by Marlowe Demisch Salerno
This is an interview with Bob Brydges. He's a retired railroad company executive and lives with his wife, Nancy, in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Although we're not related, I’ve considered them like grandparents since I was born. What's most interesting about them is the fact that they, 20 years ago, at a time when most retirees are settling down to a quieter life, started a children’s center in one of the largest slums — defined by the United Nations as a human settlement with inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, poor housing quality, overcrowding and insecure residential status — of Nairobi in Kenya, Africa.
They have been spending half a year in Kenya since I've known them and until now, I’ve realized how important their work is. Recently, their work has been interesting and I wanted to find out more, so I came up with 10 questions for Bob, A.K.A. Monty, to answer.
Interviewer: If you can, in a few sentences, tell me how did it all start?
Bob: It started when Nancy, my wife, and I went to Kenya for 6 months in 1998. I was asked to go to set up systems and procedures to help manage the East Africa office of a mission organization. While there, we became acutely aware of the plight of street children, especially the young ones. Try to imagine 5 and 6 year old children living on the streets with no family connections whatsoever, mostly AIDS orphans. There were thousands of them. We both felt the need to do something about it. We met Rosemary Wafula, who was already helping street children and joined her in her efforts to help. We and many friends are now the main support for what is now called the Brydges Centre Children’s Home.
Interviewer: Can you describe a typical day for a 10 year old orphan at your centre?
Bob: A typical day for a 10 year old at the centre would be to get up at 5:30 am, get dressed for school, make your bed, take care of your dormitory work assignment, go to breakfast (usually tea & bread), and then off to school on the Brydges centre campus. The school is a 5 acre site. After school, some may stay at school to do homework and some may return to the dormitory. As they finish their homework they usually head for the football-soccer field to play. Some may be doing their laundry and some may have work assignments on the farm taking care of animals or gardens. These assignments rotate among the students so they all get the practical experience of farming. Then dinner and a time of worship and prayer, like a mini church service. Then back to the dorm and lights out at 9:30 pm.
Interviewer: Would you say you have a special connection with every kid at your centre?
Bob: I would not say I have a special connection with every kid at the centre, we have 132 kids now and 500 have already graduated. But I do have a special connection with many. We do not however give any special treatment or attention to anyone. We reward and encourage hard work and good grades.
Interviewer: Do they have access to computers, cell phones, or TVs?
Bob: They do have access to computers for computer classes but they do not have cell phones and there is no TV at the centre. We have a projector and can show appropriate–no profanity movies for everyone on occasion.
Interviewer: Do any of the kids who grew up there come back as adults to work or volunteer?
Bob: Some of the children that grew up at the centre have come back to work as teachers or gardeners or just general helpers. Almost all of them come back for special occasions like our once a year birthday party for everyone. Most children don’t know when they were born so to be practical, they all celebrate the same day, traditionally the first weekend in August.
Interviewer: Is there a memorable story for you, of how a kid came to the Brydges Centre?
Bob: There are many memorable stories of children coming to the centre. The children are orphans when they come to us but once they get through the gate they become family and we no longer use the term orphan or “them.” Edwin was 4 years old when he was removed from his home by his mother. She was a prostitute and he was in the way. He lived on the streets for three years and he happened to see his mother one time and she told him to “get lost.” Edwin came to the centre as a tough little guy but soon realized he was in a good place and became an outstanding student and person. Edwin is now a pilot realizing a dream he had as a child. Most stories of children coming to the centre are very unpleasant but virtually all the stories of children leaving are joyful.
Interviewer: What kind of typical hobbies do the kids in the centre have?
Bob: Typical hobbies at the centre are reading, football, gardening, making their own toys, and dreaming about their future.
Interviewer: In my school, we really emphasize anti-bullying and acceptance. Do you find that you need to put this in your curriculum at the Brydges Centre?
Bob: At the Brydges Centre, anti-bullying is a way of life that they all respect. On the streets, they were considered vermin and were treated accordingly. They have lived being bullied in ways we can’t even imagine so they quickly adapt to the Brydges Centre culture where bullying of any kind is simply “NOT TOLERATED.”
Interviewer: What is the greatest achievement you have contributed to, since the formation of the Brydges Centre?
Bob: I think my most significant contribution to the Brydges Centre is coaching the leaders at the centre to manage the centre themselves. The Brydges Centre is run entirely by Africans. I do not give orders to anyone at the centre, only advice and encouragement. I want the centre to be theirs and they take pride in what they have accomplished and how they go about it.
Interviewer: How old would someone have to be to volunteer at the Brydges Centre and how would they find out more about your program?
Bob: We have had people as young as 8 help out at the Brydges Centre. Of course, they came with their parents and they had a great time and learned a lot. When you become an adult you are welcome to come without your parents.
I would like to thank Monty for the interview, and I hope that you found these questions interesting. The responses have been edited for clarity. If you are curious and want to learn more, have a look at their website. It's actually very interesting. Brydges Centre Children's Home.