AMERICAN FORK Deanna Pilling had to learn to keep a game face when she first saw the poverty in Kenya, Africa.
"They don't know how destitute they are," Bret Van Leeuwen warned.
"They have absolutely nothing, yet they are so grateful and happy for what they do have," said Becky Woolstenhulme, 18, of Provo. "It was an eye-opener for me. It changed my life big-time."
The president of Stratus Insurance Services, Van Leeuwen discovered the Mnyenzeni Valley and its cluster of five villages several years ago. The valley is about 300 miles south of Nairobi near the South Coast.
He founded Koins for Kenya, a charity set up to help fund projects in the valley that improve education, agriculture and the water supply.
Pilling and Woolstenhulme were part of a group of Utah Valley residents Van Leeuwen took to Kenya for three weeks to work with villagers. He makes up to four trips a year, Pilling said. Volunteers pay their own way.
Included in the group were two Boy Scouts working on their Eagle Scout rank. One was Pilling's son, C.J., of Orem, and the other was Scott Peterson of Alpine.
The boys taught the natives how to build wooden desks for the schools. They built several hundred, Deanna Pilling said. The desks get the children off the floor.
Van Leeuwen works only with villagers who are willing and able to pitch in and help themselves. Every project is self-sustaining.
He paid his first visit to Kenya several years ago.
"The first trip hooked me," he said. "The second one I fell in love."
His visits have continued despite warnings not to travel abroad following the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. What he found were people who wanted a hand up, not a handout. Many had family members who had died of HIV/AIDS or who were suffering from malaria. But they were willing to build schools for their children and improve their community without assistance from the government.
"It gives them ownership and promotes a sense of accomplishment," Van Leeuwen said. "They're so willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve their goals and to dream that I can't help but embrace them."
One boy lost his father to a snake bite and his mother abandoned him. The boy rises at 4 a.m., studies, then goes into the field to earn money to eat before school.
Known as Baba Bret by the natives, Van Leeuwen's charitable organization now assists five primary schools, three kindergartens and two secondary schools, totaling more than 1,400 children. AIDS education has led to a greatly reduced incidence of the disease in the village of Mnyenzeni, where he set up his headquarters, and surrounding villages, he said. The schools that received his assistance now produce many of the top students in Kenya, he said, and have attracted the attention of government leaders.
Van Leeuwen set up a board of directors in Kenya to run the projects in his absence and to approve new ones.
Any project requires 10-20 percent of the funds and enough volunteer labor for noncraft work. Van Leeuwen says he contributes the remaining funds, which come from donations or his own pocket. He also has a Web site, www.bvffoundation.com.Besides education, other self-sustaining projects include:
Farming the villages now have a tractor to till their acreage. Some 20 percent of the crops go to the school district.
An earthen dam to create Cougar Lake named after BYU's mascot from annual runoff is in the works. The dam will help to provide water and combat drought. The 900-square-meter lake will store millions of gallons of water, he said.
A chicken ranch that provides eggs to feed the children with the surplus sold to buy feed.