March 1, 2012
By Matt Palmer
Six years ago I began one of the most amazing adventures of my life. It was unexpected. It was transformative. And, it changed lives, starting with my own.
Briefly, it began in December 2005 when I was made aware of a project at a school in south Calgary, Fred Seymour Elementary. It just so happens, I went to grade one and two there. The school was starting a curriculum based global citizenship program to connect with and raise money for an orphanage in Litein, Kenya. I went and met the Principal of the school, Brenda Zugman, and was blown away by the passion breathing through the hallways of the school. The previous year the school raised $60,000 for a village in Thailand after the tsunami. With the new project they had set a goal of raising $50,000 for the children’s home in Litein. I had no idea that schools were doing this type of work. I decided it would make a great story.
After my first trip to Litein in March 2006 I decided that if the project was going to really have impact, I needed to find a way to get kids from Fred Seymour to Litein. We had no money or resources, but I started writing about my dream on my blog.
Fast forward to August 2006, and I was on my way back to Litein with 24 people, including 7 kids aged 7-12, parents, teachers, and two film crews to document it all. “Letters From Litein” tells the story what happened.
There were many challenges making this film, most of all not having much money. But, we made it work thanks to a great team including my producing partners Petros Danabassis, and Kaari Autry. They both worked so hard to make it happen, and to help ensure that the film got finished. I owe a deep debt of thanks to them.
I had always envisioned that the film was suited to be a theatrical feature, a big dream considering very few documentaries ever get to the theatres in Canada. But we persisted, met with distributors over the years, but had a hard time finding anyone willing to take a chance. Finally, Robin Smith of Kinosmith, a boutique distributor out of Toronto, agreed to take it on, and the film premiered theatrically in April of 2009.
When the film was completed Kaari and I travels back to Litein with the Day family, who were featured in the film, and we showed the film to various people in Litein. We were concerned that some of the revelations by the children and teachers from Litein in the film might cause problems. Corruption was an issue in the home, and one of the older girls, Winnie speaks out about in the film. We first screened it for officials from the African Inland Church who ran the home. They agreed to let us show the film to the kids.
The screening for the kids at the children’s home was incredible. They laughed and cheered and cried. And when it was over the older boys took me aside and thanked me for giving them a voice. We were still worried there might be retribution against those in the film who had spoken out after we left, but we knew we had a strong network now, and we would do our best to support them.
It took a while after we left, a year or year and half before things really started to change, and it was thanks to the courage of the kids in the home, and in particular one of the older boys Giddy, who got the government corruption committee to investigate the home. The result was that people who were in charge of the home both in Nairobi and Litein were fired. Giddy’s courage and leadership inspires me, as I had inspired him.
Six years later, “Keeping the Circle Strong” which started at Fred Seymour Elementary is still going strong. Fred Seymour closed after we finished filming, students and teachers went off to other schools, but the connection continues. Last summer, Sarah Kesler, the grade five teacher at Fred Seymour and featured in the film, took her own family back to Litein to build a dormitory at the girl’s high school. Now some of Sarah’s former students have come back together and have started “Water is Freedom”. They are raising money for a water project at the high school.
As a result of this film I made four trips to Kenya, and one to Tanzania in the space of a year and a half. I learned and experienced so much. I gained a greater sense of appreciation for what I have, and a greater understanding of the people in a small village in western Kenya.
My own connection to Litein continues. I have Facebook chats with some of the boys from the home on a regular basis, and last year Giddy called me and I got to talk with some of the girls that we sponsored to go to private school Many of the kids from the home received sponsorship to go to private school, and as a result of this may of the children from the home have gone on to high school, and one of the girls featured in the film is now in university.
Life is amazing when you take risks, and listen to your inner voice. I did that with this film, and I changed my life, and the lives of many others. My gratitude is immense.