Hometown: West Chester, PA
History, Class of 2012
History major Brittany Keesling has quite the resume. She’s worked as manager of the Saint Joseph’s University men’s basketball team, distinguished herself as a stand out student, and babysat regularly in her free time. She’s also helped with the production of a documentary about young girls in Kenya, utilized two Summer Scholars awards to research health and education issues in the Nairobi Province, maintains a Web site devoted to raising money for rehabilitated Kenyan street boys, and is financing a little Kenyan girl’s private education.
Keesling’s devotion to service will continue in the summer following the 2010 Commencement at Saint Joseph’s, when she’ll spend time expanding her own horizons while helping others. In the next four months, the West Chester native plans to travel to Mexico, South Africa and Kenya – and not simply for her own enjoyment.
In Mexico, she plans to challenge herself by learning Spanish through an SJU summer immersion program in the company of 2010 Fulbright Scholar Molly Porth. In South Africa, she’s slated to teach young girls about hygiene and health issues at a United Nations-sponsored school. And in Kenya, she’ll lead a group of fellow students offering service to Dagoretti4Kids (D4K), an educational outreach program based in the village of Saigon, which is located in the Dagoretti Province. D4K was founded in part by fellow SJU graduate Michael Mungai ’10, in 2003.
Keesling’s passion for serving the international community started with a friendship developed during a philosophy class, where she met Mungai, an international student who grew up on the streets of Dagoretti. Over the course of the semester, the two became good friends, and Keesling grew more and more fascinated by Mungai’s culture and experiences. Toward the end of the spring semester of 2008, he asked Keesling to collaborate on a documentary project he had planned in Dagoretti, funded by the University’s Summer Scholars program.
“It was an opportunity to dive into the culture with someone that I knew really well,” says Keesling. “So I jumped on it.”
The project, a documentary about teenage girls’ use of sanitary napkins and the impact the lack of such items has on their education, required Keesling to interview the teens and their families, while Mungai conducted research. But while their project centered on teen girls, the two stayed at D4K, which houses former street boys between the ages of 8 and 20.
“They became like my little brothers,” she says. “Inside those gates, you’re safe and happy. Everyone wants to be there.”
Throughout the course of the project, a woman from the village, Margaret, then 18, helped Keesling translate during interviews. As the weeks progressed, Margaret’s mother, Grace, and Keesling’s mother, Nina, who traveled to Dagoretti with the two SJU students, became close – so close in fact, that Nina is funding Margaret’s nursing education at a college in western Kenya.
One year later, in the summer of 2009, Keesling found herself the recipient of another Summer Scholars award, this time to return to Kenya with classmates Molly Porth and Reggie Alberto to study the public education system.
“Kenya’s public system is, fortunately, free from kindergarten until eighth grade,” explains Keesling, “but there aren’t enough teachers or facilities. In the school where I worked, the student-to-teacher ratio is about sixty-to-one, and the average for the region is about forty-five-to-one. At the end of the summer all I could think was, ‘what can I do for these kids, on a local level?’”
This second project prompted Keesling to think of ways to impact the lives of Dagoretti’s youth locally, believing that she can – and will – make a difference in their lives. The result was the redesigned D4K Web site, dagoretti4kids.org, now maintained by Keesling and her mother.
“The boys in D4K go to private schools, so their educations need to be funded. I wanted to help by raising funds from the United States, and I realized that one way to do that was through online donations,” says Keesling. “I want to promote a second chance for these boys – to turn their challenges into opportunities.”
In addition to her work on the Web site and her continued dedication to D4K, Keesling is also helping a young girl she met during her first visit to Dagoretti in 2008. Mercy (pronounced “Marcie”) was just 10 when the two met, but a bond formed quickly. Now, back in Philadelphia, Keesling is helping Mercy much like Nina is helping Margaret: by funding her education. For about 20 American dollars a month, Keesling is paying for Mercy to attend a private primary school in Kenya, and hopes in the future to make enough money to be able to send Mercy to college.
Keesling hopes to help initiate an immersion program at SJU in the course of the next few years, with the goal of creating a lasting connection between the University students and the village.
“There are things you have to be committed to. There are so many more steps that can be taken,” says Keesling. “Helping Mercy, and D4K are just a few.”