Dr. Robert Mendonsa, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon from Flower Mound, TX, left his private practice and moved to Kenya in 2008. He and his wife Julie founded Naomi’s Village Children’s Home in Jan 2011. The home now provides total care to 89 parentless children. They also opened Cornerstone Preparatory Academy (2013) and LEAP Preschool (2017), which together provide holistic education to 380 students daily. Community development programs they started also play a major role in addressing generational poverty in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya.
While working to get the above ministries established, Robert also served with CURE Intl. as a volunteer orthopedic surgeon in Kijabe, Kenya from 2008-2019. There he helped to train Kenyan residents, primarily focusing on teaching sports medicine and arthroscopy of the knee and shoulder. Additionally, he took service trips to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somaliland, where he operated on dozens of patients with war related injuries, motor vehicle trauma, congenital anomalies, tumors, and bone infections.
Robert and Julie have two children, Emily (24), a first-year student at Keck School of Medicine at USC, and Will (22), a graduate student at Columbia University in the City of New York. Both graduated from high school in Kenya.
Bob lives near the town of Longonot in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.
Where did the idea for Naomi’s Village Children’s Home come from?
In the early 2000’s my wife Julie and I were sitting squarely on the bullseye of our American Dream in the suburbs of Dallas, harboring no latent desires for something different. Then suddenly a new door opened. From 2003-2007 our family took 4 trips to Kijabe, Kenya, where I volunteered as an orthopedic surgeon for 7 months in a remote hospital overlooking the Great Rift Valley. During breaks from caring for patients, we joined outreaches into surrounding impoverished communities.
The HIV epidemic had devastated one particular truck stop town in the valley below the hospital, leaving an orphan crisis behind. We encountered hundreds of destitute and parentless children growing up under brutal generational poverty. Tragic scenes were everywhere – an ailing grandmother raising 9 frail and dirty kids in a shack made of burlap sacks and cardboard, a baby left in a ravine to die, two toddlers holding hands next to the Trans-African Highway with eyes as vacant as haunted houses. What had become of their pasts? What would their futures hold? Our hearts, once sheltered in suburbia, had become dry from not having to see and accept that others lived like this. And suddenly it seemed we were constantly grieving the everyday torments of others. Disastrous circumstances swirled like vividly unjust tempests all around and through them, tearing to pieces what ought to be.
With each Kenya visit, we familiarized ourselves with individual children and their plights and began to help in tangible ways. We found it impossible to ignore such realities like we had in the past, or to summarize the struggles of the unfamiliar aphoristically. There became a joy in knowing faces and names and helping to carry burdens too big to ever leave on a child’s shoulders. Returning to Western busyness could never again narcotize the terrible bitterness that welled up inside each time we recalled their withered bodies and tragic stories. Global issues like widespread poverty, the AIDS epidemic, and Africa’s orphan crisis had sunk in deep, becoming shockingly personal to us.
The decision to step over a line and never go back, to say yes wholeheartedly to something beyond understanding…I suppose in its basest terms it can be thought of as a choice. Yet sometimes one’s heart aches so badly that to turn away would be to surrender to a fate far worse than apathy.
Yet statistics framed the orphan crisis as an “unwinnable battle”. Over 50 million children were parentless in Sub-Saharan Africa. Children’s homes, according to UNICEF statistics, were failing in their mission. Tens of thousands of poorly resourced orphanages were not demonstrably lessening the effects of this massive humanitarian disaster.
Nevertheless, we left Texas and moved to Kenya in 2008, determined to engage and do our part. There didn’t seem to be another honest way of living from that point forward.
Fortunately, with surrender came an idea, as if it had been waiting for us in the only place it could have been – the middle of the Southbound road that led from Texas to Kenya. You often don’t find out what is next until you commit yourself to action. Only then do you discover what is truly possible.
Accepting that we were never going to fully solve this crisis in our lifetimes, we embraced our vital role and took on the challenge anyway. We also had an epiphany – these children were a huge potential army that lay untapped all around us, waiting to be resourced, developed, empowered, and charged with helping the rest! They were not merely struggling kids, but a massive treasure of human wealth needing redemptive care and the example of how to live life on purpose for others.
Seeing them as the solution to their own nation’s crises was the idea; they had to grow up to be servant leaders that helped usher in a brighter tomorrow for Kenya, no matter what it took. At the outset, we could not understand how that would be possible, but knew we had to get started. Beginning with a children’s home fit for raising 100 children orphaned by abandonment, violence, and disease, we set our hearts on starting a ripple effect of lasting change through them. This first group of children needed everything necessary to succeed as leaders, but also field training to serve others.
