Moses Mwaura is the little Kenyan boy many of us saw in our local news recently, brought to Minnesota under the sponsorship of Rotary International for eye surgery and dental work in March of this year.
His is an amazing story — “life-changing” is the word so often used to describe it — and it has been told now many, many times, because that is how Rotary creates a network of service for its various projects. But the complete story is about all the lives this adventure has changed, and how a moment, for that was all it was, put a process in motion that will continue past our ability to see its end.
Northwest Dentistry sat down with Sandy Schley,* who was the one who “discovered” Moses, and Tim Murphy,** who put the adventure together, on successive days. Herewith the two interviews are blended, and a separate piece with Dr. Angela Wandera,† who supplied Moses’ dental care, adds her special perspect
Sandy Schley was in Nairobi, Kenya in 2007 to monitor Rotary’s Safewater Plus project, which provides sanitation and fresh water to developing countries around the world. Deep in the Mathare Valley slum, where shanties of tin and cardboard are built literally on piles of garbage, Sandy was approached by a four-year-old child in tattered clothes.
Sandy: Usually when we talk about Moses, we talk about his immediate medical situation, his severely crossed eyes, and the inevitable question, “Why, of all the children in the world, this one?” It was happenstance as much as anything. I saw this very small boy, and wondered, “What is he doing by himself?”
He looked so quizzical, so I took his picture, and after that he wanted to be my best friend, snuggling up to me, staying close. Even after that short time, when it was time for me to go, he looked so forlorn ...
NWD: How much could he see at this point?
Sandy: Only one eye could focus on you at a time; the other would rollaway. Moses had strabismus, amblyopia, and esotropia, which the doctors described as a very bad case, although the good news was that because of his accommodation of seeing with one eye or the other, the prognosis would be good following surgery because his brain had been processing images in a certain way.
When I left that day I had no idea the impact this child had had on me, but his face was the image I carried. I kept thinking, “I’ll never see him again ... “ When I returned a year later, I remember thinking, “He could be dead for all I know.” And then there he was, clean and in his school clothes, running toward me. But did he know me? Yes, yes he did, but when I showed him the pictures I had taken of him, he pushed them away as if to say, “I’m not that boy anymore!”
By then Moses had become the face of the safe water project, representing our projects in East Africa. Rotary focuses on programs, not individuals. When I started telling this story it was for the purpose of having Rotarians understand the impact of the money we raise, how it is used in the countries that host us, and how it affects the people we may never meet who benefit. Tim Murphy was also using the story, as were other Rotarians. It was after one of these presentations that my own ophthalmologist, Charlie Barer, said to me, “Shall we have Moses’eyes fixed?” [laughs] Since I am now legendary for crying whenever Moses is the topic of interest, it was my tears that answered in the affirmative. Well, a day later Charlie had his partner, Dr. Jafar Hasan, lined up to do the surgery. Dr. Hasan is a fellowship trained pediatric ophthalmologist with expertise in the medical and surgical care of eye diseases in children. He specializes in exactly the problems with which Moses presented. Moses will never know the prestige of the person who so touched his life - it was just a miracle. Through Southdale Fairview Hospital’s president Brad Beard, we got, gratis, the operating room, anesthesiologist, nursing staff, translator, and materials. Mike Kallas, another Rotarian, drew up the legal documents (also gratis) so Tim could be Moses’ legal guardian here, and they went through rigorous international vigilance as authorities, especially in Amsterdam, made sure Moses wasn’t being stolen or “collected”.
NWD: And how did Moses cross your path?
Tim: I was with Sandy on her second trip, and was acutely aware of her neck constantly twisting looking for this little boy. At that time we had no idea Moses was the nephew of David Waithaka, our Rotary connection there - who had lived in Edina for ten years! Sandy had not really shared the story’s depth for her that first year, but when I saw her reunited with Moses, it all was very clear, and very emotional. Even so, none of us anticipated it would go any farther than that.
NWD: Did you get the same feeling when you met him?
Tim: [laughs] I found out later that he had a lot of momentum and energy, but at that time he was quiet, reserved. But even with his eyes as they were, he was a handsome kid; he had this “I love you” look, an instantaneous loving connection with the people he chose - not everyone, though.
NWD: You were there with the safe water program as well.
Tim: This program was developed ten years ago by our district leadership to focus on water and sanitation - the “plus” stands for health, hunger, and other avenues of service. The 60 clubs in our district are recognized for it around the world now, and for encouraging international participation. You would think this was the least political agenda you could pick, but there is always that criticism that we should help locally, that there is so much here that needs work. I am very passionate about international service. Rotary does not pay for any of our expenses; we pay, so there is no incentive to join unless you really want to give. I love to travel and to see the non-tourist parts of the world, so this was somewhat selfish at the beginning.
