Ottawa Hills alumnus Fred Roberts (’79) has turned his dream into opportunity for OH students.
Each summer, a group of Ottawa Hills students joins Fred at his Batian’s View Experiential Education Center in Naro Moru, Kenya as part of the Summer Learning in Kenya (SLIK) program. The students take part in a three-week service learning program, teaching at local Kenyan schools. For the students, it’s a life-changing experience. (His contributions to our students were noted this fall when he received the Ottawa Hills Schools Foundation Distinguished Alumni Award; see image below)
Junior Preston Smith, one of eight OHHS students who took part in the SLIK program this past summer, says, “My time in Kenya would not have been made possible without the help and guidance from Fred Roberts. The SLIK students and I were able to gain a completely new perspective on life and will remember this amazing experience for the rest of our lives.”
Fred’s path to Kenya began within the Ottawa Hills Village limits. Fred calls the Roberts family “lifers” at Ottawa Hills Schools. From the time that the oldest of six Roberts children attended OH through the attendance of extended family members, there was a Roberts at OH Schools for thirty-five straight years. Fred says, “The school was a perfect fit for our family. We were all active. Whatever the season was, that’s what we were doing—whether it was cross country, hockey, or track and field.”
The seed for one of Fred’s passions was planted at OH when he started running cross country his junior year for Coach Chris Hardman. He remembers, “Coach Hardman was one of my biggest influences at Ottawa Hills. He had like sixty kids running cross country. My senior year was special because we made it to state. After graduation, I went to Ohio Wesleyan, Coach Hardman’s alma mater. He knew Marv Fry, the cross country and track coach there, so that connection helped me continue running in college.” Fred continues his running to this day, taking part in 50 and 100-mile ultra-marathons.
After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan with a major in geography and zoology, Fred pursued an opportunity with the National Outdoor Leadership School. NOLS provides wilderness education and expeditions to build participants’ leadership skills. Fred shares, “When I was a junior in college, I was a student in the NOLS Kenya semester program. I skipped the graduation ceremony at Ohio Wesleyan to go to Wyoming to take the NOLS instructors’ course. As soon as the course was done, I got my first contract to take a group on a five-week hiking trip. From there, I slowly developed skills in other areas, such as mountaineering and rock climbing.”
Fred’s plan was to work for NOLS short-term to experience winter “west of the Mississippi.” He says, “I was going to do this for a year and then go to graduate school in geography to eventually become a professor. But I was having fun traveling and teaching, so I kept doing it.” From 1983 to 1986, Fred instructed a variety of NOLS courses in Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota, and Washington, but his real desire was to return to Kenya.
In 1986, Fred’s goal was realized when he was offered an instructor’s position in Kenya. He was now teaching the same program for which he had been a student while in college. He notes, “That began my life-long adventure in Kenya. I stayed there as a field instructor for three years. I fell in love with the culture. I enjoyed hiking Mt. Kenya and hiking the Maasai land in Tanzania, but it was the people of Kenya that made me fall in love with the country. They put so much energy into whatever they are asked to do. I became really fond of Naro Moru, where NOLS was based.”
During this time, Fred met his future wife, Elizabeth, when she came to Kenya from Chicago as a student in the NOLS program. “We had that three-month shared experience, after which Elizabeth returned to Chicago and eventually joined the Peace Corps. We wrote back and forth during that time. After Elizabeth finished her stint in west Africa, she was on her way to India. We met up in Nairobi, and, as they say, the rest is history. She was going to stay in Kenya a week, but ended up staying three weeks. Later that April, I went back to the States for a meeting and went to see her in Chicago. She then came back to Kenya in July. She ended up working with a program in northern Kenya for three years. The commute was five hours, so she would leave on Monday and come back on Friday. We got married in 1993 in Chicago.”
When the director of the NOLS program in Kenya decided to step down, Fred applied for the position—and got it. He remembers, “At age 29, I became Director of the NOLS program in Kenya. There were 7 NOLS programs in the world, and one was in Kenya. I was overseeing 12 to 13 instructors and 150 students a year.” NOLS Kenya would ultimately become Batian’s View, Fred’s own experiential educational center.
