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Q&A with Dave Saunders

1) You first went to Kenya to work on building the Children’s Home in 2006 and the doors opened to the kids in 2010. What were some of the hardships during that time and how did you make it happen given the obstacles?

When I first got there in January of 2006 I was almost completely unaware of what the obstacles might be. I had a tentative time frame of one year to be able to get everything done. That was a reflection and an indication that I really didn’t know what I was, what we were, getting into at all. I think in some ways that was a good thing because honestly if the whole thing had been clear to me in the beginning I would never have done it. If the decision wasn’t to go to Africa for a year but to go there and reframe your whole life I wouldn’t have done it because I wasn’t thinking about doing that or interested in doing something like that at that time. It just unfolded in the way it was supposed to but it was good for me not to have that complete vision. I was ready to take that first leap. I was not ready for that kind of leap.

One of the initial obstacles was the title deed for the five acres which was held up at every point with delays and roadblocks. Once I started imposing myself in that process, then we got to a guy who was the person with the power to get us the final push to get the title deed and these guys, especially at that time, could delay you for years if not forever. I went into a little run down horrible building with stuff everywhere.  This petty official thought he was going to get some money but I was not inclined to give him anything. There were delays and he wouldn’t show up and finally we had a meeting on Tuesday of Holy Week. It became clear to me the only way to get this thing done was by getting this guy some money. It also became clear to me that he would have to lose his money if things were delayed – not our money. So I just laid out the financial incentive plan. So it was a Tuesday and I told him if you get the Title Deed to me by Wednesday, I will give you 10,000 Kenyan Shillings (about $100).  If you get it by Thursday, I will give you 5,000 Shillings. If you get the thing to me after that you get nothing. So needless to say he got me the Title Deed to the Red Rhino property on Wednesday, that next day. The thinking was to make him lose money if he didn’t get it to us on time. That was the turn of the screw. Those kinds of difficulties were present and it took me a while to understand these things. Now it’s much different.

2) On the very first moment that the kids arrived at their new home at Red Rhino 10 years ago, do you remember what thoughts were going through your mind? 

I remember thinking that first day what that would mean to the kids. I was feeling the weight of the responsibility a bit wondering if we could do it – I was sure we could do it but it was a large responsibility. Just feeling really really glad the kids were there. The kids were three or four years older than when I had first met them at the rescue center. Knowing now that they had a home, that we had accomplished what we had set out to do, at least that part of it of creating a home for the kids – it took so long for it felt good. It took probably twice as long as it would now. The feeling of responsibility of wondering can we really do this and then the kids, finally. That was the end of a long journey and beginning of a new one —  it was like the beginning of a really long slumber party.

3) How have you seen the kids grow and prosper since they first arrived until now, a decade later?   

There’s the natural stuff that takes place during those years. They go to school, they grow up, they go through puberty, they go to high school now. So I would say in very much the same way as an individual child or a family where your kids might be spread out more but the kids grow up, take on more responsibility, find out more about themselves, go through difficult times. Our kids have a lot of difficulties but to be honest, I think it’s really an exact parallel to having a big family and finding your way in the world. For a lot of them, they don’t have any security of a family and certainly not a two-parent house, and for most they don’t even know one parent. But I think that’s where Red Rhino has done a good job creating a family-like environment. It is not a substitute for the original but in the world of substitutes, it’s at the top of the list. As an alternative to being raised in a family, we’ve created as much as I think we can in a family environment. I really do think Red Rhino has done a great job with regard to the long-term stability of the kids by having long-term staff. The housemothers in particular and Fiona. Many of the housemothers have been with us since the beginning. 

4) What is a funny story that you can share from your experiences on the ground in Kenya?

That is like asking someone: ‘Hey, tell me a joke’ (laughs).  Okay well one moment, that wasn’t so funny at the time but looking back I have to laugh, was the time I was arrested while we were in construction at Red Rhino. Several government employees and police showed up one day. They caught me by surprise asking me for a permit that I didn’t know I apparently needed. They told me I needed to come back to the police station for questioning but they didn’t have a ride. I told them I would give them a ride and they all jumped in the back on my pickup and I drove them all back. When I got to the station I met the big boss, and he was actually one of the most upstanding and reasonable people I’ve met over these years. He quickly saw that there was no real issue and he gave me his assurances that nothing would happen to me and let me go. I was asked to make a very modest contribution to the local police (which is really expected but which I was not aware of at that time). For all of these years since that time we have been making a very modest “donation” to the local police office.

