From the time she was a young student, Bear native Sophia Andrews has committed herself to public service. Now, the recent American University graduate, 22, was named one of 10 finalists for the Chegg.org Global Student Prize 2023. (A $100,000 grand prize is awarded to “one exceptional student who has made a real impact on learning, the lives of their peers and on society beyond,” the website reads.) Andrews was the only American chosen from the almost 4,000 student entries from 122 countries.
Andrews was just 15 when she visited Kenya on a school study program. While visiting Happy Life Children’s Home—a facility that cares for abandoned and orphaned children—she was asked to assist with the third-grade class. Andrews quickly discovered that the students, many already facing great adversity in their young lives, spoke of a deep love for music, singing and dancing. Unfortunately, no classes were available to them at the time to nurture this creative expression.
Having grown up surrounded by the arts and studying dance, Andrews offered those third-graders a short introduction to ballet; it was a simple act of sharing that would forever change the course of her life.
“I thought, how can I combine my love of the arts but also give back and allow these children to continue growing creatively and fall in love with arts just as much as I did?” she says. “Even though I was just a teenager, I knew I could make the effort to make a difference.”
She returned home to Bear and told her parents and siblings that she wanted to teach ballet to underprivileged Kenyan children and, eventually, open a school for the performing arts in the African nation. That discussion began to build on itself, quickly shaping into what would become Ngoma Kenya, a nonprofit organization that emphasizes arts education, girls’ rights and youth empowerment. “Today, we have a team of people in Kenya and are expanding across East Africa,” she says. “We expect to get 5,000 young people involved in the next five years.”
After earning a degree in international relations, Andrews decided to take a gap year before graduate school to return to Kenya. “I may continue along the same path, studying human rights and conflict resolution,” she says. “But I’m also considering law school.”
While Andrews did not win the grand prize, she says she believes that “giving is its own reward.”
A Look Into Ngoma Kenya
Ngoma, which means “dance” in Swahili, is a fitting moniker for Andrews’ ambitious NGO. Born with shortened Achilles tendons that required her to wear casts as a toddler, Andrews’ parents enrolled her in dance classes to assist in her physical and mental development.
“It was one of the first times I realized how I could actually move!” she recalls. “Dance really pushed me and gave me the confidence to try new things.”
Believing unequivocally that dance and the arts can lift up the heaviest of hearts spurred Andrews to travel twice more to the children’s home in Nairobi, where she taught ballet to overwhelmingly appreciative classes.
“I think having those outlets as a child inspired my wanting to give back to children,” Andrews explains. “Not every child is going to grow up to do something in the arts, but I see how it gives them confidence and helps them build friendships. A lot of kids in our program have dealt with so much, I think the arts are a great way for them to forget about everything for a while by having fun and expressing themselves.”
Inspired by Michaela DePrince, a Sierra Leone war orphan adopted into an American family who realized her dream of becoming one of the finest professional ballet dancers in the nation, Andrews sees great potential in her students in Kenya.
“We see it in our classes—the young Michaela DePrinces, the young Misty Copelands,” she says. “They’re all so inspiring.…That’s what keeps me going.”
For Andrews, Ngoma Kenya is about more than providing children with access to the arts; it’s also about getting their basic needs met. While the home provides such necessities as food and education, Andrews hopes that through her nonprofit these essential requirements continue to be met.
What began simply as ballet classes taught by a single individual with big dreams has blossomed into creative mélange of music lessons, painting classes and additional arts instruction. When the pandemic halted arts programs, the nonprofit pivoted to supplying food and other necessities for Kenyan families affected by the global health crisis.
When not in Kenya, Andrews misses being around the kids and the welcoming sense of community. “I have a family over there,” she says, noting the more than 5,000 kids she’s helped since launching the program. “And with Ngoma Kenya, we are well positioned to do great work in the lives of a lot more.”
For more information, visit www.ngomakenya.org.