring; and they will not make women ill from inhaling smoke while cooking, Joanne Cala said. The cookers also can be used to purify water, she noted.
“There are so many ways this (solar-cooker project) is beautiful,” she said.
The cookers and most other items the charity buys are made in Kenya to support Kenyan industry, William Cala said.
Part of the widespread poverty the Calas see in Kenya is due to the AIDS epidemic. Seven hundred Kenyans a day die of AIDS, and hundreds of children are orphaned, William Cala said. Out of 514 kids in one typical village school, 180 are orphans.
“There’s an entire generation that has been wiped out,” he said. “You’ve got grandparents and kids.”
The Calas’s charity also provides education opportunities for Kenyan children by giving out scholarships. Joanne Cala said Kenyan society is generally male-dominated, but the charity takes care not to push its gender views on Kenyans. However, the Calas insist on giving equal numbers of scholarships to girls and boys.
“We are making progress, and girls are getting educated,” Joanne Cala said.
William Cala said schools teach students Swahili and English on top of the 49 tribal languages in Kenya, which is a former British colony. The government provides free public education through grade 8.
“The opportunities are going to come with education,” he said. “Without education, there is no opportunity to pursue any type of career whatsoever. Without education, you will be a subsistence farmer at age 12 or 13. We’re giving them the tools to become entrepreneurs, to create inventions, and the education tools to not get AIDS.”
Most Kenyans are subsistence farmers; the average income is about $470 a year.
“Poverty in the U.S. is so much different than over there,” William Cala said. “Poverty is so much worse in Kenya, but the familial neglect here is so much worse.”
He said more than 95 percent of money donated to their charity goes directly to projects helping Kenyans. Rather than importing goods, the Calas buy Kenyan-made products to support the country’s industry.
“We are trying to do everything we can not to build up overhead,” William Cala said. “This is a labor of love for us. We take no salaries, and we pay our own room and board. Everything we do is payment out of pocket. We are on declining incomes, but it’s a good income.”
People in the Kenyan villages have been very open to receiving help, said the Calas, who returned to Kenya in February.
“They want help, and they embrace the help,” William Cala said. “They look at you and they know you are salvation to them.”
Josephine Kenyon, a teacher at Northside and Jefferson Avenue elementary schools in Fairport, said she and another teacher and their classes have been sponsoring and corresponding with a Kenyan student. Kenyon said she’s proud of the progress the Kenyan student showed on his recent report card.
“He said he never dreamed he’d ever get to go to high school, but also that he wants to help his community,” said Kenyon, who’s come to view the student as an adopted son.
Flora Appleton of St. Patrick Parish in Macedon said the scale of poverty apparent in the slides the Calas showed during their Church of the Assumption presentation was mind-boggling.
“We think through our social ministry that we are doing so much, but then we hear this, and it’s piddlings,” Appleton said. “But there is so much that can be done with so little.”
Rose Malone of St. Gregory Parish in Marion said she was amazed at how much the Calas had done in such a short period of time.
“What they are doing is modeling how it is to live the Bible,” Malone said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For details on Joining Hearts and Hands, visit www.joiningheartshands.org or call 585/377-8298.