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Fred Roberts ('79) Provides Life-Changing Experience for OH Students

Posted On: Thursday, January 24, 2019


Fred RobertsOttawa Hills alumnus Fred Roberts (’79) has turned his dream into opportunity for OH students.
 
Each summer, a group of Ottawa Hills students joins Fred at his Batian’s View Experiential Education Center in Naro Moru, Kenya as part of the Summer Learning in Kenya (SLIK) program. The students take part in a three-week service learning program, teaching at local Kenyan schools. For the students, it’s a life-changing experience. (His contributions to our students were noted this fall when he received the Ottawa Hills Schools Foundation Distinguished Alumni Award; see image below)

Junior Preston Smith, one of eight OHHS students who took part in the SLIK program this past summer,  says, “My time in Kenya would not have been made possible without the help and guidance from Fred Roberts. The SLIK students and I were able to gain a completely new perspective on life and will remember this amazing experience for the rest of our lives.”
 
Fred’s path to Kenya began within the Ottawa Hills Village limits. Fred calls the Roberts family “lifers” at Ottawa Hills Schools. From the time that the oldest of six Roberts children attended OH through the attendance of extended family members, there was a Roberts at OH Schools for thirty-five straight years. Fred says, “The school was a perfect fit for our family. We were all active. Whatever the season was, that’s what we were doing—whether it was cross country, hockey, or track and field.”
 
The seed for one of Fred’s passions was planted at OH when he started running cross country his junior year for Coach Chris Hardman. He remembers, “Coach Hardman was one of my biggest influences at Ottawa Hills. He had like sixty kids running cross country. My senior year was special because we made it to state. After graduation, I went to Ohio Wesleyan, Coach Hardman’s alma mater. He knew Marv Fry, the cross country and track coach there, so that connection helped me continue running in college.” Fred continues his running to this day, taking part in 50 and 100-mile ultra-marathons.  
After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan with a major in geography and zoology, Fred pursued an opportunity with the National Outdoor Leadership School. NOLS provides wilderness education and expeditions to build participants’ leadership skills. Fred shares, “When I was a junior in college, I was a student in the NOLS Kenya semester program. I skipped the graduation ceremony at Ohio Wesleyan to go to Wyoming to take the NOLS instructors’ course. As soon as the course was done, I got my first contract to take a group on a five-week hiking trip. From there, I slowly developed skills in other areas, such as mountaineering and rock climbing.”
 
Receiving the awardFred’s plan was to work for NOLS short-term to experience winter “west of the Mississippi.” He says, “I was going to do this for a year and then go to graduate school in geography to eventually become a professor. But I was having fun traveling and teaching, so I kept doing it.” From 1983 to 1986, Fred instructed a variety of NOLS courses in Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota, and Washington, but his real desire was to return to Kenya.   
 
In 1986, Fred’s goal was realized when he was offered an instructor’s position in Kenya. He was now teaching the same program for which he had been a student while in college. He notes, “That began my life-long adventure in Kenya. I stayed there as a field instructor for three years. I fell in love with the culture. I enjoyed hiking Mt. Kenya and hiking the Maasai land in Tanzania, but it was the people of Kenya that made me fall in love with the country. They put so much energy into whatever they are asked to do. I became really fond of Naro Moru, where NOLS was based.”
 
During this time, Fred met his future wife, Elizabeth, when she came to Kenya from Chicago as a student in the NOLS program. “We had that three-month shared experience, after which Elizabeth returned to Chicago and eventually joined the Peace Corps. We wrote back and forth during that time. After Elizabeth finished her stint in west Africa, she was on her way to India. We met up in Nairobi, and, as they say, the rest is history. She was going to stay in Kenya a week, but ended up staying three weeks. Later that April, I went back to the States for a meeting and went to see her in Chicago. She then came back to Kenya in July. She ended up working with a program in northern Kenya for three years. The commute was five hours, so she would leave on Monday and come back on Friday. We got married in 1993 in Chicago.” 
 
When the director of the NOLS program in Kenya decided to step down, Fred applied for the position—and got it. He remembers, “At age 29, I became Director of the NOLS program in Kenya. There were 7 NOLS programs in the world, and one was in Kenya. I was overseeing 12 to 13 instructors and 150 students a year.” NOLS Kenya would ultimately become Batian’s View, Fred’s own experiential educational center.
 