The Roberts family had a small house in Naro Moru and slowly added to it. Their most important addition, son Jake, was born in 1996. Fred says, “Through this time, we were growing as a family and I was getting to know more and more people in the community. We were running a really neat program, but thinking back to my days as an instructor, I realized we were serving Americans very well, but we needed to do something for the Kenyans. So I started a program that took Kenyans on two to three-week hikes up Mt. Kenya so they could understand why others would want to come do this. The first group I targeted for this experience were the school teachers around the Naro Moru community.”
As much as they loved Kenya, the Roberts family decided to return to the States in 1999 so their son could go to school in the U.S. “We left with heavy hearts,” says Fred, “but realistically, we would have to send our son to school in Nairobi, and we didn’t want to live there and we didn’t want to send him to a boarding school.”
Fred spent the summer of 1999 as the interim director for the NOLS Pacific Northwest Branch in Mt. Vernon, Washington. In September of that year, the Roberts family moved to Seattle. Fred shares, “I was thinking I would have no problem finding a job, but when people looked at my resumé, they thought I had spent the last ten years on the moon. I decided to shift my focus to a career in education.”
That would lead Fred to St. Gregory College Prep School in Tucson, Arizona as Dean of Students. There, he went on to run the challenge course program and develop curricula for classes called East Africa Studies and Applied Leadership and Development. Fred didn’t realize it at the time, but he was laying the groundwork for the SLIK program.
In 2003, a chance to return to Kenya presented itself. Fred shares, “The NOLS program in Kenya was closing down, largely due to 911. Numbers were dropping because people were scared to travel. When my wife and I found out about the closure, our immediate reaction was that we didn’t want to let the facility fall into the hands of someone who would turn it into a resort. We started talking to the executive director of NOLS, who was a good friend. He was definitely interested in keeping the facility ‘in the family.’ He knew we were committed to keeping it some kind of environmental resource. We ultimately came upon our idea—a program focused on team leadership. This is how Batian’s View Experiential Education Center came to be.”
Fred points out that Batian’s View has two different meanings. The facility looks out on Mt. Kenya, and the summit of Mt. Kenya is known as Batian, named for the leader of the Maasai community, so the facility is geographically in Batian’s view. “But the other reason,” Fred notes, “is really the one I named the program for. We had a wonderful Ridgeback named Batian. He was just a special, big dog that I had gotten when he was a puppy. There was a spot where we built an outdoor kitchen, and that’s the place where Batian was always stationed, keeping an eye on anyone who came on the property—they were within Batian’s view. So in the end, we had protection from on high—from atop Mt. Kenya—and protection down low from our dog.”
Since establishing Batian’s View Experiential Learning Center, the Roberts family has split the year between the United States and Kenya. The plan seems to work well for Fred, Elizabeth and their family, which now includes daughters Makena and Brewer in addition to son Jake. Fred says, “I can teach in the States, which is the perfect match. We will get on a plane the end of May and be in Kenya until mid-August.”
It was in 2005 that the pieces came together for the creation of the SLIK program. Fred shares, “At St. Gregory, the kids would intern somewhere the last three weeks of school. I thought, ‘Why not have them intern in Kenya and have them teach?’ I asked the headmaster and he thought it was a great idea. I paired this with the classes on Africa and leadership at St. Gregory, so it was a natural fit.”
Fred’s earlier work with the local Kenyans as an instructor at NOLS created connections that became important in the development of SLIK. “The first group of Kenyans I focused on to hike up Mt. Kenya were the local teachers. The connection to those teachers helped me define a focus for the SLIK program. I asked the teachers what they thought about me bringing American students into their schools to help teach, and they said, ‘Of course.’”
