Warwick, New York
Standing alongside a broken-down Land Rover in the bush of Kenya, Jane Newman felt fear creeping up her spine. It was 1999, and Jane was a New York advertising executive who had come to Africa on a lark. She was riding with a friend who was temporarily working in Nairobi and wanted to get his car to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
“We were not supposed to be out there—we were told it was too dangerous,” Jane says. “The road was unbelievably bad. We hadn’t seen anyone for two hours. Then an entire wheel comes off the Land Rover. We’re stranded out in the bush. I thought, This is it.”
Instead of being the end, though, it turned out to be the beginning—of an amazing global friendship. “Two kids walk up to us, then a mother, then more kids, and finally an elder,” Jane says. “They didn’t speak English, but we figured out that they were telling us that we were only one kilometer from their village. So we limped on in.”
Later, Jane’s friend was able to hitch a ride on a passing truck to get parts while she waited in the village. “I was queen for a day—actually for the two days until the Land Rover was fixed,” Jane says.
She was so touched by the Samburu people’s kindness that when she retired and planned a trip to Africa in 2001, she decided to visit them again. As her stay stretched to four weeks, she learned how the nomadic Samburu lifestyle and poverty prevented most kids from attending school. “Their one wish was that more children get an education,” Jane says. “So I thought I’d help.” She and some friends pooled their cash, and in 2002, the first “mobile preschool” class was held under an acacia tree—and The Thorn Tree Project was born.
Previously, there were no preschools for nomadic children. Today there are 15 preschools that move with the Samburu people. Then, there were only 130 children attending grade school. Now there are 1,500. Then, no one graduated from high school, technical school, or college. Now 160 students are in the Thorn Tree scholarship program, and 32 students who were the charity’s first kindergartners have earned degrees. Some are getting jobs and sending money home. Others have returned to work as nurses and teachers.
“The community is delighted. It’s been so successful,” Jane says. “But it’s a huge responsibility. We’re doing something that affects their culture. We have to get it right.”
That means Jane, whose plan for retirement had been “Do nothing the rest of my life,” is working seven days a week for the charity, half the time in New York and half in Kenya. She’s OK with that, though. “We’re talking about people’s lives,” she says. “The children are adorable and want to learn. I love them so much.”