Sweet Relief

Sweet Relief

Steve James helps give Kenyan families a fighting chance

Words by Ashley Locke

Photos by Kenya Relief

It started with $24. A 16-year-old girl, unable to sleep, became enthralled by a late-night Christian Children’s Fund (now ChildFund) commercial. She woke her father, Steve, determined to become a sponsor for a child in need. He tabled the talk until morning, when he insisted that if she felt so passionate, she should get a job to make the monthly donation herself—so she did. For three years, she sent $24 of her monthly income to a child in Kenya named Newton. She hoped to meet him one day, but she wouldn’t get the chance. Instead, her gift was much, much bigger.

On September 14, 2001, Brittney was found unresponsive in her college apartment. The country was still reeling from 9/11, and her parents felt as if their lives had shattered. It would have been easy to be consumed by the grief, but Steve and Greta James remembered Brittney’s fierce compassion for others. They decided to lean into love.

Despite warnings from cautious family members, six months later Steve booked his first international flight to Kenya to meet Newton. “Everyone was opposed to me going,” he said. “They were fearful something would happen to me—and I was anxious. But God was telling me I was going to see that boy.”

His nerves didn’t last long. “I never felt in danger, and I made good friends. It’s not any different than going up to Nashville,” he said. “Kenyans are very friendly people. They have the most beautiful smiles, and they are very welcoming.”

But as he met with Newton in bustling downtown Nairobi, Steve couldn’t help but wonder why he had been given so much. “I live in a historic home, my kids got cars when they turned 16, and we went on regular vacations,” said Steve. He’d brought Newton a suitcase full of gifts, he purchased a cow for Newton’s family, and he helped pay for a pipe to bring water to Newton’s town—but there was so much more need. “I left Kenya knowing I was supposed to give back. My life changed on that first trip.”

That was the beginning of KenyaRelief.org, an organization that has brought over 5,000 volunteers to Migori, Kenya to perform over 6,000 surgeries for those in need over the last twenty-plus years. It has also provided housing and education to over 400 orphans. The sixty-acre campus houses an orphanage, a school, and a medical clinic, but through his years in Kenya, Steve realized one question was being asked of him more than any other: “When are we going to have a safe place to have our babies?”

The maternal mortality rate in the United States is around 20 deaths per 100,000 births. In Kenya, that number is 350, and in the town of Migori, the number is a staggering 673 deaths per 100,000 births. The infant mortality rate tells the same story—there are 5.5 deaths per 1,000 live births in the United States, while Migori has 50 deaths per 1,000 live births. The issues are compounding—hospitals are far away, transportation is often limited to motorcycles, and resources such as clean water and sheets are scarce. “Human beings are the same all over the world,” said Steve. “They want their children to be successful, to get an education, and to be healthy. No mother or child should die during birth.” So, he decided to build the area’s first Maternal Child Health Hospital. 

The hospital is already in the works—the foundation has been laid. The end result will be a two-story hospital with sixty-five beds offering forty-plus services with the ability to add three floors. There will be a triage room, pediatric beds, antepartum beds, labor rooms, a C-section room, semi-private beds, a classroom, and so much more. Steve hopes to change the experience of healthcare for mothers. “When you come into a hospital the good experience is when you feel like the most important person that provider has seen all day,” he said. “We will have adequate tools to deal with emergencies. Privacy is very important—they’re used to being overcrowded. There will be comforting Scripture or words of encouragement on the walls, and pictures in every room. We want to have a water feature, and a cafeteria for guests so they can get something healthy to eat. We will respect people’s religious beliefs. A bill of rights for patients is not always common, but you deserve respect as a patient.”

KenyaRelief.org has raised $740,000 to go toward the hospital, but they still need about $1.3 million more to reach their goal of finishing the hospital this year—and the hope is that it won’t stop with this one hospital. “At some point we’re going to create competition, which isn’t competition because we help people,” said Steve. “We’ve sponsored equipment and sent it to needy hospitals. We work with locals, so we have our own small team of Kenyans that will grow and grow. We exchange ideas and techniques and methods. We don't go there with all the answers.”

“Americans live in a cocoon and we think everything we do is the right way—we’re living the way God wants us to live. There’s a book called “The Hole In Our Gospel” by Richard Stearns that says somehow you think the world you’re living in is all there is, but the world is a global place and we should be connected and caring for people as God reveals them to us. It’s our responsibility as human beings to care for others,” said Steve. “A lot of people don't know what to do or who to help, but I would invite people to look at Kenya Relief and pick it apart and see if it's a place they would like to find more purpose in their life.”

It started with a $24 donation, but the impact that Brittney made has touched thousands of lives. If you would like to make a $24 donation to help build the Maternal Child Health Hospital, visit www.kenyarelief.org.