Fred reflects, “It’s all the connections I made over the years that give me confidence when I bring students to Naro Moru. The locals will call me and ask, ‘Can you take my sick child to the doctor?’ I’ve taken pregnant women to the hospital for their deliveries. It would be impossible to replicate the SLIK program anywhere else. We wouldn’t have the same familiarity and comfort we now enjoy in Kenya.”
Since its formation, the SLIK program has reached far beyond the umbrella of St. Gregory School, as Fred has involved students from schools across the United States, including Ottawa Hills.
“Richard Hylant knew about the SLIK program and got in in touch with me in 2013. He asked, ‘What about our kids? Are you going to do something for us?’ When I was in school at Ottawa Hills, I was close to Claire Hylant, Rick Brunner, and Debbie Bogart. They had kids in high school at that time, so we connected and brought Jack Hylant, Jimmy Brunner, and Ben Bogart to Kenya for the SLIK program. We’ve been taking Ottawa Hills kids ever since.”
This past summer, 20 students took part in the SLIK program, hailing from Arizona, Ohio, Utah, California, and other states. Eight of them were Ottawa Hills students. Fred has connections to 10 different schools in the Naro Moru area where SLIK students are assigned to teach. But the program also includes experiences such as a safari and a hike up Mt. Kenya.
Fred shares, “One of the goals I have when I take students to Kenya is to push them out of their comfort zones in safe ways so they can grasp that they are in the middle of a very different experience. Being the only white person in a school of 300 Kenyans is different, and I want them to feel that. But at the end of the time there, they are just known as “Teacher.” They break down the barriers and get comfortable being in the school. Then, I take them up Mt. Kenya and push the envelope even more. Hopefully they’ll use these experiences in their future. For example, that first day of college. That will be uncomfortable, but they’ll know how to work their way through it because they’ll be used to uncomfortable experiences.”
He continues, “It’s a big eye opener for the American students. The Kenya students are polar opposites to them in so many ways, and they get a glimpse of those differences. But, our students see that, in the end, kids are kids, and life experiences just look different for Kenyan kids. I hope this causes our students to take a look at themselves and realize that they have the resources that would allow them to do some really good things for others. For example, Randall (Johnson) and Will (Koury) used their knowledge and resources this past summer to buy a modem for their Kenyan school. That really changed things for those teachers and kids. I hope kids like Randall and Will will continue to ask, ‘How can we use technology to help the less fortunate?’ That’s the perspective I want kids to have when they to leave the SLIK program.”
Ottawa Hills students agree that their time in Kenya changed their perspective, thanks to Fred’s leadership. Senior Sulmon Mahmood notes, "Fred had such a huge impact during the trip. You truly never felt like you were doing anything alone because everything we did, he was doing it with us. He was also so experienced with the culture of Kenya and he always knew what he was doing, which made the trip that much more exciting."
OHHS junior Elizabeth Ponder adds, “Fred Roberts' hospitality and trust allowed the members of the SLIK program to truly experience life in Kenya and better understand how different Kenyans' way of life is. This life-changing experience has impacted me for the better and I cannot thank Fred enough for all that he has done to make the program as remarkable as it is.”
Fred Roberts is making an indelible impact on students from Ottawa Hills and beyond through the SLIK program. But he notes that the opportunity to pursue this dream is an outcome of his own experiences while a student at OH: "I learned from a lot of really caring teachers in a very comfortable, safe community. And I had a good group of friends, which made a great impact on my experience. They are friendships I maintain to this day. At Ottawa Hills, you look out for each other, take care of each other, and support each other. Those are the norms. It wasn’t just about academics. I found a lot of freedom to be who I was. I can’t remember anything I learned in particular, but I know I came out a well-adjusted person, ready for college. I guess you could say that Ottawa Hills provides solid grounding—it’s a launching point that allows you to spread your wings. It was a great place to grow up.”
Go to the Service Learning in Kenya website to learn more about the SLIK program. Questions can also be directed to Fred Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org. Fred will come to Ottawa Hills after the beginning of the year to hold an informational meeting with students and the parents of students interested in going to Kenya in the summer of 2018.