That was and still is the dream behind Naomi’s Village Home in Kenya and its associated programs, which were borne from the necessity to act, the willingness to move forward without all the answers, and the realization that the seeds of lasting change lay dormant within Kenya’s youngest citizens.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
At 7 a.m. I awaken to children’s voices blended with a clatter of construction noises. Our home sits on a 24-acre plot that is being transformed from a barren field into a first-rate K-12 school for 1,000 local students from the Great Rift Valley. Necessity dictates using every building and space as soon as it is available for the operation of Cornerstone Preparatory Academy. Children all around our school, including many who are not Naomi’s Village orphans, need help now. They live in hunger, without adequate schools and lacking basic healthcare. Over 380 are now being fed, educated, provided with deworming medication and medical care, taught valuable life skills, and given rich early exposure to art, music, dance, drama, and sports. Many receive regular counseling, and all are provided a daily refuge from abuse, neglect, and exploitation.
I sit in on senior planning meetings with Kenyan staff, make visits to our high school construction site, and evaluate operating procedures in our kitchen, health center, classrooms, gymnasium, and storerooms. Supervising department leaders, building teams, encouraging communication, verifying proper use of resources, and fundraising are my front burner activities. On most days my scheduled meetings are spliced together by constant electronic communications with a dozen Kenyan leaders at our children’s home, preschool, and school, which sit on separate properties about 4 miles apart. Periodically, I race down the two-lane Trans-African highway in my Toyota Land Cruiser Hardtop from the school to the children’s home, playing chicken with oncoming semi-trucks, motorcycles, donkeys, and meandering herdsmen. African Standard Time puts us 9 hours ahead of our US office team. As my workday in Kenya ends, things are just kicking off in Dallas. This reality means that working as late as midnight is common for me.
Maximum productivity requires clear communication, in multiple formats, and in the context of dialogue. Misunderstandings and a lack of buy-in are productivity killers, and both are minimized by effective communication among team members.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Taking a great new idea from the moment of conception to full realization requires vision casting to staff and givers, attention to detail, stewardship of scarce resources, trial and error, and building the right team. We value involving all stakeholders in strategic planning. It takes sweat equity to inspire others to formulate goals, help them plan strategies for carrying them out, and keep them focused on achieving results that will bring about lasting change. We want our leaders to take advantage of every opportunity to share our vision with another person who can help make our dream a reality. Finally, we emphasize and model tirelessness and perseverance in the face of relatively meager early results.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I have recently been intrigued by the tiny home building movement, which has taken tens of thousands of homeless off the streets in the US, restoring dignity and community to broken lives in the process. Boxabl has made forays into this niche by creating a 400 sq. ft. factory-built home that can be unfolded from a compact, easily shipped box within a matter of hours. 3-D concrete printers have also proven to be valuable tools that can be used to simplify the task of building small, durable, but beautiful homes for the chronically homeless. These hold implications for the practical eradication of poverty’s stifling terms in underdeveloped nations like Kenya.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Mine and Julie’s productivity has been greatest when there is the juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory realities – the sheer impossibility of a task we are facing, and an innate unwillingness to ever admit that something cannot be done. Just knowing there are tens of millions of orphans in Africa ought to severely dampen our enthusiasm for attempting to solve the issue. Yet hearing the staggering number paradoxically serves as fuel every time it comes up. We would rather go down swinging in a really big fight than to win a bunch of smaller “winnable” ones. There is victory enough in knowing that we gave this one incredibly important thing our all. Others will finish the vision one day. We don’t need to know when in order to do our part. So it is taking on the greatest of tasks that leads to the most productivity, especially when there is a greater purpose than materialism behind that task.
What advice would you give your younger self?
As a young man, I used to believe life should be protected, managed, lived within careful guidelines, and following structured plans. I literally lived my life planning the future instead of living the present. Now it is clear to me that life was meant to be spent fully and fearlessly. I would tell my younger self to maintain a deeply held conviction that life cannot be held onto or controlled like a substance or commodity. I would want it to know that it is literally slipping through grasping fingers with every passing moment. And the value of each singularly beautiful one will never return again to be enjoyed a second time.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
The world is broken through and through, and no amount of Pollyannaish hopefulness or the further advancement of humankind will ever change that empirically proven fact. Politics cannot, nor will the introduction of novel ideologies to the masses. Every human bears the genotype of a bent nature at birth, and none is able to live out a different phenotype as a result. The blame rests upon every single one of us and carries with it an expiration date. We must awaken to our need of forgiveness, acceptance, and redemption for the way we actually are. The most frustrating among us are not usually those who offend others the most, but instead those who cannot seem to acknowledge they have weaknesses and are an offense. When we awaken to who we are, we understand ourselves best as broken pilgrims in need of forgiveness, passing through a place where we don’t really belong, and on our way to a better home. We stop trying to lead, surrender to our incapability to find the way there, and begin to follow our Maker. Having spent time studying the world’s religious books and thought, I believe the Bible offers the clearest path home.
