Sylvia and Stephen Scott

Sylvia and Stephen Scott know what it’s like to grow up in poverty. Now that they are successful professionals in Kitchener-Waterloo, they’re giving something back to the community where they grew up – and they’re making a difference.

Originally from Kenya, the two have both been in Canada for more than 30 years, where they studied and have built solid careers – Stephen is a science teacher at Waterloo Collegiate Institute, and Sylvia is a nurse and administrator at Grand River Hospital. During those years they have contributed a lot to the community in KW.

But the Scotts’ good work goes far beyond the confines of Waterloo Region. As the founders of the charitable organization Caring Partners Global, they have mobilized resources here to establish the Matangwe Community Health and Development Project to help improve the lives of the people of Matangwe and surrounding area in rural western Kenya, where they grew up.

The health clinic is the hub and springboard of all community development activities. The centre has a treatment facility with walk-in primary care services, in-patient stabilization and birthing beds, a pharmacy and a basic laboratory. The clinic also provides community home-based care through 17 communities around Matangwe, and operates weekly health outreach programs at schools for students and community members. The centre also houses a residence for staff and volunteers. It has running water and electricity (from an array of solar panels and a generator).

The donors from Waterloo Region have been instrumental in making the Matangwe vision a reality. The services offered by the clinic are a lifeline for the community, which is seven kilometres from the small district hospital and more than 70 kilometres away from the nearest hospital.

Responding to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the area, the clinic provides confidential services such as counselling, testing and treatment. Home-based care is well established to support the aging grandparents and their orphaned grandchildren. Lay community health workers (CHW) selected by their own communities receive training through the Matangwe clinic in partnership with the Kenya Ministry of Health. Nine CHWs, each assigned two to three villages, currently carry a case load of 95 patients, whom they visit weekly or more if needed.

A CHW’s home-based care gear includes a bicycle, rubber boots to manoeuvre the narrow, busy and ragged paths, an umbrella for rain or shine and a HBC kit comprised of a high protein flour, refill medications for opportunistic diseases, hygiene supplies and gloves for themselves and the caregivers. This partnership was made possible by Help The Aged Canada (HTA), a Canadian non-profit charity that caters to the needs of the elderly and impoverished individuals.

There is also a feeding and sponsorship programs. The feeding program provides a lunchtime meal for 500 elementary school students at the Matangwe School. The goal is to expand and model the program to all 10 primary schools in the 17 communities served by the project. An education sponsorship program means that more students have the opportunity to get a secondary education. Initiated in 2006 with 15 orphaned and needy children, the sponsorship program has grown to 55 children in 2008. The goal is to mentor a generation of responsible citizens and future leaders that will in turn give back to their community.

The Matangwe project has been an amazing human-scale success story. Stephen and Sylvia have been the moving force in Canada behind the endeavour, raising funds from service clubs, corporations and individuals; recruiting health care professionals and volunteers to lend their expertise in the field; liaising with a community advisory council in Matangwe to ensure that the efforts are grassroots and gain acceptance and credibility with the residents.

To understand how this quiet, soft-spoken pair have been so effective at mobilizing people, funds and other resources here in KW to help people half a world away, and why they’re being honoured as the Guests of Honour at the 21st annual Mayors’ Dinner, one need look no further than to how they were raised.

Their childhoods had a strong influence on how they have lived their lives.

As a young child, Sylvia had two sisters who died, at the ages of seven and four. While attending a boarding school run by Dutch nuns, she used to receive immunizations at a mobile clinic. Because she was in poor health, she also received vitamin shots and was placed on a restricted diet. Sylvia didn’t understand exactly why all this was being done, because nobody explained it to her. But it instilled in her a deep desire to help other people.

Stephen, who also went away to school, was inspired by his parents to improve himself. “They told me ‘Focus on pen and paper. Get a good education; better things will come to you,’ ” Stephen remembers.

Sylvia concurs: “Our parents instilled good morals in us – to know how to take the right path.” Stephen adds that “the way our parents shaped us lingers in us; it’s allowed us to do what we have done.”

Both agree that it was these values, plus focusing on hard work, education, and Christian faith that established in them a foundation that enabled them to get ahead.

Stephen came to Canada first, in 1970. He studied first at Ontario Bible College, then went to Wilfrid Laurier University and teachers college at the University of Toronto. He and Sylvia married in 1974, and Sylvia joined her husband here. She attended Wilfrid Laurier before studying nursing at Conestoga College. They adopted Stephen’s three year old niece after her father died of cancer, and had their own kids.

Stephen and Sylvia moved to Moosonee, where they worked for two years. They were surprised that rough conditions could exist in a country as wealthy as Canada. But, having grown up in a similar environment, they developed a close relationship with the aboriginal population there. This was another valuable lesson in their appreciation for the circumstances in which people find themselves.

After returning to KW in the 1980s, the couple continued to work hard, raise their family and help their native country from a distance. But in 1994, Sylvia went back to Kenya to visit her ailing mother, and became reacquainted with the limitations of the health care system there. The community leaders at Matangwe sought the support of the Scotts to help establish a clinic to bring health services closer to their community.

It took several years of hard work, partnership-building in Kenya and Canada, advocacy, fundraising and sweat, but they founded Matangwe Community Health and Development Project in 1996 and CPG in 1998. The clinic finally opened in 2001.They have been making annual trips to Matangwe, taking equipment, supplies and volunteers who offer their services to the community.

Both Sylvia and Stephen are very careful by nature, but they knew that, for the project to be successful, they needed to proceed in a way that would get the buy-in from the people of Matangwe themselves.

“Just putting in money is not the answer,” Sylvia says. “In the long run, you won’t achieve very much. Just buying and donating stuff doesn’t work.”

The people have to feel they own the projects and the change, explains Stephen. “Work is distributed among different families, so that they can all contribute and feel ownership. Some people might not have exactly the skills needed, but they have respect and influence in the community.”

The Scotts’ connection to the community and their understanding of the culture have been important factors in the success of the Matangwe project. But Stephen and Sylvia are quick to point out that the efforts of a lot of people have been crucial too. They say the main features of a successful community project are:

  • Commitment and hard work
  • Accountability that builds capacity, not enforcing power and control
  • Responsibility and transparency in leadership and role modelling
  • Respect for other people, especially the impoverished
  • Listening to really hear and understand people’s needs
  • Being trustworthy and credible to always do the right thing and learn from failure
  • A strong faith that guides the moral conscience to remain steadfast even in failure

And the Matangwe project continues to grow. New priorities are:

  • A community centre for literacy training, education for young girls, intergenerational mentoring, and apprenticeships
  • Expansion of the school feeding program
  • Sustainable agriculture, water and sanitation initiatives
  • A mortuary where bereaved families can expect compassionate, dignified care and closure in honour of lives lived and loved.

Unfortunately, the area has not been immune to the recent post-election troubles in Kenya. For the moment, volunteer missions are suspended. And there has been some trouble getting access to basic medical supplies. For the long term, though, Sylvia and Stephen remain optimistic. Their goal is to arrange for more stable funding so that they can put infrastructure in place, bring in skilled people and train local people.

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