Rotary is my passion. [laughs] I would rather be a Rotarian than have to work for a living! But I found it profoundly life-changing. Even though we in the United States are going through what we call difficult times right now, this is nothing. We have so much - but to live as Moses does, that is beyond “difficult”. The international Rotary identity and all the bridges it makes available in countries around the world is invaluable for the work we want to do. It’s a very viable way of starting new colonies of good. Rotary is recognized as the largest service organization in the world, and we are welcomed, even embraced, in virtually every country we work in because we are not self-serving, and we accomplish our goals. All of this was a huge help in arranging to bring this child, to whom I was not related, from one country to another.
NWD: So you were the brass tacks of the project.
Tim: Yes, and I’d have to say it was more complicated than it needed to be, both from our government and theirs. There was plenty of paperwork, but we found the proverbial “right person” here to make that work. On the Kenyan side, however, I was trying to become the legal guardian of an undocumented child from a slum, and Moses did not have a birth certificate.
In retrospect, watching this child who was so matter of fact, so sure of his ability to do the surgery, I found a focus to get the job I had to do done. I have always admired optimists, and we have a society of so many pessimists. At the start I was not optimistic, and even as I began the process, assessing all the variables and what was needed, I was steadfastly realistic about what it would take, and what might get in the way. But Sandy, nothing gets in her way! And I could not discourage her in the least.
Logistics, air travel — the Rotary network started to kick in. The first real indicator this was meant to be was when one of my contacts got back to me with the news that Delta would cover Moses’ airfare one hundred percent. I needed that reinforcement. I am a man of faith, and I looked up and I said, “Thank you, God”. There was then in me a new energy and a newfound momentum.
Sandy has described all that came together here. Then it was time to deal with the Kenyan contingent — an entirely different culture. It was a slow bureaucratic process, with a breathtaking late-in-the-day climax when we were actually waiting for the required document to be printed. At the U.S. Embassy I actually “pulled rank” as an American citizen to get to the right person, only to discover what was holding us up was the background check. So I told him Moses had no background — “Up until yesterday he didn’t even exist!” He agreed, and we had our visa by the next day. The point is, I was not going to be deterred. I once wrote a grant for a million dollars, which is a huge undertaking, but that was almost easier than this leg of the journey. For one child, one life, we found the way, and that child in turn became that “see and touch” phenomenon that we as humans need.
NWD: Tell us about the child you found, and the child you got to know.
Tim: On two eight-and-a-half hour flights plus layovers, just the two of us, I got to know that I had my hands full! There was a lot of fussing, and some very patient other passengers, and little by little I discovered a very inquisitive child with tons of energy who was more than ready to progress in focusing that energy. He was more than a bit of a ham later, and I still remember how he loved to ride the drag-along luggage.
Sandy: Moses was very smart, creative, and musical - he has taught himself to play the piano with both hands. He can dance to anything, and is a very handsome little boy. Now five and a half, honestly his energy would leave us all exhausted, including him. And he could get very full of himself. He was fearless, but never stupid, and he wasn’t crazy about being “directed”, so I had to learn about his judgment as well. Once he jumped out of a moving car! When he arrived, people brought toys and clothes, enough to share and to grow into. He liked to get all his noisy toys going at once! He loved soccer, and the first time he saw a foosball table, he jumped up on the table to play with the teams! In short, we found a regular healthy kid trying to get out.
Prior to the surgery, Moses stayed with Tim and his wife Cindy for one night, then came to us. We discovered he wanted to sleep on the floor, but not alone (he never slept by himself in Kenya), so he ended up between my husband and me in our bed. He understood English much better than he spoke it, but he was tenacious about things that were important to him, and he got good at things very fast, even manners, like he was running for office. He ate at least six bananas a day, especially in chicken and rice soup (!), and we could see ample evidence of the fact that at home he never knew when his next meal might be. He would get very wound up, so we discovered that baths calmed him. Then he would come for a snuggle and story time, and finally sleep.
NWD: Then came the surgery.
