Aspen woman helps transform Kenyan schools

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times
Debbie Welden dances with an eighth grader from Meru, Kenya, at a pre-school dedication in 2012.
Debbie Welden/courtesy photo |

Meru is a town about 200 miles northeast of Nairobi on the northern slope of Mount Kenya. At 5,000 feet in elevation, it’s lush, agricultural and lacking clean water and proper schooling.

Aspenite Debbie Welden was first introduced to Meru in 2008 when she joined a group from Denver on what was supposed to be a one-time trip. She helped convert a classroom into a library, established relationships with locals and, ultimately, fell in love with Kenya. Two years later, she returned, this time helping to build a potable water system for more than 1,200 students and teachers.

Furthering her commitment to Kenya, Welden joined partner Rich Fisher to form PEAK (Partnering in Education and Aid for Kenya), a group that aims to clean up water systems at more than 65 Kenyan schools by 2016. After two more trips in 2011 and 2012, PEAK is planning a fifth for December.

Welden, who is speaking about Africa at the Pitkin County Library on Tuesday, estimates that PEAK impacts about 10,000 people in Meru, through clean water, education and HIV efforts. Her partners include rotary clubs and Methodist churches throughout the U.S., as well as the Aspen Community Church, to which she belongs.

In Kenya, families have to pay for schooling after eighth grade. Welden estimates that about 50 percent of Kenyans don’t attend high school, either because of financial limitations or because they fail the entry test required for enrollment. She said that by providing clean water, and in turn improving health, PEAK is also enabling better education.

“They’re not sick, so there’s more time in class, and their grades are improving,” Welden said. “And they’re healthier. It’s impacting these lives in a major way, so it’s very gratifying.”

For the upcoming year, PEAK and its partners have secured $60,000, with hopes of installing sanitary water systems at 20 schools in the next six months.

As part of the agreement, Meru’s teachers, students and parents contribute by digging trenches, laying pipe and delivering construction material. Welden said this work helps them take ownership of the project.

PEAK’s first water project required a 30,000-gallon concrete water tank, with local parents hand-digging trenches. By the time PEAK arrived, there were 30 men digging at the back of the school, with their wives spreading the dirt.

“It was so overpowering. It was wonderful to see,” Welden said, adding that when PEAK is away from Kenya, the work continues.

After returning from Meru in December, Welden plans to organize a team trip of about 10 to 12 people for 2014. She said each Kenyan tour is a transformative experience.

“What I’ve seen happen for the people who have gone on these trips with me is that it changes their life,” Welden said. “It certainly has changed mine. It’s almost like I can’t not do it now. I can’t wait to go back and see all these friends that I’ve made.”

She remembers leaving Kenya in 2011 when a group of locals put on a ceremony for her and Fisher, in which they were given traditional Meru names. Welden was christened “Ntinyari,” which means “an all-around woman.”

“It just brought me to tears because it was so meaningful and so special,” she said.