The Roberts family had a small house in Naro Moru and slowly added to it. Their most important addition, son Jake, was born in 1996. Fred says, “Through this time, we were growing as a family and I was getting to know more and more people in the community. We were running a really neat program, but thinking back to my days as an instructor, I realized we were serving Americans very well, but we needed to do something for the Kenyans. So I started a program that took Kenyans on two to three-week hikes up Mt. Kenya so they could understand why others would want to come do this. The first group I targeted for this experience were the school teachers around the Naro Moru community.”
 
As much as they loved Kenya, the Roberts family decided to return to the States in 1999 so their son could go to school in the U.S. “We left with heavy hearts,” says Fred, “but realistically, we would have to send our son to school in Nairobi, and we didn’t want to live there and we didn’t want to send him to a boarding school.”
 
Fred spent the summer of 1999 as the interim director for the NOLS Pacific Northwest Branch in Mt. Vernon, Washington. In September of that year, the Roberts family moved to Seattle. Fred shares, “I was thinking I would have no problem finding a job, but when people looked at my resumé, they thought I had spent the last ten years on the moon. I decided to shift my focus to a career in education.”
 
That would lead Fred to St. Gregory College Prep School in Tucson, Arizona as Dean of Students. There, he went on to run the challenge course program and develop curricula for classes called East Africa Studies and Applied Leadership and Development. Fred didn’t realize it at the time, but he was laying the groundwork for the SLIK program.
 
In 2003, a chance to return to Kenya presented itself. Fred shares, “The NOLS program in Kenya was closing down, largely due to 911. Numbers were dropping because people were scared to travel. When my wife and I found out about the closure, our immediate reaction was that we didn’t want to let the facility fall into the hands of someone who would turn it into a resort. We started talking to the executive director of NOLS, who was a good friend. He was definitely interested in keeping the facility ‘in the family.’ He knew we were committed to keeping it some kind of environmental resource. We ultimately came upon our idea—a program focused on team leadership. This is how Batian’s View Experiential Education Center came to be.”
 
Fred points out that Batian’s View has two different meanings. The facility looks out on Mt. Kenya, and the summit of Mt. Kenya is known as Batian, named for the leader of the Maasai community, so the facility is geographically in Batian’s view. “But the other reason,” Fred notes, “is really the one I named the program for. We had a wonderful Ridgeback named Batian. He was just a special, big dog that I had gotten when he was a puppy. There was a spot where we built an outdoor kitchen, and that’s the place where Batian was always stationed, keeping an eye on anyone who came on the property—they were within Batian’s view. So in the end, we had protection from on high—from atop Mt. Kenya—and protection down low from our dog.”
 
Since establishing Batian’s View Experiential Learning Center, the Roberts family has split the year between the United States and Kenya. The plan seems to work well for Fred, Elizabeth and their family, which now includes daughters Makena and Brewer in addition to son Jake. Fred says, “I can teach in the States, which is the perfect match. We will get on a plane the end of May and be in Kenya until mid-August.”
 
It was in 2005 that the pieces came together for the creation of the SLIK program. Fred shares, “At St. Gregory, the kids would intern somewhere the last three weeks of school. I thought, ‘Why not have them intern in Kenya and have them teach?’ I asked the headmaster and he thought it was a great idea. I paired this with the classes on Africa and leadership at St. Gregory, so it was a natural fit.”    
 
Fred’s earlier work with the local Kenyans as an instructor at NOLS created connections that became important in the development of SLIK. “The first group of Kenyans I focused on to hike up Mt. Kenya were the local teachers. The connection to those teachers helped me define a focus for the SLIK program. I asked the teachers what they thought about me bringing American students into their schools to help teach, and they said, ‘Of course.’”
 
Fred reflects, “It’s all the connections I made over the years that give me confidence when I bring students to Naro Moru. The locals will call me and ask, ‘Can you take my sick child to the doctor?’ I’ve taken pregnant women to the hospital for their deliveries. It would be impossible to replicate the SLIK program anywhere else. We wouldn’t have the same familiarity and comfort we now enjoy in Kenya.” 
 
