A Heavenly Refuge

Written by Heide Brandes in the August 2013 Issue

Upendo Kids

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 10x10 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.

A Journey

The MenjasRobert 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 America.

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.

Changing lives

Girl with Child“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 Nairobi.

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.

Mission TripNinety 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.”

Girl with ChildFuture 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 scholarship.

For more information or to help, visit upendokidsinternational.org.


Robert Says:
August 5th, 2013 at 12:34 pm
Awesome story of selfless giving and support of the orphans

Cynthia Shawley Says:
August 6th, 2013 at 12:25 pm
A great article, except you moved to Stillwater first to get your degrees, or I never would have met you! The Menja family and all they inspire to help in their Upendo Kids endeavors are real angels! I needed a Kleenex to read this.

Ruth Says:
August 13th, 2013 at 2:16 pm
I am looking forward to meeting this couple soon and finding out ways to help. Thank you for spreading the news about this inspiring work.
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