Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
Living in the village of Sikirar in the Maasai Mara district of Kenya for three weeks last summer, Olivia Sharp witnessed what life is like for the women and girls who in many ways form the foundation of that community.
The 14-year-old Stratford native visited the east African country on a service trip with Me to We, the youth-oriented organization committed to helping impoverished countries by establishing schools, wells and other basic services.
With a group of 19 other youth from Canada and the United States, Sharp, who now resides in Elora with her parents Scott and Cosette, helped build a kitchen for a school and finish the roof on a Grade 5 building.
It was the opportunity for that kind of hands-on involvement that Sharp says appealed to her in the first place when she learned about the work Me to We was doing through her school.
“I’ve always loved to help people and I’ve always been a people person,” she says. “And I love to have new experiences ... getting to meet new people, seeing new cultures and how people live.”
Staying in the village – the group lived in tents with no running water, a hole in the ground for a bathroom and a bucket to wash their hands in – Sharp experienced how life has changed for the better for the women and girls who call it home.
That exposure was the focus of Sharp’s presentation Sunday at an International Women’s Day celebration hosted by Optimism Place Women’s Shelter and Support Services.
Also speaking at the event were Sue Orr, Ellen Sparling and Gezahgn Wordofa, whose ongoing humanitarian efforts in Dalota, Ethiopia were chronicled in an article in the Gazette last week.
Sharp, who is also passionate about women’s rights and issues – something she credits to her grandmother Fern Sharp, Optimism Place’s fundraising and awareness coordinator – said it was rewarding to know her work in the village will help girls there get the education they need if they hope to make a better life for themselves in the future.
While Me to We had done much work in the village over the years, establishing schools, wells and even helping sell the mommas’ hand-made jewelry online, returning the profits, “the women there don’t really get to show their personalities,” Sharp says, “because they are usually at home and trying to keep their families well.”
And, despite the meager amenities her group had while staying in the village, she noted the living conditions for the families, most of which consist of five or more kids, were that much worse.
But with greater educational opportunities, there’s more hope for the girls in the village than ever before. And with clean water sources being built at the schools, many girls can now attend classes and bring home water at the end of the day, whereas in the past they would have to miss school to walk great distances for water filled with mud and insects.
Sharp says she was also heartened to see an all-girls high school where many of the students live due to the great distance they travel to attend. The young women feel privileged to even have an opportunity to earn an education, she adds.