by Cecil Harris
|Anne Mungai, Ph.D., with children from her orphanage and school.
Caroline Mungai was pursuing a master’s degree in early childhood education at Adelphi University in November 2004 when she died of lupus at age 25. For Anne Mungai, Ph.D., the chair of Adelphi’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, the grieving process after her daughter’s unexpected death led to a family commitment to honor Caroline.
“Caroline’s dream was to start a school for poor kids,” said Dr. Mungai, who is also director of Adelphi’s adolescence and childhood special education program in the Ruth S. Ammon School of Education. “We are doing what Caroline planned to do.”
In January 2005, Dr. Mungai started an orphanage and school in her native country of Kenya. A month before Caroline’s death, Dr. Mungai’s mother-in-law had died, leaving behind a four-bedroom house on 3-1/2 acres. The house became the first dormitory for 15 orphans.
Kenya has 2.5 million orphans and sub-Saharan Africa has 12.5 million orphans—largely because HIV, the disease that causes AIDS, has claimed the lives of so many adults. Children who had been abandoned—in alleys, next to dumpsters, in churches or wandering the streets—have been rescued by the Mungai family and given love, nurturance and a place to call their own.
Today, the orphanage and school is home to 40 children. To each child, Dr. Mungai is “Mama.”
“Kids who never slept in a bed now have their own bed; kids who never had shoes now have shoes,” said Dr. Mungai, who returns to Kenya for a month every summer. “There is a future for these kids because we are educating them.”
The Mungai home employs 16 full-time workers, including teachers certified by the Kenyan government and women known as “mothers” who stay with the children round-the-clock.
Several members of the Adelphi community have visited the orphanage and school, including Associate Dean for Student Affairs Della Hudson, Diana Feige, Ph.D., Laraine Wallowitz, Ph.D., Esther Kogan, Ph.D. (the former director of Adelphi’s early childhood education program in which Caroline Mungai was enrolled), Gary Schechter, Ph.D. and Perry Greene, Ph.D.
“The experience made me much more aware of the inequities in terms of how resources are distributed worldwide,” said Dr. Feige, who visited with her husband in 2009. “But those children have a sense of dignity about themselves and a tremendous sense of family.”
Dr. Greene, the associate provost for faculty affairs and international diversity, visited with his wife and daughter in 2007.
“Seeing those children invigorates your commitment to social justice issues,” Dr. Greene said. “It’s important for your children to see how other children live. It’s important to see that, despite the challenges they face, those children are as vivacious and playful as any children in the world.”
Education is what Dr. Mungai and her husband of 35 years, George, a high school math teacher in Brooklyn, New York, has always stressed to children, including their four daughters: Catherine, who earned an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago and works for the City of St. Louis; Lilian, who graduated from the Hofstra University School of Law and is an attorney in New Rochelle, New York; Pauline, who holds a medical degree from Ross University and practices in Maryland; and Caroline, who continues to inspire others even after her death.
“We have told the kids Caroline’s story, and they know that without her passing they would not be in that home,” Dr. Mungai said. “Do you know what those kids call themselves? The children of Caroline.”