Written by Chris Boyle Thursday, 09 January 2014 00:00
While an upbringing in the United States can provide a great many things — education, health, iPods — more substantial aspects of the world might slip through the cracks simply because most parents don’t have the context in which to pass them on.
For example, compassion and a sense of how the rest of the world lives; these are gifts that Lyn Dobrin and her husband Arthur first experienced doing social work in Africa back in the 1960’s, and the lessons they learned there are part of a family legacy that’s already made its way through two generations of their offspring and counting.
Lyn, a freelance writer, was born in New Jersey, but has called Westbury her home since 1968. Married for 49 years to Arthur, the couple has two adult children, Eric and Kori.
“When Arthur and I were dating back in the 60’s, he had heard a speech by Sargent Shriver about the Peace Corps,” she said. “He came to me and suggested that we join, and I said yes, much to the consternation of our families.”
Lyn and Arthur went for three months of training and then found themselves in a Kenyan village called Kisii for a year and nine months, where they primarily centered their work on education of middle-managers of the farming cooperatives in the region, helping ensure that farmers were treated fairly for their work. Lyn even published a book in Kenya. The Magic Stone, a collection of Kenyan folk tales, was published there in 1968, and is still in print.
“It was life-changing. It really caused us to look at our values and what was important,” she said. “It also solidified our relationship, and it connected us to Kenya in a very powerful way.”
The Dobrins kept up with Kenya and the people they knew there, and in the 1980s they started leading safaris to the country for social workers from Adelphi University. Every summer in July they would take these workers on tours of various areas throughout the country, giving them a taste of what life was like there outside of homogenized view normally experienced by tourists.
“We really wanted to connect Americans and Kenyans,” she said. “Cross-cultural connection is very important, and we wanted people to come to know each other. You can really get a lot of insight if you’re open to it.”
Over the years Eric, has also gotten actively involved in his parents’ social work; due to his birth in Kenya and subsequent visits over they years, he developed an unshakable connection to the country, one that was only deepened when he married his Kenyan wife, Maria.
Now, Eric and Maria’s 17 year-old son, Ryan, has become part of the next generation of Dobrins with roots in Kenyan culture and a drive to help those less fortunate than himself.
“My upbringing has helped give me a greater sense of awareness of the rest of the world and a greater appreciation for what I have. Typically, our view of the world tends to be very geographically close to where we are,“ Eric said. "My wife and I have been able to transfer that to our son, he’s very in-tune with these sort of things as well, and I’m sure this is something that will be passed down through generations as well.”
On one of their social work trips, the Dobrins met an educator named Dr. Japhet Maranga who had aspirations of starting a school in Kisii. Spurred on by Dr. Maranga’s desire to provide education for children who otherwise would have little or no access to it,
Arthur, who at the time was a member of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island, gave a talk upon returning to America about life in Kenya and enlisted the financial support of local charitable groups to help with Maranga’s school, the Sema Academy, which first opened its doors in 2000.
“We send over about $8,000 every year for them to do whatever they need to do with it,” Lyn said. “There are no administrative fees; no one is making any money on this. Every cent goes straight to the school.”
Because it costs money to attend the school, there are also scholarships available, and people can also sponsor an individual child; $165 will cover a day student for the entire year, and for a boarding child, its $375. That covers school fees, uniforms, tuition,
books, a room, and a daily hot meal, Lyn said.
“Children that would have either received no education or an inferior education are now getting a good education,” she said. “That has a ripple effect. The better education someone has, the better equipped they will be to move forward in the world.”
Tragically, Dr. Maranga was murdered several years ago; Lyn alleges that he was specifically assassinated for still unknown reasons that may or may not relate to his position as a leader in his community. However, Dr. Maranga’s daughters have taken up the mantle
of running Sema Academy in his absence, and while the school continues to thrive, it also faces a whole new series of challenges that they are seeking to overcome, Lyn said.
“The school is built on the border of two neighboring tribes, and because of post-election violence, we had to send over extra money so the school could hire armed guards,” she said. “Right now the families are raising money so they can move the school onto the family compound, which is further into Kisii and away from that border. We’re helping to raise money for that as well.”
Arthur himself said that he can look back over the hard work he and his family have put into helping the people of Kenya with a steadfast sense of pride and accomplishment.
“It’s very satisfying. We went to the Peace Corps 40 years ago for two years, and we thought that would be the end of it, but that’s not true,” he said. “But what we’ve been doing over the years has been a continuation of our Peace Corps work a generation and a half later. That’s very satisfying, because it closes the circle of something that we started a very long time ago.”
In the end, Lyn said that the greatest legacy you can pass on to your heirs is compassion; the desire to help their fellow human being, be it next door, the next town, or even a little country in Africa half a world away.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to know that your children and your grandchildren care about people, and are doing something to make the world a better place,” she said. “No matter who you are, find something and try to do good in the world. I think you’ll feel better, happier about yourself. I know I do.”
To find out more about Sema Academy and how you can help, visit www.semaacademy.com.