Since its formation, the SLIK program has reached far beyond the umbrella of St. Gregory School, as Fred has involved students from schools across the United States, including Ottawa Hills.
 
“Richard Hylant knew about the SLIK program and got in in touch with me in 2013. He asked, ‘What about our kids? Are you going to do something for us?’ When I was in school at Ottawa Hills, I was close to Claire Hylant, Rick Brunner, and Debbie Bogart. They had kids in high school at that time, so we connected and brought Jack Hylant, Jimmy Brunner, and Ben Bogart to Kenya for the SLIK program. We’ve been taking Ottawa Hills kids ever since.”
 
This past summer, 20 students took part in the SLIK program, hailing from Arizona, Ohio, Utah, California, and other states. Eight of them were Ottawa Hills students. Fred has connections to 10 different schools in the Naro Moru area where SLIK students are assigned to teach. But the program also includes experiences such as a safari and a hike up Mt. Kenya.
 
Fred shares, “One of the goals I have when I take students to Kenya is to push them out of their comfort zones in safe ways so they can grasp that they are in the middle of a very different experience. Being the only white person in a school of 300 Kenyans is different, and I want them to feel that. But at the end of the time there, they are just known as “Teacher.” They break down the barriers and get comfortable being in the school. Then, I take them up Mt. Kenya and push the envelope even more. Hopefully they’ll use these experiences in their future. For example, that first day of college. That will be uncomfortable, but they’ll know how to work their way through it because they’ll be used to uncomfortable experiences.”  
 
He continues, “It’s a big eye opener for the American students. The Kenya students are polar opposites to them in so many ways, and they get a glimpse of those differences. But, our students see that, in the end, kids are kids, and life experiences just look different for Kenyan kids. I hope this causes our students to take a look at themselves and realize that they have the resources that would allow them to do some really good things for others. For example, Randall (Johnson) and Will (Koury) used their knowledge and resources this past summer to buy a modem for their Kenyan school. That really changed things for those teachers and kids. I hope kids like Randall and Will will continue to ask, ‘How can we use technology to help the less fortunate?’ That’s the perspective I want kids to have when they to leave the SLIK program.”  
 
Ottawa Hills students agree that their time in Kenya changed their perspective, thanks to Fred’s leadership. Senior Sulmon Mahmood notes, "Fred had such a huge impact during the trip. You truly never felt like you were doing anything alone because everything we did, he was doing it with us. He was also so experienced with the culture of Kenya and he always knew what he was doing, which made the trip that much more exciting."
 
OHHS junior Elizabeth Ponder adds, “Fred Roberts' hospitality and trust allowed the members of the SLIK program to truly experience life in Kenya and better understand how different Kenyans' way of life is. This life-changing experience has impacted me for the better and I cannot thank Fred enough for all that he has done to make the program as remarkable as it is.”
 
Fred Roberts is making an indelible impact on students from Ottawa Hills and beyond through the SLIK program. But he notes that the opportunity to pursue this dream is an outcome of his own experiences while a student at OH: "I learned from a lot of really caring teachers in a very comfortable, safe community. And I had a good group of friends, which made a great impact on my experience. They are friendships I maintain to this day. At Ottawa Hills, you look out for each other, take care of each other, and support each other. Those are the norms. It wasn’t just about academics. I found a lot of freedom to be who I was. I can’t remember anything I learned in particular, but I know I came out a well-adjusted person, ready for college. I guess you could say that Ottawa Hills provides solid grounding—it’s a launching point that allows you to spread your wings. It was a great place to grow up.” 

Go to the Service Learning in Kenya website to learn more about the SLIK program. Questions can also be directed to Fred Roberts at frob5350@gmail.com. Fred will come to Ottawa Hills after the beginning of the year to hold an informational meeting with students and the parents of students interested in going to Kenya in the summer of 2018.

Students Reflect on Kenyan Service Learning Experience

Last week, I wrote about OH alumnus Fred Roberts (’79), and how he developed the Service Learning in Kenya (SLIK) program. This past summer, eight Ottawa Hills High School students took part in the SLIK program. As with our students who previously participated in this program, they were deeply impacted by the experience.
 