Sandy: Moses was a model patient, both for his eyes and his teeth. He had great equilibrium, which included knowing when to behave. The eye surgery had gone very well, and when we brought him home, just coming out of the anesthesia, he was crying and whimpering, so I put a rocking chair by my front door to be in the sunshine, and a friend of mine and I took turns rocking him until he woke up. When he did, I asked him if he wanted to see himself. I gave him a hand mirror, and he looked and looked, put it down, and went back to sleep. When next he woke, he walked around, and I could tell his sight was different — he was looking, at the ceiling moldings, the lights. He could now see with both eyes. Two or three days later I had the “core” Rotarians over, and of course they all brought gifts. His stimulation level went into overload, and he was just overwhelmed. He had been used to concentrating on one thing at a time. A day later he got glasses, and had even more sensory stimulation. His doctors say he may even outgrow his need for the glasses.
You could watch his behavior and persona change almost by the hour. It was exciting, but it also needed support and direction. One thing I particularly wanted for him was to learn to know other children, and to have real life experiences here. That happened. Kids loved him, and he continued to become more alert and confident. He was an initiator, and wanted to be in charge, but not in a bad way. I would have loved to see him in an American school setting.
Tim: After my part on center stage for the trip from Kenya, I slept the first day back, and Sandy and Cindy took over. After that, I became mesmerized by how people attached instantaneously to this child — a Strib reporter, my wife and children — and I saw over and over that he was not perceived initially or primarily as a disabled child. He had accommodated so amazingly, and he had these other qualities.
NWD: He was here only nine days?
Sandy: Yes, and then we had to prepare him to go home. Be a good boy, not just on the plane, but for your mother and your uncle, be a good student ... “good” was good-bye, and he knew it. He listened. [pause] It has been a very special life experience for each of us, and we will stay connected.
NWD: What was your good-bye like?
Tim: I choked up - what would happen now? I saw him about a month later and was struck by how he had matured in that month. He has started school and is being accepted by the other children. Frankly, without the surgery, his course would likely have been to become a criminal.
NWD: But nobody just drops in and then lets go ...
Sandy: No one I know! Angela has arranged for his dental care in Kenya. It’s that Rotary network: 1.2 million in 200 countries around the world. A group is trying to work out how to help provide for his education, either through his uncle or boarding school - what would be best? There is always the worry about getting the gift to where it goes, that it doesn’t “go wandering”. We sent back dental and medical supplies, toiletries, just plain soap -
Tim: Rotary’s relationship with Moses will be lasting. Rotarians will visit him on a continuing basis. Options for his education include one Rotarian offering to fund it. The difficult part will be that he cannot continue to live in a slum and go to school.
NWD: I am a great connoisseur of “meant to be”. So this was a story you were meant to be a part of.
Sandy: Tim says, “God meant this to be.”
Tim: This child was undeniable in his presence, and though it was “meant to be” for him, we believe it was meant to be for another purpose as well.
NWD: What about his family? How did his mother feel about all this?
Sandy: His mother, Priscilla, is a single mom, as was her mother. She is a “slum lady” who washes clothes for Somalis who have relocated to Kenya. His uncle David has worked his way out of the slums. Priscilla thanked everyone she would never meet, and said he was a changed boy.
Tim: Priscilla was very quiet, very cooperative but not hands-on; always in the background. She asked no questions of us. When we brought Moses back there were no tears, and he in his turn did not jump up and run back to his family. I affectionately told Priscilla my wife and Sandy had both fallen in love with her son and “did not want to give him back”. Her response, which I now understand, was, “Why didn’t you keep him?” It ripped my heart out. Her reply was only from the perspective of what kind of life Moses could have, and what he was returning to, even with the gift of straight eyes and repaired teeth. She would have given him up for that chance, and that is something we cannot fathom in this country.
NWD: So here you are, his virtual other mother, going through your own miracle, yes?
Sandy: Yes. I was a college administrator, then went into computer software. I have learned you don’t leave anything when you make a change - which is exactly what this story shows: Everything is connected.
You have a skilled surgeon; what is he looking for? The case. This was one of the cases of his career, and this man does a lot of pro bono work through his own foundation. As with Angela, the personal, professional, and financial contribution these people make is no small thing. I hope it’s clear that none of this is about me - it’s not just about Moses. It is about the wonderful people who made this happen with whom I had a chance to work. I would never have known Tim and Angela if not for Rotary.
The purpose of 105 years of Rotary has been to bring together people from a wide variety of professions for the purpose of “service above self” (the Rotary motto), both in our communities and the world community.
There are 533 districts. Ours is known for its safe water projects. In that good work I never dreamed all this other experience would come about. This is how Rotary works, and when you make this connection, the energy generated is unbelievable. Jennifer Bennerotte, public relations and communication director for the city of Edina, pulled it all together. Your own MDA president Bruce Templeton was club president before me. I have never met so many selfless people who know somebody else who will help too! And Rotary has changed.
