VOY Inspire: Esther Kalenzi’s Smiles for Days

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Pearl Gahwera
Member since December 7, 2015
  • 11 Posts
  • Age 27

Esther takes a selfie with the children at the opening of the dormitory at Elohim Development Centre, Bombo

Esther takes a selfie with the children at the opening of the dormitory at Elohim Development Centre, Bombo

Esther Kalenzi is a 28 year old Ugandan woman who is passionate about children. There are many vulnerable children in Uganda, and around the Easter of 2012 she decided to mobilize resources to provide for these children. What began as a Facebook page for a one-time event became her passion, and that’s how 40 Days over 40 Smiles (40-40) was born.

What inspired 40-40?

I love children. Every time I see vulnerable children, it breaks my heart. In 2012, I decided that Easter should be about spending time with children who had no families so I created a Facebook page and invited my friends to contribute. Their willingness to help and the reaction from the children was so overwhelming that I simply could not walk away from that. At the time I had a job but after a while, I quit to focus fully on 40-40. If I felt so passionately about it, there was no reason that I shouldn’t give it 200%.

What keeps 40-40 going?

Although 40-40 began as my dream, I’d be lying if I said that I am the one who keeps it going. My family, friends and colleagues came on board and have dedicated their time despite their busy schedules to help vulnerable children, and that is what keeps 40-40 running. We organize events – Hoops4Grace, Croak & Rhyme and 5Aside – where people pay an affordable gate charge and the money raised helps us run our projects. We also have breakfasts, lunches and parties with the children where people can get to know the children and understand whom their contribution is helping.

There is a monthly subscription fee of USh 10,000 (approximately $3). Currently we do not have a lot of people on board using the subscription option but we hope to get many more. Ideally, I would like to employ the volunteers I work with as full time employees with a salary.

Do you ever feel that you and 40-40 are one? So that if your dream changed, there would be no more 40-40 after that?

Sometimes, yes. There are times when I feel that I can’t be like “normal” people, because I have to focus all my energies on 40-40. I will never be just plain old me anymore. Some people call me “Miss 40-40” or you’ll find my number saved in their contacts as “Esther 40-40” because that has become my identity. On one hand, I guess it is good because it means that 40-40 is making an impact. However, it worries me as well because I’d like people to see the bigger picture.

I need for people to know that Esther is not 40-40, she is just a small part of something bigger. I work with a team, a great team without whom 40-40 would crumble. Every chance I get, I give the team members an opportunity to step up – collect awards on behalf of 40-40, attend interviews and give talks. I would like to empower my team to become leaders so that 40-40 outlives us and they can take these skills to other aspects of their lives.

What’s your biggest fear as far as 40-40 is concerned?

If 40-40 was just about me, I probably wouldn’t worry as much. I’d be mostly accountable to myself. My part is to live my life and hope that it impacts someone along the way. 40-40 on the other hand has evolved and is no longer about my input. It’s about people that have been there throughout the journey and invested their time and resources.

Sometimes I fear that 40-40 could one day become a thing of the past. That many years from now, people will talk about it with the same attitude that they mention cool cool bar (an iced mixture of flavor and water), in passing, as an afterthought that goes as soon as it comes. That possibility scares me. I fear that all efforts would have been for naught but I remind myself that a little bit is better than nothing at all.

With oblivion seeming like a possibility that many organizations go through in Uganda, how do you manage to keep going?

I am confident because things have been done that can’t be erased from history thanks to the perseverance of my team and God’s grace. We have a good thing and I have witnessed the growth first hand.

Regardless of someone’s background, they can relate with the work that 40-40 does and this has inspired us to do more. Because of the state of employment, level of corruption, income inequality among others in Uganda, there are very many vulnerable children who need deliberate action. For as long as they remain, we have work to do.

I am an optimist, and it keeps me going, I like to finish things that I start and if the past is anything to go by, things can only get better.

Anything else you’d like to say?

40/40 is changing lives of children in Uganda, and hopefully every corner of the country and different parts of the world will experience our love. This is only because we dared to dream. Many people know us as the charity organization that arranges events for them to hang out and have fun but it’s more than just that. Even when there is no event happening (organizing events for fundraising are about 5% of what 40-40 does), the people at 40-40 are working, planning and finding ways to support the vulnerable children in different communities.

There are volunteering opportunities which we are currently working on to give everyone who is interested a chance to help out. We are working on literacy programs which include debate, poetry sessions, IT and mentorship classes to schools and communities because we understand that there are different levels of vulnerabilities. Anyone can be a part of this, but more importantly I hope that more people will be inspired to ask themselves “What am I doing to make the world better than I found it?” We need to do the best we can to give all children the life we would desire for our own.

What message do you have for youth in Uganda who are inspired by what you’re doing?

I think I have many thoughts but these are the important ones I can think of that hopefully will help:

1. On dreams – it is important to have loved ones who keep you in check. However, many decisions will require that you be your own best friend and make decisions that you would be proud of.

2. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Allow yourself to make mistakes and don’t be too hard on yourself when you do.

3. Mostly, do not let your age be a hindrance if you really believe in something. The best time to act was yesterday, the second best time is now.

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