Blind ambition - a Gold Award holder's remarkable success
Henry Wanyoike, aged 38, is one of the world’s fastest runners. His talent was recognised when he was just a child, and over the last ten years he has won gold and silver medals for his native Kenya in the marathon, half-marathon, 10 kilometre road race, the 10,000 metres, the 5,000 metres and the 1,500 metres.
It is a remarkable spread of achievements – all the more admirable because Henry is blind. Henry lost 95 per cent of his eyesight after suffering a stroke one night when he was 21 years old:
"I went to bed a normal person, the following day I found myself in darkness."
He become completely blind over the next few years and thought his life, previously so full of sporting promise, had come to an end.
Seeing life differently
But after participating in the Award programme at a technical school for the blind, Henry came to understand that his disability need not mean the end of his dreams. Having strived and fought for over eighteen months to achieve his Gold Award with The President's Award - Kenya, Henry realised he could become a role model in his community:
“I have been transformed and see life differently, believing disability is not inability but different ability.”
Henry now competes in the Paralympics in marathon racing and is representing Kenya at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. He runs connected to a guide by a tether on the wrist, which the guide uses to subtly indicate when to turn, accelerate or avoid an obstacle. No other Kenyan athlete has competed so widely and so successfully. His time of 2:31:31 at the Hamburg Marathon in 2005 still stands as the world record for blind runners.
"I have lost my sight but I haven't lost my vision."
Henry says he owes his success to the people who believed in him and motivated him, but he realises that not all youngsters have such support and opportunity. In Kenya, an estimated 1.5 million people are living with HIV and around 1.2 million children have been orphaned by AIDS. Young people also face the great problem of unemployment; there are approximately 1.8 million unemployed people in the country of which 45 per cent are under 24 years of age. Only 1.5 percent of the unemployed have any formal education beyond the secondary school level and the vast majority of unemployed people (92 per cent) have no vocational or professional skills training.
Henry decided to use his success to raise awareness of these issues, to develop sporting talent among children and youth, and to promote social integration of able and disabled people. He set up the Henry Wanyoike Foundation (HWF) to gain support from like-minded organisations which could assist him in creating an enabling environment for the young people, and – to overcome the problem of lack of funds – started a community fundraising run known as the ‘Henry Wanyoike Hope for Future Runners’ which is currently in its sixth edition, attracts over 10,000 participants, and has raised around 4 million Kenyan Shillings (over £31,000 GBP).
Getting young people off to a running start
The Henry Wanyoike Foundation supports local sports clubs, organising training and tournaments themed on issues within society such as HIV/AIDS and drug abuse, and encouraging young people to develop sporting careers. Henry donates various mobility aides such as wheelchairs, crutches and talking watches to the disabled in his community to promote movement and encourage self-reliance. The organisation also empowers and enables financial independence by giving grants to individuals and groups who wish to start small businesses such as curio shops, shoe making, candle making and other income generating skills, and it sponsors education fees for a number of young beneficiaries.
As well as these charitable efforts, the Henry Wanyoike Foundation also networks with various civil societies to sensitise them on issues of disability and rewards companies that have demonstrated equal employment opportunities.
As if that wasn’t enough, the foundation also runs a community nursery school, the ‘House of Hope’, where orphans and vulnerable children from the Kanjeru slums are offered education and food. The centre will also be upgraded to start offering computer courses to young people as one way of developing their practical skills.
Henry himself gives motivational talks in various institutions for able and disabled young people and so far has spoken at over 200 schools across Kenya on issues such as drug and substance abuse and HIV/AIDS while promoting healthy living, the environment, peace, sports and disability rights. He tells of his real life experience and encourages people to be positive about life and to have hope. He also provides counselling for newly blind people who are struggling to come to terms with their situation.
With so many projects on the go, it’s clear that the Henry Wanyoike Foundation is making a huge impact in the community, especially when it comes to disability rights, raising awareness of the issues local youth face and encouraging youngsters to get involved in sport. Henry is proud of his foundation’s achievements:
“The foundation is here to stay and we will be scaling up our projects and creating more partnerships.”