Former New Zealand professional rugby player Michael Hobbs spent 5 weeks as an IVHQ volunteer teacher in Kenya in 2016. Three years later, he’s still there…and he’s just finished a $350,000 fundraising drive that’s seen a whole new school built.
This is the story of a volunteer who exemplifies how you can make a difference. Michael Hobbs crossed continents, undertook a mammoth fundraising effort and overcame powerful political forces - all to make true on his promise to support a community to empower its children through education and help build a better future.
Michael Hobbs was at something of a crossroads in early 2016. He’d played in New Zealand’s top rugby competition and was finishing up his third season playing in Japan. He was still relatively young, at just 28, but injuries had taken their toll and he was recovering from the latest round of surgery.
Inspired by the philanthropy of his late father Jock Hobbs, a former All Black and Chairman of New Zealand’s Rugby Union, he retired from rugby and enlisted as an IVHQ volunteer in Kenya, where he was placed as a teacher at a primary school in Africa’s biggest urban slum.
When Michael arrived at Blessed Hope School in the Nairobi slum of Kibera, it was a little rough. And that’s putting it lightly. The school catered for 155 children in an overcrowded church hall with dirt floors and no walls to separate the classes – it was chaos. But the way the children arrived every day at school with positive attitudes and beaming smiles inspired Michael to do more.
“It was somewhat of a progression throughout the entire time there. Immediately you see there’s a need, and I think the more time I spent at the school the more attached I got with the children and the staff. That’s when I started to think, ‘it’s great me coming over to volunteer but what more can I do?’” Michael says.
Michael tells of one child, a boy who asked if the best performer in their weekly homework could be rewarded. He agreed, and asked the boy what he thought could be a good prize. He didn’t want sweets or snacks, as you might expect a young boy would. What he wanted was a single pencil.
“When I said goodbye after that initial stint I promised them all that I would find a way to build them a new school that they could be proud of.”
He was good to his word. He’d raised around $12,000 for a few improvements during that initial 5 week period, but that wouldn’t go far. It certainly wouldn’t bring about the kind of change Michael was committed to making.
“We realized that because we didn’t own that property, and because it was near the railway, it would always be at risk of being taken over and demolished, and subsequently that’s now happened.
At $7 a month, Blessed Hope School was one of the more affordable schools in Kibera, though most of the 1 million people who live there earned less than $1 a day. Education for children can often be sacrificed in order for a family to survive - a necessary short term measure, but it does nothing to help lift children and their parents out of the abject poverty in which they live.
Michael realized what the school really needed was a proper campus. One that had facilities that would help children learn and that couldn’t be taken from them.
So Michael was inspired. He enlisted the help of a few friends, including NFL player Kenny Vaccaro. He took to crowdfunding. He founded the Blessed Hope Project. He scavenged and he hustled. He sought out a block of land, builders, helpers, fellow volunteers - anything he could to make his goal of providing a new school a reality.
He did all this while also studying for an MBA business course at Stanford University in California.
It was starting to pay off - fundraising was going really well. Michael’s crowdfunding platforms were bringing in money from all over the world and it seemed people were eager to donate to such a good cause. But things would hit a major stumbling block in mid-2017.
Michael’s friend Kenny Vaccaro had become a public face for the fundraising project in the US, using his profile with the New Orleans Saints to start the Kenny Vaccaro Foundation. He played a big role in raising the awareness of the Blessed Hope Project.
Then came the kneeling controversy that became a major political issue in the US. Fatal police shootings involving a number of black victims in the US prompted some NFL players to kneel during the traditional pre-game national anthem. It quickly became controversial, with players being accused of being unpatriotic.
President Donald Trump even got involved, saying NFL owners should “fire any son of a b***h” that disrespected the flag.
The weekend after Trump’s statement, a large number of NFL players demonstrated during the anthem by kneeling or sitting on the bench. Kenny was one of 10 New Orleans Saints players who sat.
The reaction was swift. People who had pledged funds towards the Blessed Hope Project pulled out. Half of the Board of Directors for the Kenny Vaccaro Foundation resigned.
Their fundraising banquet was canceled.
It wasn’t long before Kenny’s NFL contract was torn up.
“Fundraising is around momentum”, Michael says, “and we had some good momentum before that. When I was doing the financial planning, that initial banquet that we were going to have in October 2017 was projected to raise around $75,000. Then another one [was being planned] in around April or May of 2018 that we were hoping would raise another big chunk of cash.
“When that situation played out I was looking at the spreadsheet changing some of those numbers to zero and thinking, “how am I going to make that up?’”
A stroke of good fortune in Michael’s studies would prove influential in turning things around.
“I ended up in a writing class at Stanford with my professor Glenn Kramon, who used to be an editor at the New York Times, and I wrote about what had happened. He said ‘I think this is really good and we should try to get this published.’ I asked him what that meant, he said ‘we can send it off to the New York Times and if they like it it can go on a conveyor belt of stories, and when they have space or it’s relevant they’ll run it.’
“That was on the Friday, on the next Wednesday the NFL came out with the mandate that all players stand for the anthem if they were on the field. Glenn thought the timing was perfect [for my story], and he sent it to the New York Times that night. I woke up on Thursday morning to a call from the New York Times to say my op-ed was being run that day.
The impact Michael’s story would have was telling.
“That was huge for us in terms of kick-starting momentum on the fundraising again. We received a huge outpouring of support. When I was struggling to see the way forward, it re-motivated me and allowed us to move on.”
Kenny, now playing for the Tennessee Titans, doubled down on his commitment to the Blessed Hope Project and donated $100,000.
The beginning of 2019 marked a massive change. On January 7, the Blessed Hope Project opened a new school on a new block of land with double the capacity of the initial school. It’s a far cry from what Michael first encountered in 2016. It can cater for more than 300 children. It has individual classrooms and a school hall. This one even has walls.
Michael has raised a grand total of more than $US350,000 and directed the construction of the brand new school.
“This is a day I will never forget”, Michael posted proudly on Facebook. Nearly three years to the day since his initial IVHQ application, which he expected would take up just a few weeks of his time, he finds himself a proud ambassador for a project he could never have known would change so many lives.
“I had a great experience. It always seemed a lot more difficult than it actually was to go and volunteer somewhere. After I’d signed up with IVHQ I thought, “that was actually really easy.” I had a great experience, didn’t have any issues and really enjoyed the host family that looked after us.”
Michael insists this is just the start. He’s back in the US and (after graduating in 2018) now working in California, but is already eyeing up how he can improve the school even more.
“Now we’ve achieved the school being built it’s turning our focus to the operational aspect of it. We’ve got a curriculum we want to develop..arts, music, computers…so it’s trying to expose the students to some different subjects or interests, and if they want to kick on to high school or university that’s fantastic. If not and they just use our school for a safe environment, then that’s what we’ll do.
“We’re working through the budget for this year. Once we have that up and running then potentially we could look at doing something else…an athletic department or a sports academy, who knows. But we’re definitely not done.”
Michael is a testament to the way in which IVHQ volunteers can extend their impact and work with the local community to develop outcomes that will have an ongoing impact. Many children now have increased access to education - an opportunity that can change their future for the better. He has more than made good on his promise.
You don’t need to commit years of your life to make a difference. The significance of Michael’s work cannot be understated, but that too can be said of volunteers who take on short term volunteer opportunities.
If you’re ready to pack your bags and experience Africa in real life then you can find out more about volunteering in Kenya with IVHQ here.