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St Andrew's School in Ngong, Cameroon
Kelsey Bradley grew up in the St. Irene’s community, and she is a young woman who is building her career in architecture from the University of Philadelphia into a vocation of service. She has developed her own non-profit organization called Design Cause Inc, completed a four-room school house in Northern Cameroon this past spring, and has recently received requests to work with communities as far flung as Madagascar, Togo, Uganda, Colombia and Brazil. Kelsey’s motive was simple: "I just saw the need to give back."
While in college studying architecture, Kelsey looked critically at what her education was preparing her to do in the world. She said: "The architecture we were studying was not benefiting those who need it most. I wanted to use my design skills on the ground." She searched for a project and met with Father Augustin, who used to assist at St. Irene’s. He helped found a school in Ngong, Cameroon, and Kelsey decided to investigate.
She took her first trip to Ngong, Cameroon in January of 2015. Her flight arrived in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, late at night, and she got taken for $40 by people who presented themselves as her greeters. She made it by a 14-hour train ride to Ngaoundere, and then took a 6 hour bus ride to Garoua, the regional capital of the northern province, finally followed by a one hour drive to Ngong. While Kelsey admitted some fear embarking on this journey alone, especially after she was robbed at the airport, she found that Father Augustin’s network was "tightly knit, where tribal relations equate to family bonds." Kelsey spent three weeks assessing the needs, meeting with community members, drawing sketches, scoping out local materials, and she left with her plan.
She learned that the community wanted a "strong and durable" school structure to replace their cinder-block, stucco-covered one-room school that radiated heat. At first they weren't really looking to try anything new with design, but after engaging Kelsey observed: "They were excited to build something modern that showed that this school was better than others in the area." Kelsey formulated four objectives:
- Use local, sustainable materials.
- Create a design that locals can replicate easily.
- Keep costs low.
- Make the building thermally comfortable.
It took two years for Kelsey to turn her plan into the four-room school she completed in the first quarter of 2017. Kelsey attacked her plan on several fronts. Back at Philadelphia University, she had to convince professors to allow her to do a senior project that lacked the glamour of most final thesis projects in architecture. She successfully pushed against reluctant professors
She also had to raise the money. She started a Go Fund Me campaign, which yielded only $500, but it helped her get started. Kelsey then focused on spreading the word and building a network, one relationship at a time. The grassroots fundraising effort launched with a kickoff event at St. Irene’s. Eventually she raised the full $35,000 to complete the project. Many families at St. Irene’s contributed generously to this venture.
"I’m very grateful to the generosity of people at St. Irene’s," Kelsey said. She also had to form a board with friends and family to launch her own nonprofit organization, Design Cause Inc. Her first strategy was "to get my mom on the board," Kelsey added with a chuckle.
In addition to raising funds and forming her own nonprofit organization, she initially directed preparations in Ngong from abroad. She had purchased a brick-making machine and developed a type of shoebox-sized soil-stabilized brick built from local soil and mixed with cement. The bricks are sturdy, and they reduced the temperature inside the school building by 10 degrees, combined with a roof that facilitated ventilation. The bricks needed 28 days to dry before they could begin building. The team in Cameroon met this goal, and the building operation took eight weeks total after Kelsey arrived. She stayed at the local convent affiliated with the school.
Throughout the building process, Kelsey wanted to demonstrate "respect for the community." There were "negotiations" along the way, yet she drove forward with her "vision". She took the "teach a man to fish" proverb and helped transform a community by enabling them to continue building after she would leave. In the process, she built relationships with those in the community, and they came to welcome her "as family." One community member emphasized that most people from the outside come and offer money, but Kelsey’s approach was different. Kelsey was proud that they exceeded the goal of a two-room school house and "wound up able to build four rooms."
She taught the community a better way to make buildings that are environmentally sound and provide a more comfortable learning environment in the hot sun of Africa. When she left, one community member said to her: "We’re not going to say goodbye to you because you’re part of our community now." Kelsey has also extended her support further by sponsoring a young student at the school.
Kelsey endured suffering in Cameroon. She got sick from the water, despite the filtration system, and she returned to her parent’s home in Carlisle "sunburned, exhausted, and just wanting normal food." When Kelsey’s returned from Africa this past spring, she said that she was "very burnt out, and it took at least a month to recover." Even speaking English was exhausting, she said, because "she’d been used to speaking French for so long."
She recharged as she traveled to Switzerland to speak at the annual Good Festival on April 22nd 2017, honored as one of the "doers who are building a better world." She had the opportunity to share her experience in Cameroon and to promote the work of Design Cause. Since then, requests have been coming in, and Kelsey is excited to raise the funds and begin using her design skills to meet the needs of other communities to design the schools, hospitals and homes that will help local communities use local resources to improve lives through sustainable methods.
What is the secret to Kelsey’s success?
She's grateful for the generosity of St Irene's Community, but that is far from all. As one St Irene Pastoral Council member put it: "Kelsey succeeds because she just won’t take no for an answer. She has incredible drive and passion for what she does."
Learn more about Design Cause, subscribe to Kelsey’s blog, and consider donating to the good work of this St. Irene’s parishioner, who continues to use her gifts to serve those in need.