Caring for the Community: Kellie O'Brien

February 24, 2011 5:19:16 AM PST
It was during her first trip to Tanzania with daughter Heather that Kellie O'Brien knew her life was about to change.

At 67 years young, she is a professional garden designer with her company, English Gardens, in Hinsdale. A woman with a lengthy resume of local volunteer work, she is trying to change the landscape of education by starting a school in Sanya Station, Tanzania, Africa.

"My daughter Heather came to me and said, 'Mom, I'd like to do some volunteer work,'" O'Brien said. "'I would like to go to Africa. Would you like to join me?' I said, 'Heather, what a wonderful idea.' It gave us time to have a unique experience, and it gave us time to give something back."

The giving back seeds were planted early in Kellie's life. The youngest of eight children, she grew up on a farm in Crestwood, Illinois.

"I think the influence came from mother. When were growing up, we had very little. Every time an envelope came asking for donations, my mother always made sure that at least a dollar went into every envelope. So we grew up with this idea that whatever we had, we were meant to share, and I think that influenced me throughout my whole life," O'Brien said.

On that first trip to Africa with her daughter, Kellie met with a group of nuns and a man named Gabriel and learned of a desperate need for a school for the Massai tribe.

"It was so clear in my heart that we had to do this. I had never built a school in my life. I'm not an architect, a teacher, in fact, I wasn't even privileged enough to go to college, but I knew that village needed a school," O'Brien said. "After we agreed to build a school, everyone cheered. I took an envelope out of my purse, and we designed our first classrooms on the back of an envelope. My heart was so full of joy, and I never considered the fact of how we're gonna do this, I just knew we were gonna do it."

And do it she did. A year after that first meeting, she orchestrated a groundbreaking. A year after that, three classrooms were built, then six classrooms, then the desks, books, school supplies, bookcases and the library. Many items were donated from people in the Chicago area. But Kellie couldn't stop there. It hit her that the village needed something more.

"So I knew that it wasn't about just building a school, we had to transform the future of not only the children of the village, but the women," said O'Brien.

It was Kellie's goal to help the women realize they had an identity. And with thread, she taught them how write their names for the first time.

"We taught them how to sew, first of all, by writing their name on a piece of paper, at the same time they were sewing," O'Brien said.

Through education and simple life skills, the O'Brien School for the Massai is steering adult women and especially the young girls away from a life for which they may have been destined.

"By the time many of the girls turn 13 or 14, they are traded off to be married. The price -- 20 cows," O'Brien said.

This one woman from Hinsdale is doing her best to stop the cycle of some Massai children being sold for livestock. But Kellie says because of the support of so many people at home she is able to continue this mission.

For the Massai, Kellie and her crew are the only Americans they have ever met. She says the Massai children are similar to American children in that they love to be tickled; they love attention; they love hugs. She has immersed herself in their culture by learning some Swahili, by understanding their customs and by helping them to know a world outside of their huts.

O'Brien said she hopes to give them a future that has choices.

"I'm so compelled and so filled with passion to continue on the project," she said. "God equips those he sends."

For more information on the school visit