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How Traveling Halfway Around the World Helped This Photographer Find Her True Calling

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All Photos By Tessa Marie Images.

A volunteer trip to Kenya reignited Tessa Smucker’s passion for her craft.

Getting wrapped up in work—even work you love—sometimes means forgetting the reason you got into it in the first place. After seven years as a commercial photographer, I’d forgotten—or maybe just pushed aside—what truly motivated me. Things snapped back into perspective on a trip to Kitale, Kenya, in January 2017 for the Neema Project.

It wasn’t my first time in Africa. I’d gone in high school, through Family Legacy, heading to Zambia. Moved by the idea that photography has such power to evoke emotion and transport people to a place they may never be able to go, I decided to pursue it as a career. While the initial inspiration was clear, nearly a decade passed before I would bring my camera back to that continent.

Within hours of reaching the Neema compound, I fell in love with the culture and the people—not to mention the mission, which works to equip vulnerable young women in Kitale through skills training, counseling and discipleship. Having grown up in a Christian community, I knew about the sort of short-term projects where people travel to Third World countries to help with a certain need. While they are well meaning, such missions don’t always provide the life skills or support needed for lasting success.

I was immediately drawn to Neema’s unique model, focused on longevity. Rather than simply doling out kindness, Neema is about empowering individuals to help themselves. This is all the more important given the gender inequality in much of eastern Africa.

Click the arrows above to scroll through photos from Tessa’s trip.

Over the past five years, Neema graduates have an 85 percent employment rate upon completion of the program. Last year, all students passed the dressmaking exam. Neema offered 63 group counseling and social skills classes in 2019, and 147 individuals took part in counseling. Thanks to fundraising help from a West Chester-based team, the organization is thriving.

Inspired by the program, Bryan Enslein saw an opportunity for his students to get involved. Enslein is an adjunct professor of civil engineering at a Villanova University. Neema badly needed a new campus for its participants, so Enslein proposed a way for his students to contribute to the cause through their senior capstone project.

For the past two years, students and their professors have been working to design a new sustainable, sanitary, enviro-friendly campus in Kenya. They’ve even mapped out potential locations for the new campus.

Earlier this year, the Villanova students traveled to Kenya to learn about Neema’s needs first hand. Through the program, the cycle of extreme poverty can be broken. Over the course of three years, participants learn how to sew while taking part in counseling, building friendships and healing old wounds—especially those that are unseen.

It’s not easy, but the end results are life-changing. And they last.

Tessa Smucker is Main Line Today’s staff photographer.

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