As a corollary, I believe we might as well accept bittersweetness as a familiar and warm blanket rather than a jarring burst of cold air that hits us unexpectedly. Life’s richest joys intermingle with hints of pain, like intentionally crossed fibers of an exquisite fabric. The world’s beauty and goodness tell us about a once-perfect beginning, while its tragedies offer proof of an all-encompassing fall that tainted it for us all. That striking dichotomy cannot be ignored for long, if we pay attention wholeheartedly. Yet sadly, most Western intellectuals live as practical agnostics, atheists, and secular humanists, preferring a far more complex explanation for simply understood realities. As a physician trained in the scientific method, I often feel at odds with my own profession over having a settled interpretation of the evidence all around me.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I build my team through relentless and intentional communication about Naomi’s Village’s vision and the particulars I wish to see carried out in order to reach it. My team is my number one asset, so no compromises can be made in building it so that it is the best at what it does. That takes communication, in a myriad of ways, sparing no words.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
When we began Naomi’s Village, we determined that we would never depend on large monthly donors who support a “cause” such as the orphan crisis in Africa. We knew that would never be a viable long-term strategy, especially during times of economic downturn, when donors would invariably drop off. No, we had to engage thousands of people to contribute small amounts monthly to support individual children that we helped them to form a real relationship with. We wanted Naomi’s Village to be like a true village, made up of those with hearts connected to children. Yet we wanted the village members to have a reasonable financial relationship with us that did not put them at too much strain. By approaching it this way, we also raised up an army of helpers who made other tasks easier, including capital fundraising for constructing school buildings, buying buses, etc.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Early on, I used to make a habit of hiring inexperienced, but well-meaning friends to work for Naomi’s Village in our U.S. office. A few stayed around longer than they should have despite their poor fit. This slowed our progress and created undue stress for me and for our Board. I had to learn to interview and hire the most qualified and experienced people to run our U.S. operations, then give them the reins.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I have long wanted to see the care of orphans and vulnerable children in impoverished communities be “franchised” or scaled up. After 5 decades of research that have established which poverty interventions and early childhood care programs are most effective and which ones bring the most value per dollar spent, someone ought to have put it all together into one model by now. Such a model would include the right materials, trainings, programs, blueprints for the necessary buildings, hardware, software, staffing, costs, everything. Funding is readily available and would be put to more effective use in addressing worldwide poverty if there was replication of what has already been proven to work.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
We recently bought two hard shell carrying cases for our laptops. They double as lap desks, keep all our cords organized, and protect our computers from all the dust and road impact of Kenya’s rural environment.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Julie and I travel all over the US visiting donors twice a year to raise awareness and support for Naomi’s Village. We hate wasting time in traffic and not knowing where the speed traps are. The Waze app is a brilliant way to monitor the road ahead for obstacles, accidents, traffic police, and recommended detours.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I strongly recommend Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder (New York: Random House, 2003). This nonfiction novel follows the life of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard infectious diseases specialist and founder of a rural hospital in Haiti. The author attempts to keep Dr. Farmer’s pace for a year as he tirelessly cares for patients, travels to countries around the world lecturing at forums and addressing the treatment of resistant strains of tuberculosis and HIV and strategizes with his team on how to eradicate poverty and global health issues. Never have I read a book that challenged me more about the way I ought to be living my life.
What is your favorite quote?
“And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time.” – Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010.
- Children, especially those growing up in poverty, remain greatly undervalued in developing countries like Kenya. Great strides would be made towards eradicating generational poverty in these nations by dedicating more resources and efforts towards raising and empowering these children to become future change agents.
- The greatest opportunity for positive change occurs when determined people band together and accept responsibility for taking on seemingly insurmountable battles.
- Life moves on, inexorably and much faster than we’d prefer. Live on purpose for the sake of those who suffer, while you still have your shot. In that, there will be no regrets.
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.