Clothing drive heads out by the plane load

March 9, 2009

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Teens load down 737 with gifts to Kenya that won’t soon be forgotten

Issaquah students, Kenyan students and Kenya Airways flight crew members pose Feb. 11 with two of the many boxes of donations. By Greg Farrar

Issaquah students, Kenyan students and Kenya Airways flight crew members pose Feb. 11 with two of the many boxes of donations. By Greg Farrar

As the new Kenya Airways 737 lifted from the tarmac at Boeing Field, Sabrina Barnett, 15, and Kim Varney, 16, watched, knowing the gifts they loaded before take off wouldn’t be forgotten.

What began as a simple idea for a local clothing drive turned into a yearlong journey to benefit young women a half-world away. It also left the two girls watching the plane with their new Kenyan friends shrink into the distance Feb. 11.

“It was hard to see them go,” Sabrina said.

“There was a lot of crying and hugging,” Kim added.Nemhan Le, Kim’s mother who works for the The Boeing Co., told the girls about a program they sponsor in partnership with Kenya Airways last spring. It was then, the girls knew their mission had to go global.

“We thought it was so cool to be able to help people in another country,” Sabrina said.

The donations go to the Wema Centre in Mombassa, Kenya.

“It is an organization that takes homeless children off the street, mainly girls, because there are a lot more homes that support boys,” Kim said. “They take them in and give them food, shelter, education and support.”

Since 2004, Boeing and Kenya Airways have teamed up to give young Kenyan students the opportunity to travel to the Seattle area for a week’s worth of educational activities. The students visit a university and public schools with American students, see snow for the first time, visit the Space Needle and tour the company’s Everett facility, according to Bernard Choi, a spokesman for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

The goal is “to jointly invest in the long-term development of five Kenyan schools and to find new ways to contribute to furthering students’ education in Kenya,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We feel it is important to help young people everywhere to broaden their horizons and to fulfill their potential.”

The program sends the students back home with knowledge and supplies, like computers, books and clothing to share, he said.

The girls began with a shoe drive at Sabrina’s former school, the Epiphany School, which yielded more than 75 pair of barely worn gym shoes. The girls then went door-to-door in their neighborhood, dispensing large plastic bags for families to put donations in.

When it was time to collect, “we had this little toboggan sled and were hiking through the snow with all these bags,” Sabrina said. “Then, it all slid off the back and went ripping open and we decided after that we needed a car.”

“We couldn’t believe how much people donated,” Kim said.

With help from local sports teams, their neighbors and students at Ballard High School, the girls collected and labeled 72 large boxes of clothing, shoes and supplies.

The weight of the items in the plane’s cargo hold was roughly a half-ton, Choi said.

But the girls’ biggest lesson was meeting the five Kenyan women chosen to come to Seattle this year.

“When we heard the girls were visiting and we’d get to meet them, we were really excited,” Sabrina said.

They all went bowling Feb. 8 at Lucky Strike in Bellevue.

Kim also went with the girls to visit Western Washington University. There, they attended a seminar about AIDS and the girls had really insightful observations about how they and their country have been affected by the disease, Kim said.

The girls talked about how female circumcisions spread the disease through dirty equipment and how missionaries undermine education about contraception, she said.

Sabrina and Kim said their favorite part was going shopping with the girls at the Boeing store.

“We helped them pick out their sweatshirts and compared what ones were cool for each girl,” Kim said. “We were shopping just like we were if we were friends that hang out all the time.”

“We really got to bond with them,” Sabrina said. “They have hopes and dreams and like some of the same things we do.”

“Some wanted to be doctors, one wanted to be a judge,” Kim added. “We had lot of things in common, even though they were from across the world.”

On the Web

Wema Centre —

Reach Reporter Chantelle Lusebrink at 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment on this story at

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