While Grace and Paul Kuto were successful in securing an ambulance for a small town in their native Kenya, their next step is to make sure that ambulance is able to remain running — that, and overseeing the completion of the maternity ward at the clinic they founded in Chwele, Kenya, two decades ago. Soon, the clinic will offer mid-level training for students at a medical college.
Earlier this month, the Kutos, both members of the Tigard Rotary Club, updated the club on the progress of their activities in Chwele.
Born in Chwele, Grace met Paul — who, as fate would have it, grew up two villages away from her — while they were international students at Portland State University.
In 2001, Grace Kuto co-founded the Harambee Centre, a nonprofit organization designed to connect those in the Pacific Northwest with countries in Africa through cultural exchange trips, education and exchange programs.
"We are mainly working on healthcare initiatives (and) education," she said. "We are the voice of this work in the U.S."
And both Grace and Paul Kuto founded the Chwele Community Resource & Peace Center, a compound that includes a medical clinic and extensive health care services, a guest house and retreat space.
Last year, the Kutos were instrumental in helping to raise money for the purchase of the village's first ambulance.
"We can't tell you how many lives it is saving," Grace Kuto said, noting that it saved the life of Paul's brother during a recent medical emergency.
The Kutos were able to raise almost $35,000 for the ambulance — $21,000 to purchase the new vehicle and another $13,000 or so to equip it — through donations from a variety of sources, including the church they attend, Tigard Community Friends Church, along with help from area Rotary clubs and money collected through hosting regular African dinner fundraisers.
Grace Kuto said Tigard Community Friends Church was extremely instrumental in making sure the ambulance became a reality.
"So many of the people at that church have been to Kenya," she noted.
Having recently returned from spending nine months in Chwele, Paul Kuto said he witnessed firsthand the importance of the ambulance following a collision in the village that seriously injured three people.
While one person died as a result of their injuries, a mother and her 5-year-old child were taken to the nearby clinic, where they were stabilized before being rushed to a nearby hospital.
"It saved the two," said Paul Kuto, giving credit to both the ambulance and clinic. "I was so moved to (find that) without this clinic, these people would not have survived."
Grace Kuto said her experience seeing sick and injured people coming into the clinic on a common form of transportation in Kenya — motorcycles — pushed her to start seeking an ambulance for the clinic years ago. It broke her heart to see how many of those motorcycle passengers died along the way to seeking help, she said.
So fundraising efforts began, with the ambulance put into service last year after a day-long celebration that featured many important officials from the Kenyan government.
However, on that same day, Grace Kuto discovered that a pregnant woman in the village was suffering from malaria and needed to be transported to a nearby hospital for treatment — and soon.
Still, some of those attending told Kuto it might be a good idea to hold the ceremony first, because of the number of high-ranking officials who were attending.
But Kuto had other ideas.
"I don't care," she remembers responding.
So the ambulance took off with the sick woman.
"She survived," Kuto recalled. "But you know that kills — pregnancy and malaria."
With the ambulance purchased, the goal now is to set up a maintenance fund to keep the vehicle running. (The cost charged to those who need emergency medical transportation is only enough to cover the cost of gas.)
Paul Kuto's most recent trip to the clinic included overseeing the final construction on the new maternity rooms (some of which still needed ceilings installed).
The next goal for the Kutos is to oversee the move of students from the North Coast Medical College in Mombasa, Kenya's second city, to Chwele, where the compound will now serve as home for those embarking on mid-level medical careers, said Grace.
They are also trying to find the funds needed to pay for a recently hired development director for the center.
The current Kenyan government has placed a top priority on healthcare, as Paul Kuto noted. The clinic is in the process of being accredited so it can receive universal healthcare reimbursement funds.
"People are just waiting by the door," said Grace Kuto, who worked for almost 30 years in accounting and claims at OHSU Hospital. "When people come to our clinic now, we offer comprehensive care."
The next nearest clinic is a 45-minute walk away.
Over the years, the Kutos' daughter Lutomia has helped out the family in its philanthropic work.
A musician, Lutomia Kuto has donated the proceeds of her music — having visited Africa on several occasions, where she learned to play African drums and speak Swahili — to the Harambee Center.
In addition to African dinners, Grace Kuto uses profits from her writing to aid in helping out the center.
"I'm working on my fourth book ('Be the Gift') that will be released in spring 2020," she said.
Having grown up an orphan, Grace Kuto said she knows the importance of relying on others to help others.
"I literally survived life because of people who believed in me," she said.
During the Tigard Rotary Club meeting, Paul Kuto thanked all those who have supported their efforts over the years.
"Without you, I don't think some of this work would be done," he said.
Helping out with African dinners
African Pop Up Dinners planned for October
The first African Pop Up Dinner to aid the Harambee Center is set for Primo Espresso on Oct. 6, and has been reserved by the Tigard Rotary Breakfast Club. However, dinners on Oct. 13 and 20 as well as Dec. 8, are still open.
The dinners provide tastes of cuisine of the East African region. including food fare such as rice pilau, steamed plantain, chicken curry, greens in groundnut sauce and more.
Ian Walters, owner of Primo Espresso at 15981 S.W. Hall Blvd., is donating the space for these dinners. Walters, who was 19 when he bought the coffee shop, has long supported the Kutos, and his parents have volunteered in Kenya as well.
Grace Kuto said hopes are to host an Annual African Fair and Dinner in April to support projects in both Kenya and Uganda, organized by the Harambee Centre and several area Rotary Clubs.
For more information, visit harambeecentre.org.
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