Imagine after six years of calling him "dad," your stepfather kills your mother. Imagine then growing up being shuttled from relative to relative -- your biological father fails to raise you and gives you to your uncle who abandons you. And through it all -- knowing that no one really wants you.
This is the heartbreaking story of the Whitis sisters, three girls from small town Texas who found themselves in their adolescence living a nightmare that most of us can't imagine. After the murder of their mother and the imprisonment of their stepfather, the girls were moved from relative to relative, neglected and forced to grow up more quickly than any young person should. But they survived. And not only did they survive, they thrived. And not only did they thrive, they gave back. Where most would have given up hope, the Whitis sisters have created hope.
Now in their 30s the Whitis sisters have formed a production company and, in their spare time, they volunteer at local youth charities. After helping at a nonprofit agency in South-Central Los Angeles, the oldest sister, Kelley, began to explore the international children's aid landscape. She landed in Kenya, where she learned about The Nest, an innovative housing program, which provides reintegration services for mothers leaving jail and resources for their children while they are imprisoned. Children who, without The Nest, have little choice but to let the streets raise them.
The mothers are not killers. They are survivors, and their children are victims of events that happened outside of their young control. Sound familiar? It did to the Whitis sisters -- who saw themselves in the faces of these young Kenyans.
The sisters -- Kelley, Amanda and Summer -- openly share their story, punctuating their success with the fact that they stayed together and that they looked after each other. They built their own nest. And therein lies the bridge between a population of young Africans almost 10,000 miles away and the Whitis sisters, three petite blondes from Texas.
In Spring 2011, the sisters flew to Kenya to meet Irene Baumgartner, the passionate and modest German woman who raised the money to build The Nest home in 1997. Their plan was to meet Irene, tour the facility and capture enough footage to create a documentary, In The Nest, that would highlight the efforts of this incredibly committed woman to helping Kenyan children have better lives.
What they found was a group of people who have come together as a family working together to create lasting change for Kenyan women and children.
Working hand in hand with Irene was a native Kenyan, Peter, who saw The Nest as a home for temporarily displaced youth as well as a chance to challenge Kenyan stereotypes and advocate for the rights of children. At The Nest, the children grow up learning how to be self-reliant. They learn about their environment and how to participate positively in creating their own futures. They learn as a "family" what family means.
The sisters returned to Los Angeles, excited to go through the footage and to prepare for their next trip back to Kenya. Then the unexpected happened. The mediation with their stepfather they had requested years ago was granted. Twenty-three years later Kelley, Amanda and Summer were getting the chance to look their stepfather, now in his late 60s, in the eyes. For months, they prepared emotionally for the encounter. And then three days before the date, the mediation was cancelled, leaving the sisters emotionally deflated.
Summer, the youngest of the three and now 31, tells me, "We don't know how we would have moved through any of this without each other and we know others are not so lucky and have to go through loss alone."
Adds Amanda, the middle sister, "Life always puts up road blocks but we have each other, which helps us get through it. The Nest gives these kids the family we created for ourselves."
Without doubt there are a number of amazing homes for displaced youth around the world but what makes this story that much more compelling is not the subject of the film but the storytellers themselves. Woven throughout In The Nest will be the love the Whitis sisters had for their own mother and a point of view that doesn't view the young Kenyans as victims -- since the sisters have never seen themselves that way -- but as heroes. Young heroes who are now given the support to chart their own paths, as the Whitis sisters have done so successfully, and an awareness that giving back is part of moving forward.
For more information about the film or to how to get involved please visit DipDive.
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