Alberta toddler’s legacy lives on in Kenya

Maddy's SchoolBY LAURA TESTER

In a desolate and extremely poor region of Kenya, a kindergarten school will always have a special bond with a little girl from Central Alberta.

Her name — Madison “Maddy” Switzer.

Even as a toddler, Maddy was a joy to be around. She lit up the room with her infectious smile and was a beacon of happiness wherever she went. Her parents Amy and Jon Switzer and grandparents, Cindy and Richard Wright, all of Red Deer, Alta., were among those who deeply loved her.

“She was the happiest little girl,” said Cindy. “She never had a bad day in her life and everyday we stopped by on our way home to see her.”

It was so easy to be around Maddy. Then on Jan. 19, 2015, the unimaginable happened.

Maddy unexpectedly died at 15 months old. Her death was deemed as “Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood” – a term given to a child more than one years old whose death is unexplainable after a thorough investigation.

Family and friends rallied around the grieving family, including those who knew Cindy and Richard as key volunteers with A Better World Canada. The Central Alberta-based international development organization was created in 1990.

Gord Bontje, a Central Alberta home builder and longtime supporter of A Better World, approached the Wright family about building a school in Maddy’s name. The idea was graciously accepted.

Red Deer business owner Rick Wiebe’s wife Sharon had been to Kenya just a few months earlier, so she knew of a project that could work. The project’s funding came from the friends and family of baby Maddy. The Bontje family pledged whatever the shortfall was and the building was finished.

“It was in a very rural, very poor area and these kids who went to school there would get out at noon and walk by themselves home, sometimes up to three kilometres,” said Cindy.

The Imara Nursery School, located in the community of Male in Central Kenya, was housed in a wooden shack with one longtime teacher working there. About 35 to 40 children went to school there.

The Maddy Project raised $31,000 Cdn and together with the help of Wiebe as project manager in Canada and Kenyan project leader Charles Muraguri, the project was finished successfully. On Oct. 23, 2015, Richard and Cindy Wright attended the grand opening on behalf of the entire family.

Cindy remembers that day as being as a “hard and very emotional” day, but they were so humbled by the estimated 300 people who came to celebrate the opening and also pay tribute to their granddaughter.

“It’s a wonderful legacy,” said Cindy.

Richard said the school will mean a lot to the children in the surrounding area.

“I think there will be more kids from all around who will come to this school,” he said. “They’ll probably need another teacher and classroom soon.”

The old school can continue to used for a library or storage, he added.

Eric Rajah, co-founder of A Better World, said the project also included new toilets, one classroom, an office and fencing. The project will be reviewed in about December 2016 to see if a second classroom is needed, he added.

The renaming of the school was important to Kenyan officials. The new name was changed to Maddy E.C.D.E. Centre. The name figures predominantly on the entranceway leading into the school.

A Better World will next construct a playground as part of this project. Fundraising for the estimated $7,000 Cdn price tag is expected to begin early this year.

Rajah said the Maddy project means a lot to so many at home in Canada and Kenya.

“Even in death and sorrow, there’s hope and a brighter future for the children,” he said.

The Wrights also received some good news since their precious Maddy’s death. Amy gave birth to the couple’s second child Halle on Nov. 23.

Madison