Towne & Another Country
Building schools and clinics in Kenya with Jim Towne
Published in 2016 Upstate New York Super Lawyers magazine
on August 15, 2016
Updated on August 31, 2016
Last spring, in a village in Kenya, a 14-year-old girl with a stomachache walked over to a short drop—a hole used as a restroom—and, as Jim Towne, a trustee for the Loisaba Community Conservation Foundation recounts, “out popped a baby, placenta and umbilical cord.”
At first, everyone thought the baby was dead. Then the grandmother nudged the child, and it moved. That’s when the mad dash to the hospital began.
Handed the baby in a blanket, Towne led a crew in an off-road vehicle onto the village’s only road, where he was hoping to cross paths with a faster vehicle. Instead, an hour into the trip, his engine overheated.
“I’m hysterical,” says Towne. “It was the day of the Garissa University attack, when 147 kids were killed, and I got it in my mind—I’m very emotional about this—that I was going to save a Kenyan, period.”
He got the car started, but it died again. Then he managed to flag down an old station wagon and gave its driver a $50 bill to get the baby to a hospital.
“We get the vehicle; we push it out of there; we saved the baby. It was like a 15-and-a-half hour escapade,” he says. “But those are the type of things that happen.”
His involvement in Kenya began by accident.
Fifteen years earlier, Towne, the founding attorney at Towne, Ryan & Partners in Albany, helped form a foundation on a whim. Some clients were setting up a small organization in Kenya, “and I said, ‘Why don’t you set up a 501(c)(3)?’ The end result was, they said, ‘It was your idea—you run it.’ It was the ‘tag, you’re it’ theory.”
The foundation began as an eco-tourist resort and land conservation effort to serve the Laikipiak Maasai and Samburu people in the Laikipia County—people who have “suffered terribly because of global warming over the last 35 years,” Towne says. The plan was to put the resort’s profits back into land and animal conservation projects, as well as to help the surrounding communities, but there were setbacks.
In 2013, 36,000 acres of the conservancy and resort burned. “It was a very depressing time,” says Towne. “But out of that mess, we were contacted by The Nature Conservancy—the largest land conservation effort in the world.” The two formed a partnership, and they’re now looking to expand the conservancy from roughly 60,000 acres to 10 million.
“They’ve asked LCCF to expand our footprint because we’ve done a very good job on the human-services side, and that’s what’s happened in the last six or seven years as the conservancy became self-operational,” says Towne. Since the foundation has shifted from a conservation organization to one that focuses on improving health and education for local villagers, the LCCF has built 11 classrooms and a library, and even given the 464 schoolchildren access to the internet. “Quite a lot of fun,” Towne says.
The LCCF also provides secondary school scholarships for 18 kids per year, and is currently seeing eight through college. One young woman is currently enrolled in medical school; she’ll be the first woman in the community to get a graduate degree. Another recent graduate chose an unlikely career. “We had one young lady—she must’ve seen a helicopter fly over her head—she wanted to become a helicopter mechanic,” says Towne. “We sent her to a community college, and she became one [after] a two-year program.”
With the assistance of Amref Health Africa, the foundation has built a 1,100-square-foot clinic that includes three birthing rooms, maternity rooms and a dental room. Towne’s brother-in-law performs medical work there once a year, seeing, on average, 74 patients per day.
“Right now, we provide human health services and educational stuff for about 19,000 to 20,000 people,” says Towne. In the next eight to 10 years, he estimates they will be providing services for about 140,000 people.
“It’s truly the most incredibly wonderful thing I’ve been able to be connected with in my life,” he adds. “It’s just not our world. It will change your life.”