At the heart of the SLIK program is the opportunity to teach at the rural Kenyan schools around Naro Moru, where Batian’s View Experiential Center is located. Our OH students found the experience to be both challenging and rewarding. 
 
Matt Sherman taught at Irigithathi Primary School. He shares, “I taught English, science, creative arts, physical education, and life skills. The teachers would give me a notebook and say, ‘This is where we left off.’ So I would pretty much look at the notebook and improvise. The thing I loved most is that the kids wanted to learn and were completely fascinated by the learning process. When they grasped a concept, their faces would light up. In physical education, we played soccer and they would all say ‘You’re on my team.’ They saw this as a chance to ask me a lot of questions about America. They made me sing the national anthem over and over! The Kenyans were kind and welcoming.”  
 
Will Koury and Randall Johnson had an especially memorable time at Gitinga School. They left their mark by opening the world of technology to the teachers and students there. Will notes, “The school was understaffed, so Randall and I taught in whatever classroom didn’t have a teacher. We eventually found out the government had given the school computers, but they weren’t being used. Randall and I went to a nearby town and bought a modem so they could have internet access. Then we trained the teachers so they knew how to use the computers. They had just never been taught how to use them. The kids had twenty tablets, so there was enough for one class at a time to use them.”
 
Fred Roberts and the SLIK participants emailed out a Daily Dispatch during their time in Kenya. In one dispatch, Fred wrote, “William Koury and Randall Johnson are teaching at Gitinga Primary School and have done some amazing things there. The school recently received two laptops for teacher use and tablets for the students, yet training for the teachers has been limited. William and Randall have filled this void and have helped advance the school's computer education program along at a staggering rate.”
 
Will’s Daily Dispatch entry included the following reflection: “When my parents and I discussed the possibility of the SLIK program back in January, I was hoping to have at least one profound experience during the trip. Now, two weeks into teaching, I can say with confidence that I have had such an experience.”
 
He continues, “This week, along with our teaching, Randall and I have been experimenting with different methods of providing Gitinga with Internet access so we can leave a lasting impact on the school, even after we return to the US. It pains us to see some of these students struggle in their subjects when, with less than one hundred dollars, we can provide them with access to the entirety of human knowledge immediately. Students who struggle could access remedial resources with ease, while stronger students would be able to work ahead and expand their knowledge. With resources such as Khan Academy, Project Gutenberg, and HyperPhysics out there for free, Randall and I feel that the best first step to empowering these students is giving them the same resources that we have in the US. We can only do so much in ten days of teaching, but we hope to move the school and students a bit closer to accessing all the knowledge and resources they can imagine. Once this happens we believe the students at Gitinga will know no limits.”
 
“From our efforts to provide these students with the Internet, I have realized how much the western world takes information for granted. Everything we want to know can be accessed instantly with our fingertips. In rural Kenya, however, Internet access is hard to come by, not to mention a lack of textbooks, so information takes on a different value that is expressed in the students’ unbounded enthusiasm to learn everything that they can. My students have been more than excited when I teach using only a piece of chalk and blackboard, so I can’t even imagine what they will be like when each student has a tablet in hand and is flying around the Internet.”
 
Rameez Mahmood taught at Manyatta School, a kindergarten through 8thgrade school of about 400 students. Rameez says, “My average class size was thirty students. I taught mainly math, science, and physical education to fourth and fifth graders. I was a bit nervous at first, but I got more comfortable with the kids. They were so excited to learn. They would practically jump on top of each other to answer a question. The school where I taught was probably one of the poorest schools in the area. A lot of the students will go into some kind of manual labor job because they can’t afford to go to secondary school. This is the school where our SLIK group worked to build additional classrooms.”  
 
Sulmon Mahmood shares that he taught at two schools—Shalom and Jupiter. Preparing for class was a challenge. He notes, “They would give me the textbook five minutes before class was to begin. At Shalom, the classes were an hour long, and my lesson would be finished in twenty minutes, so I had to get creative with filling the time. They loved to play hangman. Fred had done a good job of giving us ideas to use for any extra time we had with the students.”
 
