“It Gives Me a Sense of Joy”: An Interview with Kupenda’s Friend, Michele Reber

by Jessica Charles Abrams

Headshot of a woman, Michele Reber, wearing a blue shirt

In this interview, our long-time support and friend, Michele Reber, shares stories of Kupenda’s early years and her perspective on our evolving approaches to disability inclusion. In her responses, Michele also describes how her relationship with Kupenda and its founder has kept her invested in our work for the past 19 years. We cannot thank Michele enough for this genuine and passionate commitment to our organization and to the thousands of children with disabilities whose lives have been forever transformed because of her generosity.  

How did you first come to learn about Kupenda and meet Cindy?

In 2002 I started going to Grace Fellowship Church and I was assigned to a small  group and Cindy [Kupenda’s founder] was in it. We weren’t close friends or anything, but you know, we’d see each other at small group and she started telling a few of us, “Hey there are these kids with disabilities in Kenya and they should be in school but can’t afford it.” And we were all like “Only $150 to send a kid to a school for a year?” It was obviously very grass roots at the time. She saw somebody that needed help and we were like “Okay here!” And it just as it grew. It’s just been amazing to see what has happened since then!

In your opinion, how has Kupenda changed over these past 19 years?

In the beginning it really was just Cindy kind of contacting a few people and saying “Hey, we can really make a difference.” But then watching her go through all [process of] setting up a nonprofit and try to understand all that stuff… I’m sure it wasn’t fun but she just banged it out and did it. And since then we’ve just been watching the budget and impact grow — watching those numbers get bigger and bigger and bigger, it’s just been amazing.

How have you stayed involved all these years?

Cindy invited me to travel to Kenya but I said, “I’m not a great traveler but I can keep giving you money.” I like knowing that [my donations are] going to actually go help somebody. You know, it’s such a personal experience. I just love it. I was even on Kupenda’s Board for two years. It’s been amazing watching Cindy be able to fill the Board out and bring on [the Development Director].  I just absolutely love this. You can’t write stuff better than this.

It sounds like you really admire Cindy’s leadership of Kupenda – what is it about her that stands out to you?

That girl does not give up! Even when she’s down. I mean I offer coaching services, so I know a lot about how hard this has been [for Cindy at times] … but that girl just won’t quit! It’s great. You need somebody who’s like, “Well, we can fix that” and “We’ll just figure it out somehow” and “I don’t need to know how to do everything, but we’ll find people who can help me.” So that’s what you need to lead something like this is somebody who’s just so gosh darn determined. She’s so good at it… like when she talks to people, you can’t help it, she’s very convincing… I’m just like — how can you say no to this person, who’s getting nothing?… It’s not like she’s a baller now, it’s all going to Kupenda. That integrity. I don’t know if I would have been able to stick with something like this. She’s exactly who needs to be doing this.

What has made you continue to support Kupenda all these years?

I’ve supported other organizations in the past but they weren’t great at keeping a connection with me. Cindy is amazing at keeping a connection. She’s always reaching out. She’s so good at that. I get updates on Rukia — she’s my [sponsored child]. I feel like part of the Kupenda family. Kupenda has been a unique charitable giving experience for me. It feels so personal, I feel so invested. I’ve never felt like that with any other organization. I stick with Kupenda because it gives me a sense of joy. I feel like monthly I’m seeing stuff in my inbox with news and it really is, it’s quite impressive. You’re seeing how you’re changing our lives.

Is there anything about Kupenda’s approach to disability work stands out to you?

The biggest shift I’ve seen since you started is moving to an advocacy model. Not necessarily being the ones providing the bricks and sticks and all that stuff but advocating in the communities. I mean you have to… get your local church community on board, the leaders on board or it’s not going to work. I see the pictures from the Community [Disability Awareness] Days that you have [in Kenya] and … you see that connection…I think that’s amazing. Because it’s limited — building schools and providing education, paying for teachers and supplies is very good — but if only a select group of people believe that that is good for their kid, what good is it? That’s why I feel like the advocacy is so key and I’m glad to see that’s where [Kupenda’s model has] shifted.

What do you hope for the future for Kupenda?

I guess the biggest thing would be just to continue to spread. [There are so many] communities around the world where disabilities are still viewed in this [negative] way – so [your work] just needs to keep spreading. The more people you reach — I see it in your annual report — this many people, this many communities — the more I see that number grow the happier I am.

If someone were learning about Kupenda for the first time, what would you say to them?

I would tell them the story of my friend Cindy… I always start at the beginning and say, “She started doing this and now look at how many people she’s affected!” And then I tell them how personal the experience has been [for me] — that you do feel involved. I haven’t been to Africa, I haven’t served with Kupenda, but I still feel like I’m part of the mission in a way that again, no other charity has made me feel this way. It’s an opportunity to make a difference in a way where you can see the difference you’re making. And so little money goes so far [in Kenya]!

Please join Michele and Kupenda in helping children with disabilities understand that they have value and are worthy of love!

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