Very first time the kids arrived at their new home at Red Rhino in 2010 hugging “Daddy Dave”. We had already been supporting them for a few years while we built the facility.
5) Can you share a harrowing story of your time working on Red Rhino?

Shortly after we opened, we had set what we thought were adequate security measures in place. We had 24-hour security, our night time security was a Samburu guy, and we had other things like lights, fences, thorn trees, etc. But in the middle of the night six guys – thugs as they are called there, a gang of them – broke into the property, probably over the gate. These gangs or groups of thugs wander around until they are caught or killed. They really have very little boundaries of any kind. They found our security guard asleep in the dining room on one of the tables. They whacked him with a rungu – a club. He didn’t die at that point but he was gravely injured. He died the next morning at the hospital. They broke into the girl’s home but didn’t do anything. They rousted others but thankfully no one else was hurt. They took an old TV that didn’t work which they abandoned 20 meters outside of our boundary. Given the nature of these guys they could have done irreparable damage to the kids, the housemothers, the property and to Red Rhino but we were lucky except for the tragic death of our security guard Daniel. The girls were especially traumatized and they talked about when the thieves came for a number of years afterwards. I told them we would never let that happen again. It was hard for me because I was in the US when I got word. I called an executive security consultant who was a friend of mine who had highly trained security dogs (Sobobo was one). He asked me if I wanted him to come to the property and track these guys. He also told me he could fly a helicopter in and land on or near our property and with the dogs, local law enforcement and others, track these guys. We made the decision to do that and we caught all of them in the end. The chopper landed near the property and that was clearly unusual as these crimes almost never get solved, maybe the police run into guys like this but generally they never get solved. And the local community had never seen anything like it when the helicopter landed with 3-4 dog handlers and law enforcement. The fact that this orphanage had been invaded, that there was a homicide and theft and burglary at a children’s home was an embarrassment – even in those times. Over time most or all of these guys were apprehended or killed in an extra-judicial fashion although I don’t know that for sure. That was certainly harrowing, especially the fact that I was in the US at the time. Interesting enough, that happened on a Saturday and we had had workman’s comp renewed the day before. As a result of that, the family of the guard was able to receive 900,000 shillings. I remember hearing that it was a big deal that the police, Criminal Investigations Department, and even the military got involved. In regard to the helicopter, it would be like someone landing the space shuttle in a field near us. After that, our security was greatly enhanced to a professional security outfit. Now we have a guard in the day and two at night who patrol with Sobobo and another dog, and we had motion sensitive lights installed throughout the property. A siren was put in that you can hear through a panic button in all the houses; they can hear it 3-4 km away like an air raid siren; the doors were reinforced with metal that no one could kick in; real security so that they could never do what those thugs were able to do. 

6) Can you share an enlightening conversation you have had with one of the kids at Red Rhino that surprised you?

No. That’s the short version. I’m sure there’s been a million of them.

I knew them at the rescued baby’s center for years before they moved to Red Rhino so it’s not like they were taken out of the blue to this new place. They were waiting for this for a long time. Now whether they understood that or thought about that or what they believed about it I don’t know.

Ronah would be a good one to ask. She’ll end up in the girl’s house and just have a talk. The girl’s talk to Ronah about just about everything. Ronah goes in and takes a nap by the girl’s area and the girls are all waiting for her to wake up.

I have more of maybe a classic Kenyan father relationship where there’s not fear but respect. It’s not that they sit down and tell me their problems. That is just not who I am to the kids. I am more the pillar of stability. They know I have their back. They know I’ll call them on the carpet if need be. And I think I’m the place that gives them some safety from the world. But I’m not the guy they tell their deep dark secrets to. That’s really not my relationship to them. Which is fine. The other thing is I’ve always been really careful to not have favorites with the kids. Some kids would be more inclined to open up than others I’m sure, but it’s just not my role. There’s a certain distance between me and the kids while all still being based on the foundation on who I am in relation to them being “Daddy Dave.” That is a generalization though. They are also growing up. Some are now college kids.   

7)  What is the situation like in Kenya with Covid and what is life like for the kids and staff at Red Rhino during the pandemic?

Basically it’s been sheltering in place since March. Ronah and I were at our home and the kids were on the property.  Fiona goes out but the kids don’t go out. The initial word was that anyone who could shelter in place should. But the reality is it is hand to mouth in Kenya and most everyone has to work. It is very different from here in that regard. It was required that everyone wear a mask, although many just wear them around their chins. I think everyone is surprised that Covid hasn’t done worse in Kenya, especially in the slum areas, but it is really difficult to get numbers. The government is certainly doing its best. They test around 5,000 people a day but I don’t think we have any real idea. The President showed some real political courage keeping bars and nightclubs closed but again no one really knows.