Elizabeth Ponder also taught at two schools. She notes, “I taught math and science to fifth and sixth graders at Shalom and then history, science, and physical education at Rongai. I brought along Frisbees and soccer balls. The kids don’t have anything to play with during phys. ed. class. They would play by rolling tires around, but Rongai didn’t even have money to buy tires. Shalom was a boarding school so the kids had a bit more. At Rongai, the kids would wear one outfit for multiple days straight and sometimes their feet would be sticking out of their shoes.”

Preston Smith taught fourth and fifth graders at Kamuraini School. However, she notes, “Sometimes I would teach second or third grade because the teachers weren’t there. The lesson planning was difficult. For science classes, we’d have to do experiments, but the school wouldn’t have the appropriate equipment. The kids would pass their pencils and pens around to share with others. Sometimes the pencils they were using were nothing but stubs, but they were trying their best to write with them.”
 
Our OH students definitely impacted the Kenyan students and made personal connections with some of them. Elizabeth Ponder shares, “Before I left Shalom, I went back to say good-bye to the students. I made a connection with one girl in particular. I took her to the side and said, ‘I think you’re going to do great. Keep working.’ I had an OH wrist band on and gave that to her. I’ll never forget the way she lit up.”
 
Elizabeth and Preston also created a special memory for a girl at a local orphanage. “Her name was Jemimah,” says Elizabeth. “Her birthday was the day before and we asked her how she celebrated. She said that she was able to take a cold shower, which was a treat. We felt bad about that. We had gone to the equator the day before and had done some shopping. We gave her a bracelet and a hairband we had purchased. She was so excited. She just couldn’t stop looking at her wrist with the bracelet.” 
 
Christie Hoeflinger taught “pretty much everything” at Rongae and Iguthi schools, but her favorite memory took place a local orphanage. “I gave the orphanage the game of spike ball and taught them how to play it. They loved it,” remembers Christie. “I met a girl named Mercy and we formed a bond. I had a picture of her and me framed and gave it to her. It made me realize there is so much we can do to help kids like this. I plan to stay connected with Mercy. I’d like to help her get her high school education.”   
 
Our students’ adventures expanded far beyond the schools in which they taught. The Batian’s View ropes course was a challenging lesson in teamwork. A scavenger hunt in a local town required the students to learn how to navigate in their Kenyan home. The students shared, “We split up into groups of four and Fred gave us a shopping list and some money. Some of the items on the list were in Kiswahili or items unknown to us. When we asked Fred for some clarification, he told us to ask a shop-keeper and figure it out! In other words, we were on our own. We had to search around the stores and open market using our limited Kiswahili to see if the particular item we were supposed to buy was there. It was a fun way to tour the town, interact with those from a very different culture, and in the end, it made us feel like Naro Moru was our new home.”
 
A “camping trip” to the Samburu Game Reserve gave the students an up-close look at Kenyan wildlife. Fred shared in the Daily Dispatch, “After a three-hour drive we entered the game reserve. The tops of the vans went up and we were in safari mode. During our drive to ‘camp’ we saw many different plains animals, including zebra, gazelle, impala, gerenuk, and a few elephants in the distance. We arrived at Intrepids Tented Camp at 4 PM, our home for the next two days. What I had failed to tell the group was that our ‘tents’ came with beds, sinks with running water, and hot showers!  And on top of that, a wifi hot spot. I know for many of you this is old news as I saw students checking their email and talking with family members via face time. Again, I have to wonder about the advances the country has made in the last few years and how the world is growing smaller by the day.”
 
And their final adventure in Kenya, literally takes them to the mountain tops. As shared in Fred’s Daily Dispatch: “On Tuesday we set off for Mt. Kenya and after a six-mile hike, the last of which was in the rain, we arrived at our first camp.  On Wednesday morning, a few students were not feeling well due to the altitude or had had their fill of Mt. Kenya, and decided to return to Batian’s View.  They were able to get in a few more days of teaching and created an amazing video of the classroom building project at Manyatta Primary School. The rest of us continued on up the mountain and on Thursday the students found themselves on the summit of Point Lenana at 16,355’!”
 
In the final Daily Dispatch sent out as our students’ trip to Kenya came to an end, each one shared his or her reflections on the experience. Their thoughts are a fitting tribute to a life-changing experience.   
 
