Student with a cause caring for Kenyan women, children

Zoe Dawson is surrounded by children taking part in the Children of Maasai Educational Programme...
Zoe Dawson is surrounded by children taking part in the Children of Maasai Educational Programme during her first trip to Kenya in 2017. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Zoe Dawson shows her scrapbook of memories from Kenya. PHOTO: LUISA GIRAO
Zoe Dawson shows her scrapbook of memories from Kenya. PHOTO: LUISA GIRAO
Zoe Dawson poses with charity co-founder Mary Saruni and her son Gadiel (10). PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Zoe Dawson poses with charity co-founder Mary Saruni and her son Gadiel (10). PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Helping  children and women in a rural Kenyan village is a satisfying mission for Invercargill resident Zoe Dawson.

The 20-year-old is the New Zealand correspondent for the Children of Maasai Educational Programme, a not-for-profit charity that aims to protect children from harm and help them access education and health services.

She is also one of the founders of House of Hope, a special-needs centre for children in Kumpa, about 80km from Kenyan capital Nairobi.

"Poverty is not something that you can ignore. It's all fine if you see on TV, but once you go there and see in real life, it drives you to do more.''

Ms Dawson became interested in overseas charity work when she was 17.

She spent six weeks in 2016 helping at a childcare centre in Capricorn, South Africa.

"I was a typical teenager that wanted to do something and travel overseas. I was planning to go somewhere else, but one day I literally woke up and said to my mother that I would go to South Africa.''

Her first experience in Africa opened her eyes to "voluntourism'', where young people can feel they are doing good while helping with overseas projects, especially in Third World countries, but end up doing little to alleviate suffering.

"I've seen the damage it is doing to children. People go there, have a short-term relationship and leave. I felt so terrible that I engaged in something so damaging for them.''

In 2017, she returned to Africa and headed to Kenya, where she met teachers Jackson Maya and Mary Saruni, who founded the Children of Maasai charity in 2015.

Ms Dawson and 21-year-old Australian law student Lauren Jackson had teamed up with the teachers to implement a series of programmes to encourage the village children to attend school, including offering school meals, uniforms and reusable sanitary kits, and organising mobile health clinics for the children and community.

"We do everything we can to keep them in school and give women equal rights.''

The same year, the group founded the House of Hope, a special project for Ms Dawson.

"I have a cousin with a special syndrome, so it is something that I grew up around. When I was in Kenya, I asked Mary where the kids with special needs were, and she said they usually stay at home. I decided to do something for them.''

The care centre offers education to 12 children. However, Ms Dawson said she would love to do more.

"We have a waiting list with 20 children but they live far away. We are raising money to buy a van for these kids to be able to come to school.''

In New Zealand, she spends her days managing the charity, studying for a bachelor degree in social work at Massey University, and taking care of two girls with special needs.

Ms Dawson said 60% of her earnings go to the charity.

"We do what we can to empower them.''

luisa.girao@odt.co.nz

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