It all began when Fr Martin Keane, superior of the Holy Ghost Fathers in Kenya, approached Olive Halpin over 10 years ago.
Fr Martin has been living in Kenya for around 40 years. He had visited Ireland after his brother passed away. While at home he came to Olive, who was known in Co. Clare for her work in Romania, where she had volunteered and lived for a number of years after the revolution and also for her work with ‘People in Need’.
He asked her if she would help him fundraise to build a place for young students to learn a trade in Mombasa, Kenya. “And that’s where it all started,” Olive says.
In 2010 Olive gathered 200 volunteers. They travelled to Likoni in Mombasa and built a polytechnic and the Ray of Sunshine foundation, of which she is a director. Projects have been completed there ever since. All of the directors are tradespeople and work voluntarily.
“That happened in 2010, now in 2020 we are returning back to the same place,” says Olive, speaking to The Irish Catholic from Kenya, where she is about to begin the charities’ 2020 project. “Africa got into my heart, and I’m here since,” she says.
“Next week I have 100 tradespeople from Ireland coming, they are all plumbers, plasterers, carpenters, electricians, painters, and just anybody that can work hard.” She is also delighted to have Fr Martin back with them for their 2020 project.
These volunteers give up their work at home in Ireland for 10 days to come and work alongside local people to help teach them the trade. Each volunteer has to fundraise to make their way out to Kenya and for the charity itself.
“We are now building a school and a training kitchen, which is going to be overseen by celebrity chef, Kevin Dundon. It’s his dream that we have executive chefs coming out of our training college, our kitchen here in Mombasa,” says Olive.
Derek Davis had also promoted the charity and was ‘instrumental’ in gathering volunteers. After he passed away four years ago, Henry Shefflin stepped into his place as an ambassador. Niall O’Meara, Clare hurler is also a supporter and is in Kenya working on their current project.
The Ray of Sunshine Foundation had two other projects in 2016 and 2018. They built two rescue homes, one for boys and one for girls, both for child victims of sex trafficking. They were officially opened by the former Irish Ambassador to Kenya, Dr Vincent O’Neill who praised the charity.
“I have great Faith,” says Olive, “Every morning I get up I say ‘Thank you God’ for what we have in life and I attend mass every Sunday and I thank God again for what we have.”
“Sometimes I am saddened by what I see here. There are two extremes in life. We have so much and the other half the world has so little, and I sometimes question ‘Why does this happen?’”
However, Olive says she feels that the projects are so successful they must have help, adding that “there is somebody guiding us and minding us”.
The charity partnered with the Sisters of St Joseph in Kenya who run the non-denominational homes. “They’re like a paradise in the middle of a small village, Kikambala, in Mombasa,” says Olive.
All of the girls who leave the home, by law when they are 18, are set up in an outreach house and they all attend the polytechnic.
They have also built a school for girls that achieve exceptionally high grades. There is one girl, Faith, from the rescue home that is now attending that school.
Olive herself devotes a lot of time to her cause, flying to Kenya around three times a year if she can. When she is not working with the Ray of Sunshine, she works in her sister’s crèche in Clarecastle.
When asked what keeps her going through the vast amount of volunteer work she does, she replys: “If you’ve been to Africa and you see the poverty, if you see somebody that has nothing, it’s heart-breaking.
“In Ireland if you don’t have a loaf of bread, you have a neighbour that has a loaf of bread that might give it to you. You have organisations you can go to get a food pack, but here, there is nothing… that’s what drives me. To see the difference that we have made by building the homes and the schools and to see the students, girls and boys, come out the other end of the poverty trap.”
She emphasised her pride in the Irish people who donate their time to come over and help, “They work so hard and no one pays them… Our day starts at 4am and finishes at 4pm, we travel 1 hour to work on the bus. It is tough going, and the temperatures are up to the 30s and 40s.” Olive accompanies all of the project volunteers when she can.
When asked if she would continue her work she says, “Yes, education is the only way forward for the children. It is the only way out of the poverty trap. Once they can earn a small wage, that means they can put bread on the table.”
“It feels like a drop in the ocean, helping all these boys and girls, but the ocean is made up of drops.”
The Ray of Sunshine have a local representative that checks on the projects monthly but Olive feels they are in capable hands and there’s little worry leaving the project when they finish. The have an open-door policy where anyone can call and visit any of the centres they build and have a look around.
“Life is hard in Africa; we don’t get involved in the politics. We just come in here, we do our job and we make a difference.”