Portland may seem a long way away from The Gambia, but as Foday Kabba sees it, there are more than a few commonalities.
“The kids over there are no different than the kids in the United States,” Kabba explains. “They’re like sponges. If you put them in the right environment and provide them with the right materials and education and training, they will soak that up…They also push the envelope. They see how much they can get away with. They get in trouble, and they get in fights. It just goes to show me that kids are kids. It doesn’t matter which part of the world they’re from or what color they are. They just want to be loved and supported.”
Kabba is not a father himself but he is uniquely qualified to observe this fact. He emigrated from Sierra Leone as a child and founded Kalabash Academy in 2018, which offers education, soccer training, and the chance to go to college abroad to a select group of students. It is work, Kabba notes, that has the power to transform people’s lives. And the people of Portland have the chance to help.
The Need Abroad
If it’s been a minute since your last geography class, The Gambia is a small country in Western Africa known for its coastal beauty. It is, however, beset by challenges. Close to 50% of the population lives at or below the national poverty line; only about half the adult population is literate.
Because approximately 63% of Gambians are under 25 years old, youth are particularly impacted by these social and economic challenges. Or, as Kabba puts it, “Youth tend to pay the penalty of this poverty.”
Kabba’s own life has been the exception rather than the rule. His father was born in The Gambia; his mother was born in Guinea. After fleeing Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s, Kabba attended Gonzaga University where he played soccer and earned a bachelor’s degree in finance, marketing, and sports management.
For Kabba, soccer was the door through which the opportunity of education lay. And education transformed his life.
“I felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to leave, come abroad to the United States, get a great education and pretty much have the world in my palms,” he says. “I can do anything I want. And I wanted to let these kids who are [essentially] me a few years back to have the [same] opportunities.”
The Solution Here
That desire led to Kabba’s founding Kalabash Academy in The Gambia with plans to expand into Sierra Leone and Guinea in the coming years. Kalabash combines Kabba’s twin passions of education and soccer to give each incoming class of 20 boys and 20 girls the chance to defy the statistics of their country.
Children try out for a place at the academy, which functions as a day school until the kids reach the age of 16. At that point, they move into the school to finish their education, which is based on U.S. curriculum but taught by local educators. Kalabash then works with the students to secure scholarships to universities around the world.
The support for this program, Kabba notes, has been substantial and validating, but they are still not where they would like to be financially. Kabba gave up his corporate job and scaled back his coaching engagements to focus on building Kalabash. “It’s a full-time-and-a-half position,” he laughs. He spends half the year in Portland raising funds and managing the administrative side of Kalabash; he spends the rest of the year in The Gambia overseeing the school where character development and community building are taught alongside soccer, science, math and English.
The Portland Connection
So, how does an academy located halfway around the world tie back to Pediatric Associates of the Northwest? In a word (or five): Dr. Mari Kay Evans-Smith.
For more than 20 years, Dr. Evans-Smith has supplemented her clinical practice at PANW with her passion project: medical work abroad. From Kenya to Haiti to Bolivia, she has either joined or led teams of doctors in setting up temporary clinics to serve people where healthcare is limited and the need is great.
“Every time I go on one of these trips,” Dr. Evans-Smith says, “I’m reminded of how the rest of the world lives. It’s important in my daily life to be mindful that many people don’t have access to great healthcare and healthy food and a lot of the things we have here. It’s an important value to me that we consider equity.”
Dr. Evans-Smith’s twentieth medical trip abroad will be to The Gambia in February 2022 (as long there aren’t Covid restrictions). Developed in partnership with Kalabash Academy, the trip will bring together a team of 24 healthcare providers, including internists, pediatricians, optometrists and specialists in dentistry and nutrition. It will also include Dr. Evans-Smith’s co-worker, Dr. Pilar Buerk, who frequently joins Dr. Evans-Smith on these medical teams, as well as Medical Assistant Stephanie McIntyre and a few new collaborators whom Dr. Evans-Smith has recruited.
The plan for this upcoming trip is extensive and speaks to Dr. Evans-Smith’s experience with practicing medicine abroad. When visitors arrive at the temporary clinic, they will undergo a triage process to assess their needs. Everyone will meet with a medical provider; those who require specialty care will be connected with the right person.
Additionally, a dentist will be on-hand to provide extractions and fluoride treatments, and treat cavities. A pharmacy will also be available for medication. The whole clinic will be up and running for 5 days.
“A lot of things have come out of these trips besides providing good quality healthcare for people in underserved areas,” Dr. Evans-Smith notes. “One of my behavioral health specialists even ended up marrying one of my translators!”
Granted, most people don’t get married after these trips, but personal connections tend to be foundational to the experience. Dr. Evans-Smith makes a point of staying in simple housing close to the people they serve, for example. She and her team work to learn the culture and customs ahead of time, and they try to connect with the local community over meals and in conversation as much as possible.
The results bear out the effort. After a trip to Peru, for instance, a past team member explained, “These medical teams changed the way rural medicine was offered in the high Andes. Doctors started leaving their hospitals to run clinics in the villages and communities. Before this, very few rural people ventured to the hospitals because they feared them.”
How You Can Help
While not everyone can provide healthcare in underserved communities around the world, everyone can pick up a few school supplies and drop them off at Pediatric Associates of the Northwest from September 14th to October 23rd, 2021. Donation bins are available in each office. Patients are also encouraged to bring their donations when they come to Pediatric Associates’ Drive-Thru Flu Clinics.
Amazingly, this is truly all it takes to make a big impact in the lives of students at Kalabash Academy. The school, Dr. Evans-Smith explains, needs supplies of every kind:
- School supplies
- New/used desktop or laptop computers, or smart phones less than 5 years old
- Used or new books for age 10-20 year olds
Financial donations are also accepted to offset the costs of shipping these donation items to the school.
This spirit of giving back—because you can, because you care—is entirely in keeping with Kalabash as an organization. Kabba, after all, left the corporate world to pursue this project because he felt compelled to give back to his community of origin. Even the name “Kalabash” hearkens to this sense of abundance, nourishment and versatility.
“The word ‘kalabash’ doesn’t exist,” Kabba admits. “It’s a play on words from the plant. A calabash is a gourd that’s very common in West Africa…The gourd provides food. When you’re done using it as a food source, it’s malleable enough to change into a bowl or a spoon. Some women use it to carry water. I like how flexible it is. It’s not just nourishment; it can be transformed. That’s the idea we have for ourselves. We are not just one thing.”
And everyone can play a role in its growth and evolution.
Giving program, which began 10 years ago. This enterprise awarded approximately $10,000 in small grants to some 10 different organizations, many of which were personally supported by PANW staff.
While COVID forced PANW to suspend that program, Dr. Bluhm hopes to reinstate it soon. And, in the meantime, PANW’s latest donation continues to create ripple effects of good within the community at large. Not only is Hopscotch providing a much-needed resource, it’s expanding its focus by partnering with Sport® Oregon to encourage physical activity among kids.