Turning Tragedy into Transformation

Turning Tragedy into Transformation


Words by Dawn Owens
Photos by Curtis Coghlan

The passion for what he does reflects in his eyes. As this man talks, you are compelled to action. Steve James, Founder and CEO of KenyaRelief.org, is a powerhouse of passion and energy. He has spent the last seventeen years transforming the lives of Kenyans, along with thousands of people from all over the world. Kenyarelief.org is leaving a legacy of hope for the next generation of Kenyans. 

On September 14, 2001, Steve and his wife Greta were driving across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Just days after 9/11, the shock of what had occurred in New York and Pennsylvania was still being processed all over the world. When, after hours of sightseeing, Steve turned his phone back on, he discovered he had 26 voicemail messages, all of them telling him to call home. 

His middle child, Brittney, then in college in Asheville, North Carolina, had been found dead in her apartment. In shock, Steve pulled over as his wife went into a catatonic state. There they were, on the other side of the U.S. from their daughter, struggling with how to return home. They were left broken, grieving, and confused. 

“Why, God?” 

God had a response for them, but it was not in San Francisco, Asheville, nor their hometown of Cullman, Alabama. God would answer that question halfway around the world in Migori, Kenya. 

Before that revelation came, they considered their daughter’s generous heart. At 16, Brittney had awakened them at midnight to share her desire to sponsor a child in Africa for $24 a month. Steve, hazy from sleep, told his daughter to return to bed; they would discuss it in the morning, never even considering she’d mention it again. But Brittney was on a mission and, although her father pointed out her unemployment, she persevered, and by Monday obtained work at a local doctor’s office. That was when she started a monthly sponsorship for Newton, a three-year-old Kenyan, through Christian Children’s Fund. It was a sponsorship she maintained until her death. 

Months after Brittney died, Steve and Greta sought counsel from a couple who had also lost a child. They encouraged them to embrace their grief, but to also consider a way to honor Brittney’s memory. Steve knew then, “Come hell or high water, I was going to Kenya to meet Newton.” 

As a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, he inquired via the internet about the medical conditions in Migori from a Kenyan hospital administrator named Joseph. Joseph described their dismal resources. 

With the assistance of a Cullman Regional Medical Center hospital administrator, Steve used the money raised by friends and family from Brittney’s funeral, to ship the first freight of donated medical supplies to Kenya—and sent himself with it. 

Steve made the journey in March 2002, only months after securing nonprofit status for the “Brittney Ann James Newtown Child Fund,” which would later become KenyaRelief.org. 

The mission of Kenyarelief.org is to rekindle hope for a new generation of Kenyans through partnerships between communities, uniting for a common good. 

Steve’s first trip to Kenya ripped off the Americanized blinders he wore to the tragedies of abject poverty. Partnering with a local hospital, he participated in an outreach under a tree two hours into the bush where they “gave out pills from a suitcase.” It didn’t take long for him to realize they were putting tiny bandages on a gaping wound of serious illnesses. 

“Though I had good intentions,” Steve explained of his desire to respond to the dire need, “it did not mean I needed to immediately do something. It’s important to have a plan.” 

There was no plan that day to solve the myriad medical issues for the hundreds of people who came out. “Their circumstances necessitated surgeries, long-term healthcare, or treatment for preventable diseases,” Steve shared. There was no way diseases such as malaria, typhoid, brucellosis, and various chronic infections could be healed that day. 

It was after that trip that Steve’s question changed from, “Why, God, did this happen?” to “Why, God, was I blessed with so much, when others have so little?” He recognized that as a Christian, though he was doing a “good thing,” he had been living in ignorance. The needs were much greater than he could have imagined. 

Seventeen years later, KenyaRelief.org has taken a different approach to its mission. Medical missions are still at the forefront, but now the organization is also caring for orphans, prisoners, women who are suffering injustice, and the hopeless, just by being the “hands” and “feet” of Jesus. 

Since its inception, 3,500 top-notch medical personnel, educators, and other trade-related professionals, representing more than 13 countries around the globe, have served on mission teams. KenyaRelief.org is seeking highly qualified, passionate people looking for their purpose to help it change the world. 

“We have a variety of ways people can make a difference in the lives of Kenyans,” Steve says. “There are so many needs, but there are people out there God has been preparing for a long time to help us. I hope you will get involved.” 

If that sounds like you, check out Kenya Relief online at KenyaRelief.org.