She is a 91-year-old former pre-school teacher living in Sweden. He is a 47-year-old Senior Human Rights Advisor to the UN. You wouldn’t guess they’re really, really close friends, but they are.
It all started with a ”Small act” more than four decades ago.
This story is about how small acts of kindness can have an unimaginably large impact. She was a school teacher in Sweden, and decided to sponsor one child’s education in Kenya. Hilde’s sponsorship of Chris Mburu cost about $15 per month.
“Just like I was given support when I got here, I was carrying this feeling of wanting to give some-thing back”, Ms. Back remembers. “I have always given money to various charities, Save the Children and that. But that’s always anonymous”.
She was one of the few who was given a child with a name, a five/six-year-old boy named Chris. His family was desperately poor. It wasn’t much money, but it was enough for his schooling for 8 to 10 years. Sometimes, she received letters from his older sister, but not often.
Most poor children in Kenya cannot afford to pay secondary school tuition. Unfortunately, without an education, an extremely difficult and impoverished life is practically guaranteed. Thanks to Hilde’s generosity, Chris avoided that fate.
Chris wound up graduating high school, going to University of Nairobi and then attending Harvard Law School. He became a U.N. Human Rights Advocate, and he started a charity. He petitioned the Swedish embassy to find the name of his anonymous sponsor. Then he named his nonprofit the Hilde Back Education Fund (HBEF) after the benefactor he never met.
HBEF pays tuition for deserving poor students in Kenya. Since the charity’s start, 350 children have been supported. Three hundred and fifty lives have been changed directly . . . so far. That doesn’t even include the impact on their families. And who knows how many of these students will be inspired, as Chris was, to give back?
When talking about his background, Chris said, “I had very humble beginnings, growing up in a village that epitomized poverty, no paved roads, no electricity, no piped water, no medical facilities, and not much hope for a future. The school I went to did not have glass on its windows, none of us wore shoes, most families had to endure hard labor in the coffee plantations to get insignificant sums of money to buy necessities, and many children did not have enough to eat at home.”
And when talking about why he started HBEF to educate poor children, he said, “I think I want to see a world in which children have equal opportunity and are not robbed of their future by poverty, like so many of my friends in the village were.”
It’s interesting that the only reason Hilde Back was even alive to support Chris was because of a stranger’s kindness. Hilde was a Jewish child living in Germany during the Nazis’ reign. Both of her parents were killed in concentration camps, but a stranger helped her escape to Sweden. Hilde said that as a Jew, she wasn’t allowed to go to school in Germany. It seemed natural for her to sponsor schooling for someone who couldn’t otherwise attend.
This is all captured in an excellent documentary, “A Small Act”. The documentary follows Chris after he founded his charity. As we see in the film, Chris decides that he should meet Hilde and tell her about the nonprofit he named after her. Their meeting is emotional, and it’s very touching when he brings her to Kenya, and she is greeted like royalty and made an honorary tribal elder in his village. Not to mention that on her 85th birthday, Chris gives Hilde a sweatshirt that says “Harvard Mom.” The documentary also follows three Kenyan students competing to get scholarships from HBEF
“Yes, you could say that I have been given an extra family through Chris. Sometimes we talk on the phone and e-mail each other, and he is usually here for my birthday”, Ms. Back says
The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival & went on to be nominated for an Emmy Award. Needless to say, this further tightens the bond between the two. Today, Mr. Mburu refers to Ms. Back as his ”second mum”.
This is just another reminder that we can all make a difference, and you never know how big an impact small acts of kindness can have.