Maria Omare is the Executive and Founding Director of The Action Foundation (T.A.F), a Non-Governmental Organization that aims to break the barriers that prevent the inclusion of children and young people with disabilities. Listed among the Top 40 Women Under 40 in 2016, Maria is transforming the perceptions of people towards disability. She talked to Grace Maya.
1. Maria a disability inclusion advocate, social entrepreneur and an educator. I am also an artiste who creates through designing, spoken and written poetry. Designing jewelry and crafts
2. I joined the disability movement when…I discovered my passion for disability inclusion as a university student through volunteering with children with disabilities and their parents as a nutrition trainer. The experience brought to light the realities of their lives and the gaps in the quality of care and access to essential services were evident. Experiences of isolation, depression and lack of support from the community and their spouses were common. A lot of the existing interventions then only focused on the therapy needs of the child and not looking at their inclusion in the community and psychosocial needs of their parents. With little savings and support from friends, I was able to raise ksh 5000 I opened a center for children with disabilities in Kibera as I believed it was possible to do work differently to meet the holistic needs of the children and their families.
3. My journey has… been an emotional, crazy and unbelievable journey.10 years ago I sat in my university hostel and talked to my roommate about one day creating a safe space and haven for children with disabilities that we volunteered with. When I finally completed the course work and found a little room to realize the vision, I was terrified of what lay ahead but the stubborn optimist in me echoed that all will be well. With the little amount of money I had, I had bought a padlock and floor mat, and later borrowed plastic chairs from my parents’ home in an estate nearby. A lot of my relatives and friends thought I was out of my mind as I had been among the top in my graduating class. Through working with the local community, I met Prisca a young woman with a disability who had great passion for working with children with disabilities. Through persistence and mobilizing volunteers, we succeeded in finding children with disabilities who kept at home and providing occupational therapy, nutritious meals, art therapy and business skills training for their parents. By the end of the year we had outgrown the little room and our activities spilled over to the corridor space outside. By this time I had exhausted all my income sources as a part time nutritionist and could hardly afford to keep the centre running. I so terribly broke that I couldn’t afford basic necessities and felt that I was becoming a burden to my parents and friends, some who were not answering my calls as they thought I would ask them for money. Someone I was friends with commented that I should look for a proper job and not “waste myself” in Kibera
Taking care of young children with a wide range of needs is an expensive affair and for many of the parents, bringing the children to our center was an opportunity for them to look for casual work, open their shop with the peace of mind that their child is safe. After receiving countless rejection letters after applying for funding, I had to figure out a way to keep afloat. This meant making earrings and necklaces with the help of some of the mother’s which I could sell to everyone and anyone. My bag was always full of merchandise! After a while the needs of the center surpassed the income we were making and the center’s bills started piling. At this point I wanted to give up, and with a heavy heart shared this with the parents at our start of the year meeting in 2013. When I shared the news, a moment that renewed my hope and defined how we work at TAF took place. One of the parents said that we are not going to close as the center had become their home and place of refuge. They each pledged their food stuff, utensil, developed a volunteer roster and gave other solutions to keep our centre open. This made me realize that the work we had begun was more than me as the vision bearer and the limitations that I thought existed. There was no turning back.
4. Tell us about the growth and people or organizations that supported you
Soon after, I received a fellowship award for young women leaders where I learned the ABC’s of navigating the philanthropy world. I am a believer in continuous and deliberate learning and have been honored to participate in local and global fellowships. A big part of what we have been able to accomplish today has been through building a strong sense of community and ownership in the areas we operate. Our work has grown to Kibera, Kawangware and recently Sinai where we are reaching hundreds of children, parents and community members.We support children with disabilities to be included in regular schools through our teacher training program. A key pillar of our efforts is community sensitization through film screenings, art festivals and open days.Besides health and education initiatives, we support the parents
5. how did your family react after knowing that upon your graduation you were not going to look for a job like is the norm and instead you wanted a different path
My family has been my biggest pillar of support, they have been fully supportive of the work. My parents keep me grounded through their prayers and words of wisdom, my brothers have provided strong shoulders to lean on through the difficult times
6.You recently got awarded the professional fellows program. How did you react to the news and what is one thing you aspire to change at the international level
I recently won the US Department of State Professional Fellows Alumni Impact Award for TAF’s work in creating opportunities for children and youth with disabilities. I was elated when the award was announced, and felt very optimistic for the future of women and youth leaders in Africa. There are so many incredible young people doing amazing work to bring social change to our countries. I hope my leadership journey can inspire them to keep pressing on.
7 what are we your parting words?
It’s rewarding and fulfilling in following one’s passion.