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Everyday Heroes: Portland couple's Kenyan school gives young children hope, education

Scenes from the Ameena Project in Kenya. (Ameena Project)

A Portland couple's sacrifice started 10 years ago in the remote Kenyan village of Thika. Today, the community's children and adults have real hope for a better future.

“It was like a midlife adventure, it really was,’’ said Anne May. "When we first had the opportunity to go with a local organization here in Portland, and they asked us if we want to do this, I was like, No, I like Portland, I like my life, I like my job; we have a career, we have a family.”

In 2009, Ian and Anne May uprooted their lives in Portland and moved to Kenya to manage a humanitarian project.

"We had young children, but we went for it and I'm so thankful. It was life, life-changing," said Anne May.

They returned a year later where they lived and worked in the remote village of Kiang'ombe (Key-on-gom-bey), where they found three generations of people with little or no access to education for their children.

“They lived in the slum,” said Ameena Project board member Shari Altree. “They didn't live in a home in a real permanent structure. What unfolded under their direction and their inspiration and in their heart literally was life-changing for those of us who met them and saw that happening, and especially for the people living there.

And then there was the malnutrition and desperation.

Ian says children would come to school on Monday crying after a weekend without food.

“When we started, most of these kids were not even getting a meal a day, so families aren't able to provide basic needs,” Ian May said. “And when we say basic needs there, it's rice and water.”

"Anne and Ian literally packed everything up, gave everything up with the inspiration of making a difference in a community that needed their help.” Altree said.

They returned to Portland a year later but were asked by the people they met in Kenya to start a school.

With the help of locals, they started the Ameena Project, a children's school for preschool and kindergarten-aged kids.

“People ask us all the time, Why there? There's people who are needy here,” Ian May recalled. “And there are needy people everywhere, and both of us work in social services here. If you can help, you should help.”

Today, the school has a staff of 11 people, and 90 percent of the children regularly attend classes.

They get two meals a day and recess on a playground with swings and a merry-go-round.

“It's really all about helping, opening that door to opportunity and opening that door to education,” Ian May said.

People associated with the Ameena Project say the school has become the "heartbeat" of the community.

About 125 children have gone through the school and on to public schools, where Ian May said many have become academic all-stars.

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