Street to school

Raymond Vos raises money for the Kenya Initiative

Gallery Raymond owner Raymond Vos was buying artwork in Toronto before he started representing local artists in Kingston in 1984. A collection of his Toronto pieces will be on sale at Harambee.
Gallery Raymond owner Raymond Vos was buying artwork in Toronto before he started representing local artists in Kingston in 1984. A collection of his Toronto pieces will be on sale at Harambee.
Raymond Vos has raised around $20,000 for the Kenya Initiative, but has had to pay for the boys’ education out of his own pocket.
Raymond Vos has raised around $20,000 for the Kenya Initiative, but has had to pay for the boys’ education out of his own pocket.

For local gallery owner Raymond Vos, education is a universal right. So when he heard about a group of street boys in Kenya working dollar-a-day jobs instead of going to school it “just about broke his heart.”

“At the same time, I had an idea of how to make a difference.”

It’s been almost three years since Vos’ close friend Irwin Streight, shared stories about his experiences in Kajabi, Kenya.

“There were about 10 or 15 boys who lived in a [shelter] at Chak — this town away from Kajabi, which is basically like a truck stop,” Vos said. “Truckers would stop there to get prostitutes and drugs … these boys were basically drug runners or they stole for food.”

Streight and Vos had a conversation about Streight’s experience in Kenya in 1999, sparking the Kenya Initiative: From Street to School. Vos’ Harambee is an art fundraiser to raise money for the initiative.

“We have art fundraisers so two of the boys can go to university and so this fellow named [John] Njane could take some of these street kids into his home and provide school and clothing et cetera for them.”

One of the boys who relies on the Kenya Initiative to go to school, named Issac, is currently studying business at Daystar University in Nairobi.

“I’m going to quote Isaac where he says, ‘In Africa, you’re life just won’t go anywhere unless you have education,’” said Vos. “It’s the lifesaver, it’s a difference.”

Tomorrow’s Harambee — the Swahili word for “community pulls together” — marks the third year Vos has had a relationship with the Kenyan boys. Paintings he purchased in Toronto and donations from local artists are put up for sale and silent auction at the fundraiser. Over the past two years, Vos has raised around $20,000 from the event. While primary school in Kenya is free, it costs around $10,000 a year just to send Isaac and his brother to university. Whatever money he doesn’t raise, Vos takes it upon himself to pay the difference.

“I got a phone call before six in the morning when Isaac said, ‘Unless our tuition is paid for we can’t write our final exams,’” Vos said. “So I’ve had to borrow money. It’s from my parents and from myself.

“I don’t have a goal [for each fundraiser], I’m just thankful for every dollar that comes my way.”

The five younger boys from Chak are finishing up high school. Vos said they have hopes of going to university and getting stable jobs after graduation.

“One of them, who I’m a bit fond of, his name is Joseph, he wants to become a doctor,” Vos said.

Vos was almost crying when he described the personal relationships he shares with the boys. The Kingston native has never been to Africa, but they communicate regularly over phone and by email.

Vos opened Gallery Raymond on Princess Street in 1984, and has spent the last 27 years facilitating the sale of local art. Since the street boys came into his life, he’s devoted over 700 hours to organizing fundraisers and other initiatives.

The success of the project relies heavily on alliances.

“There seems to be an incredible connection between Kingston and eastern Africa,” he said, adding that he’s met numerous like-minded people.

This year Vos has combined efforts with the African Education Resource Centre (AERC) through Queen’s Dr. Penina Lam. Dr. Lam, co-founder of the AERC, works to promote the education of women in Africa.

Vos said combining resources was a way to secure a larger turnout.

“Last year, we had an opening night [for Harambee] but the Whig-Standard screwed up [the advertisement] so nobody showed up. It was worse than heartbreaking. Anyways, I knew if I was going to do the same thing again, I wanted to do it in conjunction with someone,” he said.

For Vos, the Harambee is one day, but staying involved and raising awareness is a full-time goal.

“[It’s about] making a difference and education is the key,” Vos said.

The Harambee exhibition opens tomorrow and runs until Thursday at Gallery Raymond.

Hard-hitting art

Heather Haynes is one of the Kingston-based artists donating artwork to Raymond Vos’ Harambee. For the past four years, Haynes has regularly exhibited her African-inspired artwork and tree paintings at Gallery Raymond — one of which now resides in the psychiatric wing at Kingston General Hospital.

“I think art can bring a world together,” said Haynes. “For [Vos] to do so much for these boys from hearing a story, that’s pretty amazing.”

Haynes and Vos first collaborated in 2009, after her first trip to Africa. The two mounted an exhibition donating 15 pet cent of the profits to the Buy-a-Net Malaria Prevention Group.

Earlier this year, Haynes travelled to Tanzania, where she filmed an operation and visited a women’s clinic.

“If they’re not sick they’re quite happy. If they’re fed, they’re not asking for a lot. I find that contrast to our society is alarming,” she said. “To see a hospital in Africa was quite something, you would never think of it as a hospital it’s so run down.”

While in Tanzania, Haynes met a group called the Hard Life Artists (HLA). She’s since introduced their artwork into the Kingston market. She met the four young artists while they were painting in the chicken coop behind their shelter.

“As an artist, nothing could be more inspiring,” she said.

One of the HLA paintings was sold at Gallery Raymond last week. Vos donates his time and framing workshop so all the profits go to buying more paints and supplies for the HLA group.

“The boys now have left the street shelter because they’ve graduated from high school and they’re living on their own,” said Haynes. “They also have a studio school and they’re teaching other street kids how to paint.

“This was their dream, I couldn’t imagine a better dream.”

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