written by KEN HAMWEY, Contributing Writer
Bellingham and Tanzania are linked—in a beautiful, loving and caring way.
An orphanage founded by Bellingham native Jay Rowe cares for 25 children (ages 3–9) in the small city of Moshi in the East African country that borders Kenya. Known as COKO (Children of Kilimanjaro Orphanage), the facility opened on March 15, 2020, just about when the COVID-19 pandemic started.
“I thought we were in trouble after all our work and planning,” said Rowe, who graduated from Bellingham High in 1982, “but, with the generous help of a lot of people, the orphanage has stayed afloat.”
(Shown above: Jay Rowe with Elizabeth, a COKO resident.)
Generosity is a powerful trait, and the 58-year-old Rowe personifies it. He’s all about giving children the simple things in life that he enjoyed as a youth. His parents (Dina, 92, and Chuck, 90) obviously emphasized the benefits of giving and assisting.
“When you see 25 kids who are happy, safe, going to school, playing games, having clean clothes and linen, and knowing they’re loved, it’s an awesome feeling,” Rowe said. “These children never had anything. They just want to smile, be hugged and be happy. They’re getting the things I had growing up—a safe environment and love. Every kid deserves that. They’ve given me more than I’ve given them.”
Most of the children at COKO have no parents, and some previously lived with grandparents who no longer could take care of them. They all come from villages surrounding Moshi, and they’re all chosen based on need by Rowe and co-founder Babu Msuya.
COKO’s mission statement accents Rowe’s feelings. It reads: “to provide children access to school, medical care and church services in a clean, safe and loving environment.”
Consider Rowe’s background, and then mull how remarkable his endeavor is. Before graduating from high school, he started basic training with the U.S. Army. After four years in the Army reserves, he joined the Marines for three years of active duty, finishing as a Lance Corporal. Returning to civilian life, he started a masonry business in 1992 (Jay Rowe Masonry), located in Bellingham. He was married, is divorced and has no children.
Unfortunately, Rowe was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2016, had seven surgeries (one to remove his esophagus and the top of his stomach) and has dealt with the disease for five years. “The cancer is in remission now, but it left me with a permanent feeding tube,” he said. “But I’m still active, working and living a great life.”
Rowe’s desire to start an orphanage started with his penchant for mountain climbing, long-distance backpacking and ice climbing. He had always wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, and he did that in January 2011. “At that time, that was my highest climb,” he said. “It was 19,341 feet, but my highest effort was in 2013 in Nepal, when I climbed 20,305 feet to the top of Island Peak in the Himalayan mountain range.”
While he was in East Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, he helped out at orphanages in Kenya and Tanzania. He saw up close that money donated to orphanages wasn’t going to help children.
“Funds that should go to help kids just weren’t getting there,” Rowe said. “There are good orphanages and there are bad ones, especially in third-world countries. I learned how to operate an orphanage from my involvement in helping several of them in East Africa. I often talked about starting an orphanage on many of my visits to Tanzania with Babu, a former school teacher who’s been my closest friend there for the last 11 years. In 2019, we started looking for property and buildings; then in January, 2020, we chose to rent the Twiga Hotel.”
The facility sits on an acre of land and has three buildings—one that houses children and staff, a second that provides housing for volunteers, and the third that serves as a kitchen. “Our fulltime staff numbers seven,” Rowe said. “We have the head matron, the head teacher, a security officer, two assistant teachers, a cook and a cleaning employee. For recreation, the kids have a large courtyard, the front of the orphanage and a nearby soccer field.
To keep COKO operating, to meet a variety of expenses and to pay the monthly rent for the hotel, it takes money, and Rowe and the three other members of the Board of Directors work diligently in their fundraising efforts. Besides Rowe, who is the president, co-founder and treasurer, the board consists of Amanda Campano of Blackstone (Director of Fundraising), Tim Marco of North Carolina (Director of Children’s Activities), and Cathy Harnett of Wisconsin (Director of Donor Relations).
“Without donations there would be no COKO,” Rowe said. “We’ve got donors from Bellingham, from all over the U.S. and from other countries. A small amount can still go a long way in Tanzania. A large percentage of donations comes from Bellingham because, as a co-founder of the orphanage, friends, residents and businesses know me. Anyone wishing to donate can go to www.helpcoko.org.
Rowe has high praise for Bellingham’s Roger Dooley and is thankful for his dedication and excellence in designing and updating COKO’s website.
“Roger, the board members and I are all close friends,” Rowe mentioned. “In 2019, I organized a Team Jay’s Climb of Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for the Oliva Fund (for cancer care). Roger ran the website for the team. Amanda handled fund-raising for the climb, and Tim and Cathy went to Africa and climbed Kilimanjaro. Tim and I had been sky-diving instructors, and I knew Cathy from the Marines. She and I were in the same platoon. Team Jay’s Climb raised $42,000 for the Oliva Fund.”
Rowe and the COKO managerial team have short-term and long-term goals. “Our primary short-term goal is to buy a bus,” Rowe said. “Currently, we rent a bus to get the children to school and to church. Our long-term goal is to buy the building, and another is to increase the number of kids at the facility. We have room to expand to 60.”
Thanks to technology, Rowe can easily oversee the daily operation of the orphanage from Bellingham. “I talk with the chief matron (Janeth) daily,” he noted, “and I talk with the staff just about every day. I have two trips planned this year to finish several projects there.”
According to Rowe, COKO gets high marks from the local authorities in Tanzania. They inspect the facility, monitor how it operates and see how the children are progressing. “Some of the kids are learning to speak English, but I can converse with them because I know enough Swahili to communicate,” he said. “The kids know me, and I have so much fun being around them.”
In his earlier years, Rowe was a skydiving instructor, and he also coached Pop Warner football and youth baseball in Uxbridge. He enjoyed working with six- and seven-year-olds in instructional T-ball.
Starting an orphanage, especially one in Tanzania, is, however, something special. It involves a plethora of paperwork and rigorous regulations.
“We applied for 501C3 status and got it, making us a non-profit organization with tax-exempt status,” Rowe indicated. “We follow all the rules. None of our kids are malnourished, and none are mistreated. The key is getting good people on the staff, and Babu and several others know how to recruit and keep good people.”
Good people will no doubt show up at a fundraiser at the Sportsman’s Club on Aug. 8 from 1 to 6 pm to help COKO’s efforts. An entry fee of $20 will cover food and entertainment.
“Starting an orphanage is the greatest thing I’ve done in my life,” Rowe said. “The kids are loved by a devoted staff, and they’re all friends. It’s one big family.”
Rowe isn’t unique in this endeavor; lots of people start orphanages, and he doesn’t crave publicity to benefit himself. Jay Rowe, however, is selfless. His giving nature has no limits and no boundaries.