There were sports, friends to hang with, maybe even some parties. And homework. So when you were in high school, did you start a nonprofit? Isn’t that kind of unusual?
And supposing you were so inclined, could you see your mere adolescent self going to Africa to do this?
Here’s the kicker: Isn’t it astounding that a certain young lady, now a freshman at Fort Lewis College, visits one of the world’s most blighted slums – lives there for two weeks at a time, no less – to help teenage girls overcome the scourge of child prostitution?
This is Blythe Crow’s world.
The Grand Junction native might have a little naïvete to overcome – she’s only 19, for gosh sake – but she seems to use that trait to her advantage. While some of us might consider what she’s doing a pipe dream by a do-gooder, Crow is actually pulling it off.
The first thing you realize, as you stand in view of the endless sea of metal shacks and raw street sewage that make up the Mathare slum in Nairobi, Kenya, is that you can’t fix it. You could burn it down and start over, Crow says, but that’s not a reasonable plan. Instead, the model she uses for keeping grounded comes from the famous Starfish Poem: A doubting old man sees a young protagonist throwing beached and dying starfish back into the ocean and observes that he can’t make a big difference. As the young man winds up to chuck a starfish toward the sea, he says, “It makes a difference for this one.”
“We’re going to save some individuals, and we’re going to save them well,” Crow says of her year-old nonprofit, She Has a Name. “We’re not going to ‘kind of’ save them. We’re going to educate them. We’re going to give them new clothes. We’re going to do it right.”
From the funds it quickly raised, She Has a Name established a home for two former prostitutes, 18-year-old Florence Osimbo and 20-year-old Christine Ann Okwisa.
Let’s go back in time – not all that far – to when she developed an interest in this cause.
Blythe Crow is the daughter of Darrin Crow, a pastor at a small church called Heart of Junction. The church also sponsors Christian Challenge, which caters to college students, mostly from Colorado Mesa University.
Blythe was a sophomore in high school when she heard Colorado Mesa student Jessica Forbes talk about her experiences in Kenya. Forbes wanted to return, and Blythe said sure, she’d go.
During that first trip, Crow visited 13 orphanages and several churches to get an idea of the reality of the Nairobi slums. She had done some online research to begin clueing in on what she’d experience but was still blown away.
“It’s totally different actually being there,” she says. “Seeing the people physically and looking into their eyes. Having the smell, having people touch you. It’s nothing you can experience by looking online.”
When she returned to Grand Junction, she began researching human trafficking, which is not – as one of her classmates believed – students running into each other in the hallway. It’s people selling people, sometimes even their kids, and putting them into industries such as prostitution. It’s estimated to be a $32 billion industry annually worldwide, according to a United Nations fact sheet.
During a talk with her father in February of her senior year, she mentioned how deeply the issue had affected her.
“He said, ‘Well, why don’t we do that for this next trip to Kenya?’”
They began raising money for the cause, and by May, they had $10,000.
“It was an amazing thing,” Blythe Crow says.
In just a year, Crow has established a functioning organization, with help from a board of directors – mostly professionals – that she assembled.
“Every time she’d talk about it, people just responded to her,” Darrin Crow says. “She put together what she wanted to do in pretty short order.”
Among those who responded and joined the May 2014 trip was Elizabeth Sharp, Colorado Mesa assistant professor of kinesiology. Sharp had been on several other mission trips and had lived in China. Yet the Kenya trip was eye-opening.
“I’d never been to an actual slum, much less live in one for two weeks,” Sharp says.
She functioned partly as a counselor for college-age members of the team, who dealt with many challenging circumstances.
“When kids with open sores or cuts run up to you, do you turn away?” Sharp says. “Do you hug them?”
Through Moses and Jamie Okonji, their previously established contacts in Nairobi with a group called Inspiration Centre, the group found two young girls to help. Christine and Florence were in their late teens and already had children. Later, they found Sharon Awino, who was 13.
The girls were given new clothes and provided food and housing. She Has a Name built a home in the slums, and two house mothers monitor the girls to make sure they’re staying on track. Moses Okonji is often there; he escaped the slum via education but returned to help.
“The main thing is education,” says Crow, whose foundation vows to help the girls through college. “That’s how you get out of the slums.”
During her time there, Crow made sure to really get to know the three girls, who were reluctant to divulge their stories because of the shame factor.
“We don’t want them to be ashamed of their past,” Crow says. “We want them to embrace it and understand they’re forgiven for it and move on from it.”
Blythe Crow is making her fourth journey to Africa in May. The organization hopes to take three or four more girls into the fold. About 15 volunteers have signed up for the trip.
Sharp won’t be going this May because she just had a baby, but she and her husband plan to make it in the future.
“We’re just all amazed and awed at how she’s taken this project on and run with it. She’s really leading this,” says Sharp, who serves on the board. “This was her vision. And it’s not a small one. This is not a couple-week project. It’s going to go for decades.”
Yes, unfortunately, there are many other starfish to throw back into the ocean.
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.