Vashon students forge friendships, nurture education in Taita Taveta, Kenya

The island delegation raised $33,000 in scholarships for 116 Kenyan girls.

Over mid-winter break, a delegation of young women from Vashon High School (VHS) traveled 9,000 miles from Seattle to Taita Taveta in rural Kenya for a life-changing cultural exchange experience.

Those Vashon students forged lasting friendships, shared wisdom and laughter, and gave the gift of education to their counterpart students in Kenya.

Comprised of members from VHS’ Girls to Girls Club, the delegation traveled under the auspices of the nonprofit SeaVuria, which is led by executive director MaryMargaret Welch, a former science teacher and former director of pre-K to grade 12 science programs for Seattle Public Schools.

SeaVuria’s mission is three-fold: providing scholarships for students, improving teaching strategies to make STEM learning more accessible, and providing technology resources for schools.

Its name reflects the partnership established in 2008 between Welch from Seattle and Bishop Wilybard Lagho, the then-superintendent of the Mombasa schools nestled beneath Vuria Hill, a landmark that houses the cellular towers for that region of Kenya.

The Girls to Girls club was founded in 2012 by five freshmen girls at Vashon High School who sought an organization to support girls who did not have the same educational advantage as they did.

A decade later, its membership has now swelled to 30 students who use their privilege to improve the lives of girls their own age in Kenya who do not have the same access to education. They meet monthly at VHS to talk with their counterparts, plan fundraisers and consider their cultural responsibility as members of the global community.

Three juniors from the club visited the country: co-presidents Kora Murphy and Selene Dalinis, and co-vice president of fundraising Julianna Steffens. The Vashon delegation was joined by members of their sister club on Mercer Island.

The Kenyan government provides education for kids through eighth grade; after that, families pay for education, typically prioritizing their sons. Girls whose families cannot afford the school fees do not finish high school, resulting in limited options for economic self-sufficiency and a continued cycle of poverty for themselves and their families.

So this year, the Vashon delegation raised $33,000 in scholarships so that 116 Kenyan girls can continue their education across 10 secondary schools in the region.

The girls fundraised all year through bake sales, online campaigns and other efforts, and pooled the money raised with their Mercer Island sister club to provide the scholarships, Welch said. They read more than 200 applications and worked with principals and teachers to select the most promising and deserving scholars in Kenya.

The delegation also gave away 40 MacBooks that were donated by a local technology company. These tools will go a long way to help bridge the digital divide faced by the Kenyan students.

For the Vashon girls and their chaperones, the experience demonstrated the common bonds that people share no matter where they live in the world — the dreams they have for themselves and their families, and the hope parents hold for a brighter future for their children.

“My heart is so full of joy and love for all the new friendships I’ve made and for the experiences I’ve had such a privilege to experience,” said Julianna Steffens. “Nothing was better than smiling and laughing with the girls I’ve been in contact with for a couple of years.”

Vashon’s student delegates visited the Kenyan students at school, attending class with them and participating in a variety of student-led activities. They learned together in a science lab focusing on DNA and exploring the question of why elephants don’t get cancer.

Vashon girls taught the Kenyan girls how to sew reusable menstrual pads (Kenyan girls miss about five days of school each month because disposable products are expensive and not readily accessible). They also talked about influential women from around the world, and the characteristics they share in overcoming adversity.

There was plenty of fun to be had during the trip, too, including a field day of relay races to build comradery among the students of the 10 schools. Students from both continents made friendship bracelets and hand signed T-shirts to bring back to the other girls in the Vashon club.

“I will forever look back at the days we spent making friendship bracelets, reading about women activists, dancing, and building friendships,” said Kora Murphy. “I felt a sense of community within our day’s activities; the chatter and music, no real goal besides having fun with each other. … This time provided a space for women to inspire one another and feel a sense of friendship and sisterhood.”

The trip turned up other surprising cross-culture opportunities, too.

Many Kenyan families use working dogs to herd livestock, but Kenya has seen an increase in deaths of livestock and humans due to rabies, as vaccines for humans are cost prohibitive in Kenya. Data show that if 70% of the dog/cat population in an area is vaccinated for rabies, the incidence of death drops to almost zero.

Two chaperones in the Vashon delegation are veterinarians, and they secured 500 doses of donated dog/cat vaccines and teamed up with the local veterinarian to provide vaccinations free of charge. The lead veterinarian for this project was islander Dr. Beth Fritzler.

For the delegation members, who have spent years of learning upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity to meet in person was especially poignant. The club has weathered the test of time; the dedicated Girls to Girls club continued communicating with their pen pals and raising money for their education during the pandemic.

The girls have established friendships over the last four years over regular zoom calls and Google chats with their Kenyan counterparts. They encourage each other academically and socially, despite being thousands of miles apart.

As an act of gratitude, delegation members were invited into several students’ homes, where they learned more about their peers’ lives. In one home, the Vashon girls learned how to make mandazi, a traditional Kenyan donut.

“I met a lot of really inspirational people on our Kenya trip,” said Selene Dalinis. “All the students value their education and really put in the work to succeed. Meeting the teachers confirmed that they, too, are working to learn how to be better teachers and help their students succeed. … I also was reminded of how powerful women are, and what we can do when we come together to make a difference.”

To learn more about SeaVuria and to donate to its mission to support education in rural Kenya, visit

Kimberly Miyazawa Frank is a board of directors member of SeaVuria.

Courtesy photo
Dr. Beth Fritzler vaccinates animals for rabies.

Courtesy photo Dr. Beth Fritzler vaccinates animals for rabies.

Courtesy photo
Julianna Steffens and Kenyan students cut fabric to create reusable menstrual pads.

Courtesy photo Julianna Steffens and Kenyan students cut fabric to create reusable menstrual pads.