August 6, 2014

Chief Benefits Officer Helps Bring Art to Kenyan Secondary School

“I believe in responding to the open door,” said Georgetown’s chief benefits officer, Charles DeSantis.

Since high school, when he wrote a thesis on apartheid, DeSantis had been interested in working in Africa. But it was not until his arrival at Georgetown in 2007 that the opportunity presented itself, launching him into a new role as an advocate for social justice in Kenya. 

Experiencing and Engaging

Shortly after he joined the Georgetown community, DeSantis was encouraged to travel with faculty and staff to Kenya, where he explored the challenges facing the country and communities’ responses to those challenges. The trip was designed in the tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, who believed in creating empathy through immersive experiences.

The Georgetown cohort toured local Jesuit educational institutions, HIV/AIDS programs in Nairobi, and a refugee camp in the northwest of the country. Though each of those experiences was eye-opening for DeSantis, it was his encounter with Nairobi’s Kibera slum that proved life-changing. 

Art for Kibera

In Kibera, the Georgetown group visited the Jesuit-run St. Aloysius Gonzaga preparatory school, better known locally as Saint Al’s. Both DeSantis and another colleague noticed that the school did not have an art program, and each asked a school official if art education might be wanted.

“I really believe in invitation,” DeSantis explained. “It isn’t helpful to provide something that a community does not actually want.”

In this case, an invitation was extended: if an art program could be developed, school officials were willing to implement it.

After returning to the United States, DeSantis and his colleague Margaret Halpin developed a pilot program to provide art education to students at Saint Al’s. They presented and ran the pilot the following year, and the Art for Kibera program has been running successfully ever since.

A Lifelong Investment

His experiences in Kenya, DeSantis said, “have allowed me to be more than I knew I could be.”

DeSantis’s involvement with Kenya and Kibera now extends beyond the art program. In addition to annual trips to support Saint Al’s, he serves as chair of the board of USA for UNHCR, a charitable foundation dedicated to supporting the UN refugee agency. He has also served on a number of other boards supporting aid and development activities in Kenya.

DeSantis is still inspired by the hope he saw in the eyes of Kibera residents in 2007. Seven years after his first immersion trip to Kenya, he continues working to nourish that hope through his personal and professional commitments, living out the Ignatian value of working for social justice and the common good.