Women were accepted in 1989. I joined in ’96, but even now there still are not a lot of us. The old rigid requirements of business and professional success levels have changed, as has the idea that this is a luncheon club! So I had a role to play here as a woman as well. (My doctoral studies were in the career development of women.) Rotary found me when I was available to be of service.
NWD: There was a lot of media coverage of this story, but its focus was on what came to be called “the Moses miracle”. What would you offer that wasn’t shown in that kind of reporting?
Sandy: The general public reporting never added that the profession you choose isn’t just to make money. Winston Churchill said, “You make a living by what you do; you make a life by what you give.” Tim and Angela and I share values and ethics in a belief system in which we can make an impact in the world. We weren’t looking for Moses; we were looking for a project. Moses is just one child, but now it is his job also to go on and make a difference in the world.
Tim: I’d start with Angela, who spent every free minute helping him. It was fantastic to watch her with him, listen to them talk a mile a minute in Swahili. Moses’ mouth was a mess, but he was a trooper for her ... and a clown. She was in stitches! She was the perfect person to have in this mix, and that wasn’t just luck either. Among all concerned, there was not only inspiration, but action.
This story is growing by finding new tellers. There is a huge ripple effect. The Rotary Foundation is the mechanism for funding our projects, and it is the third largest foundation in the world. And Moses is a part of that, to the tune of $10,000 in contributions in a single night at one point. His value to other children is immeasurable.
I know that Moses was brought here for more reasons than just to get his eyes fixed. There were so many unexpected sequellae that it made you think, “What else could happen?” — and then believe anything could. This experience was life-changing for a lot of people in ways and to degrees we don’t even know about, but we saw it in their eyes - it opened up opportunities for people way beyond Moses.
When I was a kid in Kenya, all my dad’s friends were Rotarians, people I admired, and always in the newspapers we would see reports of the wonderful work Rotary was doing. That made an impression on me. As I moved into practice ownership and settled in Minnesota, I applied and joined Rotary (Eden Prairie) in 2005.
Rotarians are required to attend meetings once a week, so when I went to Kenya for family reasons in 2008, I attended a meeting in Nairobi. The Rotary bulletin reported my trip, Sandy saw it, shot me an email and connected me with Tim Murphy, and I returned to Kenya with him in May of 2008. I have a passion for international service, but that was when I really became a Rotarian. I knew of Moses but had not met him.
When Tim and Sandy connected me to the child, I said, “Great — I’ll take care of his teeth!” I met Moses here a couple of days after his arrival, after a birthday party on a Saturday night. He was jet lagged, overstimulated, and full of sugar. And to my surprise, he met me with a great deal of mistrust. I was the first American of African descent in this strange new environment, and he was afraid that perhaps I had come to take him back! He struggled to get out of the car, and cried inconsolably the whole trip to Edina. Once with Sandy and Cindy, he calmed. I found a bright, funny, creative child whose mind had not been nurtured appropriately, but whose creativity had been stimulated by not “having everything”. Even though I was raised very privileged in Kenya, we too had to be creative and make things work. I found him refreshing, and looked forward to the clinic evaluation.
Moses had never been in a dental office, but he was perfect. I was just blown away by this wonderful patient. Unfortunately, every tooth in his mouth had caries. We did the prophy, all the normal procedures for the first appointment, then treatment planned - in the time we had there was no way we could take care of all his dental needs. I felt like crying, but of course you can’t. The plan was to take care of the worst and arrange to have the rest done in Kenya. His two consecutive appointments would have been tough on any child. He’d had the eye surgery; he was dealing with a new world.
We gave him a mild sedative (Atarax), which helped a little. He cried a little when we gave him the local. It was a very different cry. He was genuinely hurting, not afraid or seeking attention. I did both his lower quadrants, and arranged for the rest to be done in Kenya.
For me there were many layers to this experience, including finding myself a bit defensive for the child because I had never been where he came from - very few Kenyans have. I was also proud of him, protective of him, and wanted to do the best I could for him to leave him with an experience that was positive, because it would indelibly change everything in his life.
As I remain involved in Sandy’s core group for Moses, I continue to discover that Rotary for me presents all the positive values we desire as human beings, especially loyalty. We should never “finish” relationships. I communicate with Moses’ uncle, and will be there to see the boy in a few months. My dental connections for him there are in place, and we are working on a pediatrician. So to the question we hear so often, “What can one person do?” I would simply answer this: “One person can bring help.”
*Sandy Schley, Ph.D., is governor of otary International District 5950.
**Tim Murphy is president of Murphy Automotive, Lakeville, Minnesota.
†Angela Wandera, D.D.S., is a pediatric dentist in private practice in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.