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Distant connection: Cottage Grove residents see 'personal tie' in Kenya aid work

Marybeth Boyle, of Cottage Grove, said she feels a personal connection to a group of women in Kenya who have taken in orphan children whose parents died of AIDS. Boyle is part of Grandmother Circles, a locally based group providing funds and support to the Kenyan women. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente)

The small group of elderly women raising dozens of orphaned youth are a half-world away, but Cottage Grove residents Marybeth and Joe Boyle can’t stop thinking about them.

The Boyles are involved in Grandmother Circles, a nonprofit organization that raises money to provide clean water and other resources to a group of grandmothers who care for roughly 100 orphaned children in rural Kenya.

“They’re one with their people and it’s kind of marvelous to watch,” Marybeth said of the grandmothers. “There’s just been a fire in us to try to be supportive of what they’re trying to do.”

That fire was first sparked in 2010. Marybeth learned of a St. Paul nun who was organizing a trip to Homa Bay, Kenya, to help a group of widowed grandmothers who had rejected a cultural expectation that they participate in what amounted to arranged marriages following the death of their husbands.

Instead of being “inherited,” Joe said, the women set out on their own to care for children orphaned after their parents died of AIDS. They are a small community of self-reliant women who believe education of the country’s youth, including the orphans they take in, is key to improving their future.

Access to water

Marybeth has a background in nursing and went on the 2010 trip with the main intent of evaluating the orphans’ health. She discovered that the 200 children she assessed were in better health than she expected — in part because the women are caring for them, they attend school regularly and get a meal there and their diet includes vegetables grown by the grandmothers.

What they lack, however, is vital: access to clean water. There is no water or sewer infrastructure; girls carry jugs of water up to 5 miles one way to the village before school. And even that water is not immediately potable or drinkable; it’s dirty and in some cases it’s salt water.

The Minnesota group returned from the month-long trip and formed Grandmother Circles, a charitable organization to help the Kenyan women. Marybeth is involved and Joe is on the group’s board.

Their first goal was to collect $8,000 to purchase 16 water tanks to collect and store rainwater.

“It’s much purer than if you’re getting it from a puddle,” Marybeth said.

The Minnesota organization met that goal and has helped to make the Kenyan grandmothers self-sufficient in other ways. They provided money so the women could buy chickens. They built a chicken coop to protect the birds from bush country predators, including snakes. Now the women can raise the chickens and sell the eggs and meat.

“What you’re doing is helping them sustain themselves,” Marybeth said.

The grandmothers are loosely organized in groups and have developed skills they use to earn money. Some sew student uniforms purchased by local schools, using machines powered with a foot pedal because electricity is scarce. Others make and sell pottery.

The potters are the focus of Grandmother Circles’ latest fundraising effort. The group is trying to raise money to purchase a large cistern to collect rainwater from the pottery building’s roof. Up to 300 people go to the pottery building daily for water.

The group’s goal is $10,000, and any money that’s not needed for the cistern would be targeted to efforts to keep girls in school.

 Marybeth, 79, said it’s easy for her to want to help the Kenyan women and orphans because they’re closer than the miles between Cottage Grove and Kenya would suggest.

As she was leaving Kenya at the end of her 2010 visit, Marybeth was asked to look at a young man who was ill. After Marybeth gave the man medicine for shingles, he gave her a piece of paper with four names on it. They were Americans who had served in the Peace Corps in Kenya years ago. Marybeth didn’t expect to locate any of the four when she got home, but out of courtesy tucked the paper in her journal.

On her trip home, she looked at the paper. One of the Americans listed had her maiden name.

It was her nephew, who had done a stint in the Peace Corps and, by chance, had worked with the same man whom Marybeth would encounter years later.

“We have a personal tie,” she said. “You just think how small the world is.”

For more information or to donate to Grandmother Circles, go to or call Marybeth Boyle at 651-497-8779.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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