By Chris Smith/The Press Democrat
This alone is remarkable: The foundation that operates a school in a slum in Kenya has spontaneously named itself for a generous, lifelong benefactor from Sonoma County.
And Riley Orton, the honoree, is just 9 years old.
The Sonoma County native was born a bit prematurely and, it seems, with a potent urge to help others. His family in Kenwood is by no means wealthy, but Riley hadn’t been walking long when his folks first noticed his inclination to share whatever he has.
His mother, Jennifer Fee, says he was maybe 2 when he started inviting the postal carrier and door-to-door evangelists to come in, take a rest on the couch and have a drink of water.
A community solicitor who knocked on the door seeking donations to Kenwood’s Independence Day parade went speechless when Riley fetched his piggy bank from his room and gave her every penny.
“It’s just kind of in him,” said admirer and fellow Kenwood resident Karen Borgfeldt. Earlier this year, she acknowledged Riley’s many acts of aiding others by hauling him in front a large Kenwood Education Foundation luncheon, thanking him and presenting him with a drum set.
Borgfeldt noted in her praise at the banquet that Riley had conceived the idea for a holiday gift drive that sent a great shipment of presents to distressed kids who spent Christmas 2012 at Valley of the Moon Children’s Home.
“You just don’t see second-graders doing that every day,” Borgfeldt said.
“He’s just so unusual and so sweet.”
Also as a Kenwood School second-grader, Riley instigated a school-supplies campaign that shipped badly needed books and other classroom items to the non-profit Develop Africa.
He didn’t return to Kenwood School this past fall. Though his family lives still in Kenwood, he’s now receiving assistance with congenital learning disorders as a third-grader at Prestwood School in Sonoma.
It surprised Riley and his mother when they received a message via Facebook from David Omondi, co-founder of the Akili Preparatory School in the Obunga slums of Kisumu, Kenya.
Omondi wrote that he’d read Jennifer Fee’s postings about her son’s school-supply drives for Africa and he wanted them both to know he was deeply impressed and thankful that a boy of 8 would undertake such as act of caring.
Omondi made no requests of Fee and her son, except to ask if they would know of anyone who might like to volunteer at the school. The Facebook connection left Riley feeling determined to do something for Akili School.
He took the cash he’d been saving up to buy a game and bought more school supplies. A few others kicked in, too. Riley and his mom purchased supplies and the lad’s grandmother, Gretchen Charnas, paid to ship them to Akili Preparatory School.
Today, school co-founder Omondi is a confirmed fan of the kid in Kenwood.
Omondi said in an e-mail from Kenya that he and his best friend, Erick Oduor, grew up in Obunga and were fortunate to go away to college.
“After graduating from college,” he wrote, “we both came back to our community to help the children and women come out of poverty.”
They opened the school early in 2012. Omondi said they were searching Facebook for possible helpers when they came upon Jennifer Fee’s post, on the Develop Africa page, that described her son’s school-supply drives.
Through message exchanges, Omondi learned more about what Riley has done for African school kids, residents of Valley of the Moon Children’s Home and others. Omondi said he had never before heard of such charitable endeavors by someone so young.
Riley “has already done so much with so little,” he said.
“I waited until I graduated from college to start helping my community. Riley challenged me and I started thinking of how different my life would be today had I started helping my community at 5 years old.”
Omondi and his partners in Akili Preparatory School now have officially named the charitable organization that operates the school the Riley Orton Foundation. Omondi said they did so in the hope that the boy’s “compassion for the children living in poverty in Africa will always be remembered.”
Riley said he feels proud to have the Akili school foundation wear his name. As well as he can remember, he said, he first wanted to help others after he saw a TV commercial that showed pictures of children overseas who receive only a small amount of rice to eat.
“And I felt sad,” he said. Age 5 at the time, he set up a lemonade stand and a short while later asked his mom and his father, Gannon Orton, if he could raise money by selling barbecued salami sandwiches.
That didn’t happen. But his subsequent holiday gift and school supply drives were successful, and now he’s planning for a penny collection at Prestwood School to aid Akili school.
“People don’t really use pennies that much, but they’re worth something,” the well-mannered kid said with his typical exuberance. “And if you get a bunch of them … ”
Riley relies on assistance from his mother, but she insists that he is the initiator.
“I’m his personal secretary,” Fee said. “Or as someone told me, I’m is mom-ager.”
They are preparing for the Nov. 4 launch of a fund drive for Akili school at indiegogo.com. And a friend in northern Nevada is pushing for the Riley Orton Foundation to be the beneficiary of a charitable golf tournament next summer in Reno.
If that happens, Fee said, her boy will kick off the tournament and dress in a tuxedo to address the post-play banquet.
Meanwhile, Riley works to meet the demands of the third grade. He thinks he’ll probably make a career of helping others, quite possibly the children who struggle in much of Africa.
“I’m never going to give up on the children,” Riley vowed. “I’m going to keep on going and keep on going and keep on going until their life is like ours.”
(Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and firstname.lastname@example.org.)