A Heavenly Refuge
Jussy is eight years old and
after both her parents died from HIV, she became an orphan.
Living in Kenya’s Central
Province, Jussy is among hundreds of children in Africa who are living with no
family, while also facing malnutrition and danger due to years of drought and a
raging HIV epidemic. Robert Menja Karaya of Edmond has seen it all first hand.
He’s seen the sad eyes and the skinny bellies, and when he and his family moved
to Oklahoma from Kenya and became American citizens, he and his wife Eunice
vowed they would give something back.
Jussy was living with her three
siblings and a grandmother who suffered from a form of mental illness. All five
lived in a 10×10 foot wooden house, a space that barely provided room for them
to sleep. The child was hungry, lost and facing an uncertain future where
crime, sexual abuse and starvation were too real of a possibilty.
Eunice Menja met Jussy during
one of the visits to the village, and she fell in love with her smile. After
witnessing the poverty, she promised to help Jussy live a better life.
“We all have been put on this
earth to be good stewards of what the good Lord has blessed us with, may it be
wealth, wisdom, knowledge, love, or compassion,” said Robert Menja.
Robert Menja was born in
Nairobi, where he attended college and learned about American rights, like
freedom of speech and the right to assemble. While there, he also met Eunice,
and for Robert, it was love at first sight. After Eunice and Robert earned their
degrees from Jomo Kenyatta University, Robert decided to move his family to
In January 2004, Robert moved to
Oklahoma City at age 30, with his wife and two daughters following that
December. The Menjas earned degrees from Oklahoma State University, and while
celebrating their new life, remembered their vows to help the poverty-stricken
children they left behind in their own home country.
“When we came [to America], we wanted to give
to the kids we left behind in Kenya,” said Robert, who works as a financial
advisor in Edmond and is an active member of the First Presbyterian Church of
Edmond. “We started sending $100 to an orphanage every Christmas to give the
children a meal, and word got out about it. Others started giving, and in 2007,
we had nine people go on a mission trip.”
The $100 tradition has become
something so much more. Thanks to interest and passion for helping by community
and church members, Robert and Eunice started Upendo Kids International,
opening an orphanage and changing the lives of Kenyan children in need.
“The kids at the orphanage are 100 percent
orphans,” said Robert. “My wife started Upendo Kids to help those children. The
situations get very difficult and they are left with no help. They therefore
move to the streets and tend to feed from the trash cans or beg for food.”
“Brian” is also an Upendo kid. Born without
arms and one short leg, Brian is severely disabled. His father took off the
minute he saw the condition of his son at birth and Brian’s mother was left to
raise him as a single parent on a kitchen help’s income.
“We met Brian back in 2007 during our first
mission trip to Kenya. At the time, he was a third grader and quickly
overgrowing his special desk which doubled as both a desk and a dining table,”
Robert said. “Brian is gifted in music, plays the piano with his toes, and also
draws very nice pictures. Brian currently is a sophomore and gets support from
Upendo Kids while he pursues his high school diploma.”
Upendo Kids works with both
churches and donors to help families and children like Brian and Jussy living
in poverty in Kenya. Providing a safe haven for youth in Kenya who battle
violence and disease is the mission of the orphanage in Juja, just north of
In 2012, the couple, along with
friends from the First Presbyterian Church in Edmond, raised $60,000 in four
days, allowing Upendo Kids to purchase the land, building and supplies that
would become the orphanage, providing a home to more than 50 children.
Ninety percent of the donations
came from Edmond, allowing the organization to collect bedding, replace doors
and windows and build more structures to support the orphanage. Since the home
opened in 2013, Upendo has also helped 15 other public schools, provided grade
goats for poor families, sponsored economic programs that encourage women to
start businesses and provided clean water.
Now, the orphans living at the
new home also receive nutritious meals and clean drinking water, as well as
schooling and medical care.
Without Upendo Kids support, the
children would end up in the streets of Kenya, where drugs, sexual abuse,
neglect, crime and abandonment prevails, Robert said. If early childhood
intervention programs are not available in Juja, the community there will
suffer from increased teen pregnancies, drug abuse, violence and crime that
claim the lives of orphaned children.
Pastor Bill Crouch of Edmond’s
First Presbyterian Church, who was born in Ethiopia, also felt the calling to
go to Africa. “Before going, I could not image what heaven really would be
like, but by being immersed in this culture for two weeks and seeing the love
of Christ being lived out in the daily lives of so many people who have so
little, I can now image the streets of heaven being filled with such joyful
smiles,” said Pastor Crouch. “I am changed forever. Every person in America needs to go to Kenya
and stay with a host family and experience a bit of heaven on earth.”
Future plans for Upendo Kids
include expansion. Robert said the organization plans to build a school
specifically for the children of the area, with three quarters of the children
on paid tuition and the other quarter comprising of orphans attending on
For more information or to help, visit upendokidsinternational.org.