Lower Southampton’s Chris and Ashley Gasperi are bringing water, sanitation and education through the nonprofit Ekenywa
By Samantha Bambino
Ashley and Chris Gasperi led an ideal, “American dream” life in Lower Southampton — three beautiful kids, steady jobs (and upcoming promotions) in the healthcare field, family and friends just a stone’s throw away. Most would say they had it all.
But the Gasperis craved more than raises and a comfortable home. They wanted to use their energy and talents to improve the lives of others.
In 2017, Ashley and Chris, along with their children Olivia (4), Christopher (6) and Tiana (14), said “goodbye” to Feasterville and made the permanent move to Kenya, where they’ve been working with schools and communities to provide clean drinking water, agriculture, hygienic bathrooms and more in poverty-stricken areas. This is done through the nonprofit Ekenywa, which they founded with Ashley’s longtime friend, Elsie Mbugua.
Though Ashley explained the organization is still in its early startup stages, its efforts say otherwise. This year, Ekenywa, which boasts a board of directors and staff of approximately 30 casual laborers, masons and contractors, is slated to bring drinkable water and usable facilities to five schools, which Chris said will positively impact more than 150,000 lives.
In the midst of their hectic schedules, which are eight hours ahead, The Times chatted with the Gasperis through the video call service, Whatsapp, to discuss the inspiration behind Ekenywa, the impact of their work so far, and the benefits and challenges of making such a drastic move.
Until Ashley and Chris crossed paths at Holy Redeemer Hospital, both ER nurses, the future husband and wife led drastically different lives. While Chris was born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia, the majority of loved ones within walking distance, Ashley spent the first 15 years of her life in Kenya, where her parents served as missionaries. Though Ashley eventually transitioned to Feasterville, a piece of her heart stayed in Kenya. And Chris was more than supportive.
For seven years, the couple traveled there for month-long stays, working with health offices to teach hygiene education, deworm children, and brainstorm ways to bring clean drinking water to the schools. But it wasn’t enough. In February 2016, Ashley sat down with Mbugua to discuss the tremendous need that was still all too relevant and, before the two knew it, they had penned the business plan for Ekenywa.
“We always promised we were going to do something to give back to Kenya one day,” Ashley said of her boarding school roommate.
By August, the Gasperis had resigned from their jobs, Ashley at Temple University Hospital and Chris at St. Mary Medical Center, and were settled in their new, drastically different home.
“It was about six months. We sold our house, our cars, left our jobs. So now it’s been a year and a half, and I would say it’s been a pretty amazing journey. Definitely scary, a big risk. We have three children so I was a little nervous about leaving secure jobs to start our own nonprofit,” said Ashley, adding that she and Chris worked without any kind of salary and lived off savings for the first year.
When the Gasperis announced the news, loved ones were stunned. Naturally concerned, family and friends immediately thought of all the things that could go wrong. So far, everything seems to be going right.
The sole mission of Ekenywa is to help break the cycle of poverty in rural Kenyan schools and communities. Many, according to Ashley, have one pit latrine (a hole in the ground used as a toilet) for 600 students. Children are forced to wait in long lines or go elsewhere in a field. They’re also forced to carry buckets of dirty, contaminated river water to school since there is no running water.
To combat this, Ekenywa digs wells, sometimes 900 feet deep, which provide a reliable water source to not only the school, but the entire surrounding community. Thanks to the water, Chris explained how farms can then be built at the schools, allowing students to grow food. Usually, one-third of the children are able to bring lunch from home, while the remaining two-thirds learn on empty stomachs. Ekenywa builds solar powered irrigation systems so the communities can farm all year round, even during the dry season.
The Gasperis stressed that projects like these are made possible through partnerships with like-minded organizations and contractors, but also the communities. While it helps that Ashley understands the culture and speaks fluent Swahili, the locals are receptive of Ekenywa because they’re able to work hand-in-hand with the nonprofit. The Gasperis conduct a needs assessment, collaborate with them, and give locals ownership of the projects.
“That was key for us as an organization. We’re not coming to do things for the people, we’re coming to work with them to be able to accomplish our goals,” said Chris. “This is not our project as Ekenywa. This is a specific community project that involves Ekenywa.”
With this sense of trust established, Ashley reflected on how people living on less than $1.90 a day have dedicated their time for labor.
“The need is so great for water and sanitation in that area, they’re more than willing to pitch in,” she said.
As the Gasperis gear up to work with another five schools this year, projects they said their children wish to have small parts in as well, they shared a few words of inspiration.
“Generally, people want to help people, but a lot of them get bogged down with different thoughts and barriers and mistrusts,” Ashley said. “But you can really be the change you seek. So I really encourage young people, and really anyone, not to be afraid to take risks.” ••
Visit ekenywa.org for information.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org