Leonard Mbonani, a Kenyan special needs teacher, met Cynthia Bauer, an American graduate student, while she was conducting wildlife research on the Kenyan coast. Cynthia was born without her left hand and discovered that many people in Kenya believed disabilities like hers were caused by curses and she may have even been killed if she had been born there. This knowledge inspired Cynthia to respond when Leonard introduced her to children with disabilities who did not have access to medical care or education. In addition to providing educational assistance, Cynthia and Leonard supported medical interventions, and worked with families and communities to change superstitions connected to disability. Because of these efforts and needs, Kupenda for the Children was registered as an official nonprofit in 2003 with the vision of a fully-integrated society where people of all abilities have access to health, education, and a loving community.

Our Story Over the Years

Issues connected to disability in Kenya first caught Cindy’s attention when she was taking environmental classes outside of Nairobi in 1998. She saw many people with disabilities begging on the streets and was told by her Kenyan friends that few resources were available for them. She also learned that many people in Kenya believe disability is caused by curses, incest, witchcraft, or punishment from God. As a result, many people with disabilities experience neglect, abuse, rape, and even murder at the hands of their own families and communities. Those who survive are often condemned to live as beggars their whole lives. They even told Cindy, if she had been born in Kenya, she might have been killed at birth because she was born without her left hand.

In 1999, Cindy returned to Kenya to conduct research for her master’s degree in ecology.  Every day she passed The Gede Home for the Physically Disabled.  Leonard Mbonani, her field assistant’s cousin, started the home so it was easy to arrange her first visit. When they arrived, Cindy saw several children with special needs learning in a room meant for storage. Leonard told her that most of the children with disabilities in the region were unable to afford the Gede school fees, which were less than $1 a day. When Cindy asked how she could help, Leonard took her to visit a few of these children in their homes. Many of those she met were covered in parasites, malnourished, kept in back rooms, and unable to sit up or communicate. When Cindy came back to the U.S. she shared photos and stories of the children she had met in Kenya.  Within months, her friends and family had donated enough to covered school fees for all of 15 of the children.

Over time, more people in Kenya heard about what Cindy was doing and told her about other children with disabilities in Kilifi who were in need of surgeries, wheelchairs and hear aids as well as special education classrooms and staff.  At the same time, people in the U.S. became more interested in donating to help the children. Although they were both working full time jobs for other organizations, Cindy and Leonard volunteered their time to connect the American donors to the Kenyan children and community projects that could most benefit from their donations. This start up phase was full of challenges and successes that helped to solidify Cindy and Leonard’s friendship and strengthen their work. At the time, they didn’t realize were starting an organization that would dramatically change both their lives…and the lives of thousands impacted by disability.

By 2003, the work had grown so much that Cindy decided to establish Kupenda for the Children as an official U.S. nonprofit organization. Cindy then visited Kenya again for the first time since she had done her research in 1999 and visited many of the children for whom she had been raising support in America. Cindy also learned of the new Kenya Disability Act, and began working with Leonard to incorporate this legislation into Kupenda’s programming.

Kupenda experienced significant growth in 2006. By this time their supporters and reputation had grown substantially in both the US and Kenya, which equipped them to run their first pastor workshop, disability awareness day, and volunteer trip for American supporters. They were also finally able to hire Leonard as their full-time Kenyan Director. In order to devote more time to Kupenda, Cynthia left her full time biologist job to work in her own business to have more flexibility to do the work of Kupenda.

For five years, Kupenda supported service delivery through a Kenyan community-based organization, but by 2008 this work had surpassed the capacity of a community based organization. In response, Leonard founded Kuhenza for the Children’s Foundation in Kenya. “Kuhenza” is the local tribal word for “to love” while “Kupenda” is the word for “to love” in Swahili, the national language of Kenya. These names showed that, although the organizations are based in different locations, they are partners in mission. Kuhenza also helps ensure that Kupenda’s work is locally-led and culturally-appropriate for the greatest long-term impact on Kenyan children with disabilities.

Although Cindy and Leonard had been conducting activities to address incorrect cultural beliefs about disability, this area did not become a strategic programmatic focus until a pastor advised one of their teachers to stop taking her HIV medicine so God would heal her. The teacher followed her pastor’s advice and soon passed away. This case highlighted the fact that many Kenyan churches were giving spiritual, medical and social advice, based on misperceptions about disability. Inspired by their outrage, Cindy and Leonard organized a series of meetings to help families, pastors, and community leaders develop correct beliefs about disability. Many of those who participated were inspired by what they learned and began advocating for children with disabilities in their communities. As such, Kupenda’s spiritual advocacy program was born, and in the coming years, would reach hundreds of churches influencing thousands of people with correct information on disability causes and care.

In 2013, Kupenda’s team worked with local leaders to develop and teach a disability course. The first participants to complete this course were so inspired by its content that they formed their own community grouped called “The Friends of People with Disabilities.” Some of the group members facilitated the disability course for churches and community groups, while others founded disability ministries at their churches or support groups for parents of children with disability. One member learned sign language and trained members of his church to sign so they could interpret the sermons for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. The group’s enthusiastic and effective response inspired Kupenda to formalize its disability course and expand its implementation.

Over time, Kupenda’s advocacy model began attracting attention more broadly. In 2014, the organization was invited to share their advocacy approaches with communities in Tanzania and later at global conferences and in technical working groups such as the International Disability and Development Consortium (IDDC), the Community Based Rehabilitation African Network, Core Group, the American Public Health Association, Christian Connections for International Health (CCIH), etc. Kupenda’s advocacy approaches are now being used by 35 organizations in 16 countries and improving the lives of more than 70,000 children with disabilities each year.