8) What would you say are Red Rhino’s greatest accomplishments over these years?

That could be defined in different ways.

1) The first one is: We’ve been there. We didn’t balk on our commitment and by God’s Grace we’ve kept it. I’ve seen so many groups – by far the vast majority – leave after a year or two or three. Our longevity is by far the best thing and the steadiness of it. And that is 100% because of two factors: 1) The support from home, the whole Stockton effort has been critical. We made a commitment to the kids. We have kids out now, Abigail started university. Some are still in primary school so we have a while to go.

2) The continuity with the staff and their longevity that provides stability for our kids. 

3) With the caveat that there is no family like a family, no matter almost what, as much as possible, that is best. But having said that, I have never seen another place that has given the kids more of a feel and atmosphere of a family.

4) The quality of the place: the physical plant, it’s on five acres. Most organizations or people are not willing to commit the kind of funds we have but it has made a real difference. A direct result of people giving their hard earned money to support Red Rhino. I have never seen another place like it. Other groups don’t have the resources and they are just hanging on if they are lucky enough to stay open.  

5) The quality of the education, they’ve gone to really good schools.

6) The stability of the environment and the security of Red Rhino. It is like none other I know of.

9) As the eyes and ears and boots on the ground in Kenya, what do you see as Red Rhino’s vision of the future? Where are we headed?

I would say our mission and more of the same. Full speed ahead steady. We have kids still in primary school. To finish the course. In regard to our future  growth, we will be following the same model: finding really, really cost effective ways to help make a real difference primarily through education. We are smarter now – we’ve been around a long time. We can help kids on the margin and we don’t have to house them. We can change their lives through education and various kinds of ministry that we can be supportive of such as community outreach, Sister Agatha, Kibira Pride… to apply our resources to the best possible outlets with regard to the most bang for the buck. To have the most thorough and easy ways of verifying and overseeing without having to administer any of this stuff, and by being on the ground there and being able to change the course of life. We can look around with experience to find the right places and really make a lot of difference and maximize the resources. If you think about how many kids we are helping now, if you count those that we feed, outreach, our kids, the prisons in Mombasa, we have extended our influence to around 500 kids. Our goal has always been to help a lot more kids. It might not be exactly how we planned it to be but that is what’s happening. And I can see that continuing. I can see us helping three or four  more very poor orphanages. God has given us the resources, incredible giving from our supporters, the mind of the Board to want to help, and has given us the security that the wolf is not at our door right now, and to be able to provide for that and to look beyond in really smart ways.  

10) If you had to picture Red Rhino ten years from now what do you see?

The commitment with the Red Rhino kids themselves will be either changed or finished. In terms of the Red Rhino property, we have made an investment that anyone would be extremely happy to have made. Buying something for 1/50th or 1/100th of the cost of what it is now. So we have a great resource there. I envision that our outreach stuff will continue to grow and probably even more so after Red Rhino finishes its mandate – the children’s home part. I think we’ll be doing a lot of good, hopefully with Fiona leading the charge and people like Sister and Malaika and three or four or five or six more of those kinds of projects in a very sustainable way to help a thousand kids. The future looks good.

11) What is your overall hope for the kids of Red Rhino?

That they would be self-sufficient. To feel confident in their abilities. Doing what they can do to pursue their real interest. That we can guide them as much as we can so that in their adult and married lives they can overcome the bad hand they were dealt with in the beginning. As much as possible to deal with life from a spiritual and well-rounded foundational perspective whatever that means single or married. Abigail is starting university and Joshua as a taxi driver. Whatever it means so they can live happy lives with what they do and feel solid. There’s a lot to make up. We know how childhood stuff affects us under the best of circumstances and none of us were dropped off on a [expletive] street corner by our parents. It is also a different society. That each and every kid can find their own way. To learn the real benefit of giving to whatever they find worthwhile to help others. To be generous in their lives for whatever that means for them.

12) Decades from now what do you think they will think back on Red Rhino and how will they view it?

I think it’s different for different kids. I know in my own life looking back on things you can have fondness for certain times even though they might have been tough. I hope they look back at their time with Red Rhino where they were safe, where they were recognized as individuals and not just a group – what we have really learned over these past years is to do everything we can do for them to be individuals. At their schools none of them are Red Rhino’s kids – if they want to let people know where they are from that’s fine but if they don’t they don’t. That they find their own individual way in the world but have that sense of being loved and protected by Red Rhino throughout the course of their life, forever.