Toddlers, teens and parents worked together to rescue native trees from invasive ivy plants at Lake Geneva Park on Aug. 26. The event was created by and for youth, but like other events held by African Young Dreamers Empowerment Program International (AYDEPI), it had an impact on community members of all ages.
AYDEPI hosts volunteer parties, events and activities throughout the year and has around 300 members throughout Washington, with about 200 in King County alone.
King County Parks volunteer coordinators started the day teaching volunteers about water cycles and invasive species. The group then worked together to clear ivy and to water native plants that they had planted in the past. The areas they cleared today will be the new home of trees to be planted at their next event at the park on Oct. 28.
Fiona Okech and her mother Beatrice Kiraguri started AYDEPI in 2019. Okech told The Mirror that when struggles faced by African youth in her South King County community culminated in multiple suicides, she saw an unmet mental health need and decided to do something about it.
“We wanted to create a safe space where youth can come together and find solutions and connect them to resources like mental health,” Okech said. “It helps to keep them occupied.”
Okech explained that while there are many services geared toward youth in South King County, there were none that were youth-led or culturally responsive. Without an understanding of the unique culture, family dynamics and values, well-meaning advice from these resources just wasn’t actionable for those youth that did seek help.
As one example, Okech said that many issues that youth struggle with are considered taboo to discuss, like sexual health, mental health, drugs and alcohol, domestic violence or homelessness. She said that “especially in our community, it is considered a shame.”
So what does pulling ivy have to do with mental health?
Many participants shared that volunteering at events like this builds a sense of empowerment, strengthens family and community relationships and provides a feeling of responsibility for something outside of themselves and their home.
Joe Njenga is a local youth leader who has volunteered with other environmental events at AYDEPI in the past and is also working on a video project to encourage youth to abstain from marijuana use.
Pointing out areas that he has worked on before, he said that AYDEPI “gives us a sense that the little things matter.” He said one recent moment that showed him this was when he and a friend were spending time at the park. “I showed him where I planted and felt proud of what I’ve done,” he said.
Bekmay Kayembe and Dias Mobula are two fathers who became friends after bringing their children to events at AYDEPI. Kayembe is a board member for AYDEPI and moved to the U.S. from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mobula is from Angola. They said they’ve noticed their children becoming more comfortable communicating with others after attending these programs.
“My oldest is 16 in two months. He was shy, not that guy to communicate. Now he has the ability to communicate and enjoy the company of others,” Mobula said.
“I’ve noticed my older children are more confident and helpful,” Kayembe said.
The two fathers also described how AYDEPI helps build a bridge between African and American culture.
“In Africa, parents decide what kids must do. Here you ask your kids what they want to do,” Kayembe said. “There you are educated by your neighbors and community, here people don’t care about others and it is just the parents teaching their kids. AYDEPI helps combine the two cultures, talk with our kids, and helps African families get integrated and live in America with an African mentality.”
Jane Kaguathi is another parent of an AYDEPI youth. She moved to the U.S. from Nairobi, Kenya, about a year ago.
Kaguathi described these differences as well, saying: “We are brought up in communities and are always yearning to be together. Here children are just alone, in the house and it is not good.”
When volunteering, Kaguathi said: “We are creating a bond, family and friends working together, pulling out weeds and these bonds become cemented … at the same time you are also exercising. It is healthy for your bodies and minds and the environment.”
The environmental aspect was a positive theme during the event as well. Kayembe said that education is important for everyone and that at past workshops, he has learned some interesting things as well, like the fact that insects actually have a positive role in an ecosystem.
Mobula added that in Angola, coal is a common source of energy that is acquired by cutting and burning trees. He said that through AYDEPI’s environmental volunteering events, youth see that instead of cutting trees, they can learn to take care of them instead.
“What they see here they apply at home. Now they are growing a little flower and watering it every day,” Mobula said.
Okech said that she is most proud of the growth of the organization and of the impact it has had on the futures of the youth leaders.
“So far we have seen a lot more youth pursuing universities, colleges or even trade schools. They are seeing that there is not just one path to education. We try to empower youth to go their own direction,” she said, instead of being forced. “It is really nice to see youth drive themselves.”
When the organization started, Okech said, “honestly we only had about maybe 10 students that were actually interested in attending. Now we have over 300 total.” At a recent event in June called Beauty of our African Youth, “We estimated that 150 people would come. We had double that.”
When asked about why she thinks the organization is so popular, she told The Mirror, “People will come where they see a supportive community.”