Rameez Mahmood
My biggest accomplishment while in Kenya was being able to step out of my comfort zone and interact more with others. When it comes to big groups, I tend to be very reserved. Here, I was able to step out of my normal boundaries and be very social, which was a big step for me.
 
The lasting impression that will stay with me forever is when I taught the kids at Manyatta Primary School. Just seeing how excited they were to see us or how enthusiastic they were to experience our methods of teaching will stick with me forever.

Sulmon Mahmood
My biggest accomplishment on this trip was reaching the summit of Pt. Lenana. I was way out of my comfort zone but the encouragement from my peers helped me realize this goal. I was really surprised at how easy it was to make friends while in Kenya, and this has left a lasting impression on me.  Nor will I forget the experience I gained from teaching, which was very special for me.
 
Liz Ponder
My greatest accomplishment was stepping out of my comfort zone to teach and help the students at Rongai Primary School. At first, I was very nervous, but the energy and enthusiasm from my students helped me do things I didn’t think I could.
 
My lasting impression is that of exploring Africa and observing the different culture and lifestyle of the people here. This has allowed me to gain a new perspective on life and the world. The Kenyans I came to consider friends, the Batian’s View staff, and all the Kenyan students that are part of the SLIK program made this trip a very memorable and exciting adventure.
 
Preston Smith
Pushing myself to teach young Kenyans in a very unfamiliar setting was a great accomplishment for me. Another was developing positive relationships with the other SLIK students and the staff at Batian’s View.
 
Seeing the students and their positive energy at school every day and their eagerness to learn has left a lasting impression on me. Everyone here has been so kind and thoughtful, and this has made this trip very memorable.

William Koury
I feel most accomplished about being able to train the teachers at Gitinga Primary to use their new computers. In turn the teachers can now use the computers and tablets to help their students learn even more than before I was there.
 
The vastly different way of life of the Kenyans will leave the longest lasting impression on me. Seeing what is different about others, and seeing what is the same has helped me to acquire a more accurate global perspective.
 
Christie Hoeflinger
One thing I accomplished during my time in Kenya was learning about and understanding a culture very different from my own. I connected with different people and made relationships with many people, Kenyans and Americans alike, and I’m very thankful for this experience.
 
My lasting impression of Kenya is how friendly and welcoming all the Kenyans have been to us. I’m glad to call Kenya a second home and I’d love to come back.
 
Randall Johnson
Teaching at Gitinga Primary School was a great experience, and in and of itself this was an accomplishment. Then on top this being able to implement the Wifi Internet access in this rural school was an even greater accomplishment.  Now the teachers and students will have access to the resources we take for granted in the U.S.
 
Matt Sherman
I can’t even begin to list the accomplishments I realized in Kenya.  I made many new friends, I saw a lion, and I climbed a mountain, to name a few. I did so much that was outside of my comfort zone and I feel like I’ve broken out of my shell and developed in many new ways as a person.
 
There are a few things that I will remember for a very long time, but at the top of my list is the hospitality of the people and learning about their way of life was both moving and heart-warming. Right up there was view from Point Lenana, which was life changing. Finally, having made many great friendships that I know will last a lifetime.
 
 Christie Hoeflinger summed up the thoughts of all students in sharing her gratitude for the role Fred Roberts played in making the experience possible. She notes, “Fred Roberts has to be one of the most influential people I have ever met. Although I only spent three weeks with him, learning about his life and experiences greatly impacted my perspective on my own life and experiences. He has created an amazing opportunity for students to enjoy, and I strongly encourage all students to look into this trip. My journey to Kenya has been one of the most significance experiences of my life, and that is only because Fred introduced me to the program. The way he lives his life, and the way he treats others alone, inspires me on a daily basis. He has helped the Naro Moru community in Kenya in many ways, which I hope to do some day as well. I encourage students to be a part of this program in the future, not only to travel to Kenya and experience the best month of your life, but also to make connections with so many amazing people.”
 
Go to the Service Learning in Kenya website to learn more about the SLIK program. Questions can also be directed to Fred Roberts at frob5350@gmail.com. Fred will come to Ottawa Hills after the beginning of the year to hold an informational meeting with students and the parents of students interested in going to Kenya in the summer of 2018.





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