August 28, 2017

Detroit Mercy student Sarah Hirschmann teaches a group of students in Kenya.Sarah Hirschmann is, quite simply, a doer.

She dreamed of helping people in Africa so she volunteered as a teacher in Kenya for six weeks this past summer.

When she visited Haiti as a high school student and was inspired to do more, she organized her own nonprofit organization “One Kid at a Time” and has been running it ever since.

When she felt she was doing so much on her trips around the world, but not enough at home, she began organizing an after-school-program for a Detroit elementary school.

When Hirschmann sees an opportunity to help children in need, she takes action.

“Once you get involved, you’re changed,” Hirschmann said. “I see kids and hear their dreams and realize that they are just like every other kid. They were just like me growing up, but because of circumstances, they don't get the opportunities they deserve. I just want them to have a fair chance to fulfill their dreams.”

A dream come true

Hirschmann dreamed of visiting Africa because of the simplicity and joy of the African lifestyle. Her dream became a reality this summer, when she spent six weeks teaching in the Kibera slum in the city of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

The conditions of Kibera — which is the largest urban slum in Africa — were an adjustment for Hirschmann.

There was garbage everywhere and the living conditions of some of the children was heartbreaking. But all of that went away for Hirschmann when she met the children, who didn’t let their surroundings bother them.

“I thought I was more prepared than I was, having gone to other countries that have similar lifestyles,” Hirschmann recalled of her arrival in Kenya. “I was overwhelmed with the living conditions. You would see kids sitting in garbage naked, babies outside of their huts. But as soon as you meet the children, everything changes because you see how happy they are despite these things. You get heartbroken for a second, just looking at it, but then all that goes away the moment you spend time with any person there.”

Hirschmann worked with pre-kindergarten children in the morning and fifth graders in the afternoon. She taught Christian Religious Education (CRE), something Hirschmann said the kids really enjoyed.

“The church is definitely the center of the community in Kenya,” Hirschmann said. “These kids all said their favorite music is gospel music, which is really cool. On Friday mornings they did a thing called PPI, which was all them doing singing and dancing worship music. They would all be on their desks, whipping their shirts around like they were at a huge party or something.”

The pure joy of the children made Hirschmann quickly realize it was the right place for her. The Kenyan children came to school each day with smiles on their faces and eager to learn, which was contagious.

“It’s crazy, they are just so happy,” Hirschmann said. “They’re very happy and just want to be loved. They just want attention like any kid does. It’s different because there is no such thing as a spoiled kid in Kenya because it’s not even possible. They don’t want toys or candy or even food. If you give one kid a cookie in a group of 10, they break it into 10 pieces and share. It’s just about love and happiness with each other.”

As Hirschmann spent more time with the children, she was inspired by their hopes and dreams. Many of the children come from homes where the parents don’t have a steady income, but they still have big dreams for their future.

“You talk to these kids and they’re in the worst possible situation, but that doesn’t stop them from dreaming,” Hirschmann said. “If you ask these kids, they all have a dream, especially the fifth graders. They want to be a pilot or a teacher or a doctor. They definitely understand their situation and they know they live in a slum, and they’re not expected to go to high school or college, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to do everything in their power to get there. That passion and that happiness is so pure.”

The most difficult part of Hirschmann’s trip was leaving. She felt she was making a difference and saying goodbye to the children was tough.

“It was really hard to leave,” Hirschmann said. “I would have extended my trip if I could have. It was so hard. I cried at the school. I loved it. I knew that’s where I was supposed to be and where I wanted to be.”

Hirschmann plans to volunteer in India next summer and stop in Kenya for a few weeks to visit the school on her way back.

“I love Kenya. One Kid at a Time sponsors two girls there now,” Hirschmann said. “One of the girls was in my class, so I got pretty close with her. I met her mom, went to her house, saw her living conditions, that kind of thing. I would love to go back. I think next year, my plan is, I want to go to India and teach there for about a month. And then after that, go to Kenya for two weeks, see them, see the school and see how everyone is doing.”

