Improving health, leveraging young voices: Q&A with Stretchers Youth Organization
Written by Olivia Nater | Published: December 8, 2022
Through our Global Partners program, Population Connection supports a growing number of grassroots organizations around the world working to increase access to education, public health and family planning services. Their efforts make a vital difference in their local communities and represent the “final step” in our shared work to make the world a more just and sustainable place for everyone.
Get to know our wonderful partners in this Q&A series! Here we talk to Dickson Okong’o, Founder and Executive Director of Stretchers Youth Organization (SYO) based in Mombasa, Kenya. SYO was founded in 2011, with a mission to enhance and promote a healthy, equal, just and inclusive environment for young people through capacity building, advocacy, and information sharing for sustainable development.
What prompted you to start your organization?
I was a scout member and leader from primary school through high school. We believed that scouting is a service to the community, and this was my strongest force to initiate Stretchers Youth Organization (SYO). I had that strong feeling that I could still do more for my community even after completing my high school.
Fresh from school, I was not sure whether I was going to step through a college’s or university’s doors due to the poor background that I was coming from. At this point also I knew very well that getting a job was not going to be an easy hustle since I had no experience, with no godfather to hold me up or provide me with strategic direction. With the scouting background in me, I only thought of mobilizing my former classmates so that we could meet each and every evening within our hoods to discuss current affairs and any matters that are happening within our lives.
The idea of a daily meeting only worked for two weeks, then died a natural death since there were no clear goals and sustainability plans. After a period of time, I noticed an increase in young people engaging in some criminal activities because they needed money to purchase drugs. This problem of drug and substance abuse had become major, slowly destroying young people’s lives in my community. I remember seeing the lives of some of my former classmates being turned upside down due to use of drugs. This was now becoming a disaster among my fellow young people.
It was at this point that an urge came for me to do something for my community. An idea came to me that there was a need for me to go to schools and talk to the primary school students within my community on the effects of drugs and how they should refrain from using any. Since I had the vision, I needed a few individuals who would come on board and join me in this campaign. It was not easy convincing my friends to join me in this journey. After not giving up convincing fellow youths for more than six months, and three attempts to start the organization, the idea was embraced, and that is how Stretchers Youth Organization was founded on November 21, 2011. Since then, the growth and transition have been amazing.
What programs or projects are you currently working on?
We are currently implementing a number of projects as stated below.
Our Adolescents & Youth Empowerment for Health Advocacy project (AYEHA) seeks to contribute to improved health and well-being of adolescent and young people in Mombasa County. The project’s target group are marginalized adolescents and young people (10-24 years). This project has been supported by Population Connection.
The WE LEAD project, with support from Hivos, seeks to contribute to improving HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) outcomes for adolescent girls (10-19 years) and young women (20-24 years) living with HIV in Mombasa County through a sustainable, multi-sectorial approach.
Mobilize Empower Actualize Transform (MEAT) is a project supported by VOICE that seeks to promote peaceful youth inclusion in political, democratic, and governance processes in the coastal region of Kenya. The project is implemented in three coastal counties of Kenya (Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi). It targets youths aged 18-34 years.
What do you hope to achieve in the next five years?
We are guided by our vision where we want to see a “healthy society where every youthful voice counts.” Secondly, I look forward to seeing successful implementation of our first-ever five-year strategic plan that was launched last year, in 2021. The strategic plan addresses four main strategic objectives:
- Contribute to improved health outcomes and well-being among youth in Kenya
- Build a good culture of democracy and good governance in Kenya
- Improve access to justice and promote gender equality among youth in Kenya
- Enhance organizational capacity for effective program delivery and sustainability
What have been some of the greatest challenges you have faced?
Managing the expectations of most of our project beneficiaries. When you go to a community with a project, people have a lot of expectations from you later on that you are not able to meet, resulting in their disappointment.
Lack of funding is a challenge also. Our programs strongly depend on donor funding, and sometimes with little resources you are not able to carry out your project effectively.
Leading fellow youths is not an easy task either. It needs a lot of patience and wisdom for you to lead them since they are quick to see mistakes in you rather than the other good part of your leadership.
What are you most proud of?
In 2018, we influenced the Department of Health in Mombasa to develop the first ever Adolescents and Young People (AYP) strategy on HIV/SRH for 2018-2023, addressing teenage pregnancies and new HIV infections among young people. We also supported Mombasa County’s Department of Health in developing an implementation framework for the AYP strategy.
I’m also proud of launching our “community talking box” in schools, where adolescents and young people can talk freely on issues that affect their life without fear of victimization or intimidation.
Anything else you’d like to share with Population Connection members?
I continue to be grateful for the continued support we have gotten from Population Connection.