Mennonite upbringing prepared him for relief work

Karl Frey talks with village chief Ali Muhumed Jehow about the dairy project in his village of Arabeqeyramso in Kenya's Wajir County.
Karl Frey talks with village chief Ali Muhumed Jehow about the dairy project in his village of Arabeqeyramso in Kenya's Wajir County. (SUSAN WARNER / For Save the Children)
Posted: February 20, 2013

The distance between Peach Bottom, Pa., and Wajir, Kenya, is 7,800 miles. That also happens to be the distance of Karl Frey's life trajectory, which has arced from growing up Mennonite on his family's Lancaster County dairy farm to helping improve children's health in a drought-stricken area of eastern Africa.

Don't even bother asking Frey if he's got milk - the answer will be yes.

"I did drink a lot of milk when I was growing up," said Frey, 50. "It is the best thing out there in terms of nutrients, right?"

After milking his family's Holsteins, joining the Peace Corps, and working at a Chester County winery, Frey went back into humanitarian aid.

He lives in Chevy Chase, Md., and works for Save the Children, specializing in food security during emergencies. His duties include advising a program in northeastern Kenya that gives pastoralists hit hard by a drought in 2011 and part of last year an immediate and future source of milk.

It's a farm-to-farm-to-table tale.

Frey recalls school-day evenings, and weekends in Peach Bottom being bracketed by milking cows and doing chores on the 117-acre farm.

His Mennonite upbringing, Frey said, gave him a strong work ethic. It also gave him lessons on global problems.

Staffers from the Mennonite Central Committee, an international development and relief agency, would come to his Mennonite high school and describe their work abroad.

"That's what exposed me to the world at large," Frey said.

He earned two college degrees in the 1980s, worked at numerous jobs, and traveled across the United States in a Volkswagen bus.

In 1994, Frey joined the Peace Corps and went to Niger, where he served as a natural resource manager, returning to Pennsylvania to take horticulture classes at Temple University's Ambler campus and to plant and build trellises at a Chester County vineyard.

The vineyard was idyllic, but it wasn't his future. He went back into humanitarian aid and had stints in Albania, East Timor, Sierra Leone, and the West Bank. He joined Save the Children in Haiti in 2010.

The Kenya project began about 18 months ago, after a devastating drought in 2011 throughout East Africa that saw crops and herds - sources of income and food - destroyed. It will take years to reverse the impact.

Wajir County was one of the regions in Kenya hit heavily by the drought. More than 70 percent of the people there relied on animals for their livelihood, said Lisa Parrott, 44, director of program development and quality for Save the Children, over the phone from Kenya.

Families not only lost income from selling or trading part of their herd, Parrott said, they also lost the milk they got from the animals for their own families. Malnutrition spiked.

The project gives vouchers for milk to families with a woman who is pregnant or breast-feeding, or a child under 5 who is acutely malnourished. That's where the immediate impact comes in - getting milk to those who need it most.

The longer-term benefits come from using those vouchers to strengthen everyone who has a role in the local dairy industry, such as women who often collect milk from dairy farmers and women traders who take it to market.

About 10,000 people - 8,000 of them children - are getting the vouchers. It seems to be helping.

"We've seen malnutrition rates fall from about 23 percent to around 16 percent," Parrott said. "There's still one in six children struggling with a healthy diet and good nutrition."

Frey's job is to look at all of this and suggest how to improve the distribution process and the milk's quality.

He periodically travels to Kenya and talks with project staffers and program recipients. On his trip early this month, Frey met a dairy farmer named Mohammed who struggles to care for his 10 children. Mohammed likely is providing for his family on less income from his drought-depleted livestock.

Parrott also went to Wajir recently and saw a 1-year-old boy at a malnutrition screening clinic who weighed 13 pounds - a healthy weight would be at least 18 pounds.

Frey's parents long ago sold his farm, and his father has died. But Frey goes home to Lancaster County every couple of weeks to visit his mother. His experiences have taught him that distance is measured in all sorts of ways.

"The world is big, but it's still small because we still have to rely on a few basic things to make it work," he said.


Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109, cdavis@phillynews.com, or @carolyntweets on Twitter.

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