Even in a city in which people pride themselves on being busy, SIS student Elli Wachtman, SIS/MA ’22 stands out. In addition to pursuing a master’s degree in international development and a graduate certificate in social innovation for global impact, Wachtman, SIS/MA ’22, spends much of her time coordinating with the Kenyan and US-based teams of the Sikhona Rescue Centre, an international nonprofit she founded that’s dedicated to addressing gender-based violence in Kitengela, Kenya.

In recognition of her leadership of the Sikhona Rescue Centre, the Washington Business Journal recently included Wachtman in their “25 Under 25” class of 2021. We spoke with Wachtman to learn more about how Sikhona came to be, the center’s work, and why she is pursuing both a master’s degree and Social Innovation for Global Impact graduate certificate.

Inspired to Break a Cycle of Poverty, Violence, and Instability

Wachtman had wanted to serve abroad since childhood, and after taking honors courses in African history and cultural pluralism during her undergraduate studies at Capital University, she felt prepared to do so in an informed and responsible way. In 2018, she travelled to Kitengela, Kenya, through International Volunteer HQ—an organization that connected her with a nonprofit, Gihon Women Empowerment Kenya, and a local primary school. While in Kitengela, Wachtman taught English, math, and physical education at the school and did social work at the women’s center.

“I got incredibly close with the women who worked at the center. As my stay continued, they started engaging me in conversations about how to best serve ‘our’ people—they needed food, education and shelter,” says Wachtman. “Many of the women were coming in, having recently been abused at home, and we realized our current methods weren’t really breaking this cycle of poverty. We talked about establishing a rescue center where we could provide refuge for these women and children.”

Agnes Gitonga, the co-founder and executive director of Gihon Women Empowerment Kenya, and Lucy Githambo, the other co-founder, agreed with Wachtman. They both saw the need for such a center because a number of survivors who came to Gihon would end up having to go back to their homes, which often were unstable or unsafe. They wanted to continue to work with Wachtman to make Skihona a reality.

“We’ve had so many cases of women sleeping out in the cold—children missing school because they’re also sleeping out in the cold,” says Gitonga. “That’s how the idea of Sikhona came to be. A rescue center that could house children and women where we could bring in specialists and counselors and work to help them make their lives better.”

Asked to leverage her opportunity in the United States, Wachtman spent the next two years remotely collaborating with her network in Kenya while doing the administrative work and fundraising necessary to make the Sikhona Rescue Centre a reality. In 2021, she travelled back to Kenya to help with the administrative process on the ground. Sikhona has been registered as a nonprofit in the United States and is now in the process of completing its registration as an international nonprofit.

Sikhona’s Work in Kitengela

Ever since the center was conceptualized, members of the Sikhona team have been doing what they can to meet the immediate needs of women and children in Kitengela. During the pandemic, they have operated informally to provide women and girls with reproductive health education as well as psychological support from guidance counselors. Sikhona has also distributed food, diapers, and personal protective equipment (PPE) in the community.

So far, Sikhona has a fully equipped house with security measures like CCTV to keep the survivors safe. The center’s curriculum emphasizes tenets of self-care and spiritual, emotional, environmental, financial, vocational, social, mental, and physical well-being.

“Sikhona is really playing a big role in this town,” says Githambo. “It’s provided a safe place for the abused. While there, they are provided with food, shelter, and health care.”

Women will spend about four months at Sikhona before the team works with friends and family who can help support them as they reintegrate into their communities after graduation. The team also is working on establishing a key piece of curriculum via a nearby farm, where women will be taught entrepreneurship as well as financial independence.

“We want to give them real hands-on experience that will help cover their day-to-day sustenance and give them the tools to one day take what they’ve learned and create their own small businesses,” says Wachtman. “These micro-poultry and produce farms can be seen throughout Kitengela, and throughout Kenya, having great success.”

Directly Incorporating Her Education

Compelled to realize her privileged access to education, Wachtman chose to pursue a graduate education at SIS because the school had both a master’s in international development and a graduate certificate in social innovation for global impact: “At SIS, I could continue to develop my entrepreneurial and leadership skills as well as gain a deeper understanding of development in different cultural and geographical contexts—all to serve a greater purpose of living a life of intentional and meaningful service. I greatly aligned with the school’s values.”

Because Wachtman had planned on returning to Kenya during the summer of 2021, she strategically chose to take courses during her first year that could directly help her work. So far, she has been able to apply what she’s learned from courses like Organizational Effectiveness for International Service and Innovation for Social Impact, both taught by SIS professor Robert Tomasko, and NGO/Social Enterprise Management, taught by Professor Stephanie Fischer.

“Both Bob Tomasko’s and Stephanie Fischer’s courses were so directly applicable to what I was doing—everything I learned translated so seamlessly. I also made valuable connections with the other students, mentors, and entrepreneurs throughout the courses. Some of the people I met through them are now Sikhona business partners,” says Wachtman.

Centering Kenyan Leadership and Voices

Wachtman’s personal mission is to create positive change in the most efficient, effective, and creative way while leading the Sikhona Rescue Centre. Eventually, she plans to hand the reins of the organization to the team in Kenya: “I think the most authentic change is driven at home. The goal for this is to be a Kenyan-led and Kenyan-driven initiative. Once we have shown our success, I fully anticipate stepping back as executive director.”

Throughout the process of working on Sikhona, Wachtman has consistently collaborated with the team in Kenya on ideas and decisions for the center. Sikhona is structured for Kenyan leadership, with a board made up primarily of Kenyans.

Keren Happuch Wachuka, who is now the director of communications and fundraising at the center, met Wachtman while they both volunteered at Gihona. They eventually became close friends, and she joined Sikhona because she had encountered gender-based violence herself and wanted other survivors to feel comfortable speaking up about the issue.

“There’s a gap that needs to be filled in Kenya because gender-based violence keeps happening, and it’s been on the rise during COVID,” says Wachuka. “Sikhona can fill that gap and help bring a sustainable way for families to grow. I also believe the organization is creating a safe space for victims to speak up about gender-based violence—to become vocal about the issue, which can help curb it.”

Wachtman is grateful for Sikhona’s team in Kenya. She values being able to learn their perspectives as well as what they see as a sustainable way to address gender-based violence in their country. Wachtman and members of the team in Kenya have formed close bonds, which is part of what propels the organization forward.

“It’s like working with my sister,” says Wachuka. “The involvement Elli has in Sikhona and with the people that she’s working with makes me love her way of working—the commitment that she puts into the organization, the way she pushes herself. I love working with her.”