David Gruber, right, with daughter Courtney in front of Kathi s House during a visit to Kenya in April 2008. Courtney, then 14, is the youngest child of Kathi and David Gruber. Contributed
Photo: Contributed
Photo: Contributed

What began as a way to help children now aims to help a country

A decade has passed since David Gruber traveled to Kenya for the opening of Kathi’s House, providing a home and hope for orphaned children affected by the country’s HIV epidemic.

Since then, 30 children have been helped at Kathi’s House.

Gruber, a 59-year-old information technology executive from Atlanta, still finds it hard to believe.

When he and his wife, Kathi, talked about one day focusing their passion for giving back on international missions, Africa was not top of mind.

Then in the fall of 2005, Kathi Gruber began experiencing severe stomach pain and was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Chemotherapy at first cleared it up. But within a few months, it came roaring back.

It was about that time that a team of volunteers from an Alpharetta church was in Kenya testing orphaned children for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Of some 50 children tested in one orphanage, five tested positive, including a little girl named Rebecca who was close to death with late-stage AIDS.

RELATED: Adopted from orphanage in India, siblings want to pay it forward

“It really broke our hearts,” said Connie Cheren, a nurse and one of the women who made the journey. Cheren and the others soon returned home, but little Rebecca was never far from their minds.

Cheren was trying to figure out what to do next when a friend called with bad news. Kathi Gruber had died on June 5, 2007. Cheren hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting Kathi, but she knew a lot of people who had. So many people loved and admired her for her joyous and generous spirit.

When her friend called again the next day, Cheren heard God ask, “Are you listening to what she’s telling you?”

Cheren had helped her own sister through the death of an only child. Maybe she could help David, too. She called her friend back and asked if Gruber might want to do something in Kenya to remember Kathi.

Her friend didn’t know but promised to call Gruber. An hour later, he and Cheren were meeting in the parking lot of a nearby church, where she told him about Rebecca and the other AIDS orphans.

When Cheren finished, Gruber had just two questions. What do we do? And how do we start?

Within four months he had raised $35,000, enough to build what would become Kathi’s House of Restoration, a home serving at-risk children near the small village of Maai Mahiu about an hour northwest of Nairobi.

It made sense.

Kathi Gruber, whose heart for missions led her to serve as an administrator for the North American Mission Board for six years, had been an orphan adopted from Korea.

In November 2007, Kathi’s House opened with six children — some who’d been separated from their parents, some whose grandparents were unable to care for them, some who were HIV-positive and some who had AIDS.

RELATED: Here’s one good way to honor your mom this Mother’s Day

Later that year, Kenya erupted into post-election violence. Hundreds of thousands had been displaced. This time, Gruber and Cheren partnered to raise $50,000 to help and, working through another local nonprofit, operated a “Peace Bus” that traveled to the most-affected regions to bring food, medical care and hope to many.

On this and each subsequent trip to Kenya, Cheren, then a full-time health care consultant, discovered more need. She decided to start her own nonprofit to help.

When Cheren shared what she’d been doing in Kenya with colleagues at a nursing home, they decided they wanted to help. One of them, who wanted to do something in memory of her son, opened the first computer school there. Today there are nine computer schools that have trained hundreds of people in the country.

And that’s not all.

Less than a year after Kathi’s House opened its doors, Cheren spearheaded the start of Partners for Care, the nonprofit devoted to ending the preventable deaths of children from disease and poverty.

To this day, Partners for Care operates in the basement of Cheren’s Alpharetta home, where she, Gruber and members of the Kenyan band Temple of Worship — which travels the country spreading the Gospel and raising awareness about HIV — gathered recently.

RELATED: Global Paint for Charity recycles leftover paint in developing countries

U.S. volunteers raise the funds for Partners for Care’s staff and programs on the ground, but it is the Kenyans themselves who do the work needed to help their own. Last year alone, they raised $850,000 to run programs throughout the country.

Samuel Wanjau, director of Partners for Care in Kenya, said hundreds of thousands of Kenyans have been helped by the nonprofit to date, including more than 1,800 who have gone through its IT schools, more than 21,700 who have received medical care at the PFC clinic — which opened in 2011 — and 35,000 who’ve received backpacks that enable the safe transport and storage of water.

In addition to rescuing Kenya’s children, Partners for Care also has a widow’s program that helps them keep their children in their own homes.

“We learned through the years that orphanages are not good for children, so the focus now is on prevention, helping them remain in their homes,” Cheren said.

So far this year, they have sent 200 more computers to the country to open 20 more computer training schools, including in prisons. Partners for Care focuses on offering people sustainable solutions for earning a living. Anything to break the cycle of poverty.

When Partners for Care started in 2008, Cheren said that 473 children under age 5 died every day from preventable diseases such as malaria, pneumonia, waterborne illnesses, HIV and AIDS. Now, many such children live. Even Rebecca, the little girl who was near death when Cheren first visited Kenya, is a healthy, happy, 14-year-old high school student.

When Gruber met Cheren all those years ago, he never imagined helping Kenyans on this scale for all these years.

“I was seeking a way to work through grief in a way that would honor Kathi’s life and love of children,” he said. “This has certainly done that and more. Kathi would be embarrassed to be receiving any attention, but would have a huge smile, knowing that children are being loved and saved.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.