One Kid at a Time

Sarah Hirschmann (left) co-founded One Kid at a Time with Gina Munson.Hirschmann didn’t set out to create her own nonprofit organization; it developed from a simple need to give back.

She visited Haiti before her senior year in high school and saw kids playing soccer with no shoes. As she watched those kids play, she felt the need to do something.

“I used to collect Nike shoes because I play soccer,” said Hirschmann, who is currently a goalkeeper for Detroit Mercy’s soccer team. “I had like 15 pairs or something like that. When I got back and I had seen kids in Haiti playing with no shoes on, I was like, ‘This is ridiculous, I don’t need 15 pairs of Nike shoes. I’m going to send all the shoes to Haiti to give the kids who like to play soccer shoes to play in.’ ”

Hirschmann didn’t just stop there, she got her friends and others to donate shoes, clothing and soccer equipment.

After that, Hirschmann wanted to do more but she wasn’t quite sure how.

“I thought there’s no way we can help everyone,” Hirschmann said. “Then we thought about the quote from Mother Teresa that says, ‘If you can’t feed 100 people then feed just one.’ That’s kind of where we came up with the idea of One Kid at a Time because if you can help one kid, then they can help more people. Kind of the pay-it-forward idea.”

Hirschmann and her friend Gina Munson began selling One Kid at a Time t-shirts and co-founded the nonprofit organization.

“We just thought if we have the opportunity to help people follow their dreams, then we should,” Hirschmann said. “My mom is a lawyer, so she helped with making it an actual nonprofit, 501(c)(3). After that, we did fundraisers and drives. We distributed to Haiti, to El Salvador and we sponsored kids there.”

Helping at home

When Hirschmann returned from Kenya, she had trouble adjusting back to the American lifestyle. In Kenya, Hirschmann felt she was always making a difference, but at home she felt she should be doing more.

Through One Kid at Time, Hirschmann began to organize an after-school program for a Detroit elementary school, which is set to launch this fall.

“Coming back to the United States was a bit of an adjustment,” Hirschmann said. “I think it’s because you go from being in a place of such poverty of things — but definitely not poverty of the spirit or happiness — and you’re always doing things to help people. You feel like even though you see all this, at least you’re doing something about it.

“Then you come here and all I do is, I work out, tutor, I have a job, but I’m not doing anything to necessarily help people. That’s kind of hard and why I’m so excited for the after-school program. Kind of bringing it home and trying to do something here so kids can be whatever they want when they grow up because they deserve it just as much as anyone else.”

The after-school program will run on Mondays and Wednesdays, and Hirschmann hopes to expand to more days and more children if they can get enough volunteers.

“We’re going to start off with about 16 kids in the after-school program,” Hirschmann said. “They will spend half the time working on reading, one-on-one reading with a volunteer. Guided reading and shared reading. Then they’ll do a reading activity, like maybe an older kid will be working on a book report. A younger kid will be working on chronological aspects of reading, that kind of thing. We want to incorporate art projects. The other half of the program will be life and leadership skills through sports.”

Hirschmann hopes to have her teammates on the women’s soccer team come volunteer and have other Titan athletic teams get involved.

“The more volunteers the better,” Hirschmann said. “If we can get more volunteers to commit to come weekly then we can service more kids.”

Hirschmann believes being at Detroit Mercy and joining organizations like the service fraternity APO and the Emerging Leaders program has helped her develop into the person she wants to be. She’s thankful for all the service opportunities at Detroit Mercy and how supportive the community is to the projects.

“The community here is just something special that not a lot of schools necessarily have,” Hirschmann said. “You’re part of a community and there are so many opportunities and it’s so personal. This is like my home; this is my family for sure. I feel just as at home here as I do at home. If you get involved and take advantage of the opportunities that you’re given, it will change your life.”

— By Dave Pemberton. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.

Media Coverage

Aug. 31 interview – "Making the Grade" with Greg Bowman on WWJ (CBS)