Corporate responsibility spreads the “helping virus”

For eight apprentices at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany headquarters, corporate responsibility is not just a concept. They made it a reality by helping design a playground for former street children in Nairobi, Kenya.

SIX-YEAR-OLD JUDI IS SWINGING — JUST LOOK!

For the first time in her life, she is soaring high up into the air. She’s squealing and laughing in delight, and can hardly believe her luck. This little girl is one of 48 orphans and former street children who are now living in a home for girls run by the Lutheran Church on the outskirts of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

The girls receive loving care and go to school — but the home, which is financed by donations, cannot afford to buy toys for them, much less build a playground where they can run around outdoors. The fact that Judi can now have so much fun on a swing set is due to the commitment of many Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany
employees — those who were directly involved in the playground project and those who supported it with their donations. It’s an example of corporate responsibility from which many people benefit.    

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany apprentices in Nairobi, Kenya

Corporate responsibility spreads the “helping virus”.

Training and doing good deeds

Among those who have benefitted from the project are the eight apprentices from the areas of production, technology, and office services, as well as their two vocational training instructors. They have learned a lot about teamwork, organizational skills and flexibility, as well as gaining experience abroad. Jonas Müller, one of the two vocational instructors, sums it up as follows, “When we stepped out of the airplane, we were in a different world. It was an unfamiliar experience for all of us. We had to improvise a lot, but everyone pitched in wherever they could. We make a great team!” The idea behind this special apprenticeship project was born in 2014.

Volker Schmidt, Managing Director of the company's Consumer Health business in Kenya, had good contacts to the German Lutheran Church in Nairobi. The Pangani Lutheran Children’s Centre (PLCC), which offers neglected girls a new home, had been built in Nairobi in 2012 on a piece of land owned by the church. The plan was to gradually expand the center by adding additional buildings and a school.

This seemed like an appropriate corporate responsibility project for Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. And when Volker Schmidt talked to Thomas Koppe, Head of Vocational Training at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, the two men soon realized that this would be a good opportunity to offer young people the possibility of helping to expand the center and taking on social responsibility as part of their vocational training.    

To Africa, with pickaxes and basketballs

The apprentices liked the idea of building something the girls would be able to enjoy directly: a playground with swings, seesaws, a slide, a basketball hoop, and a wooden playhouse. This project was a huge challenge for the young apprentices, none of whom had ever been to Africa before. But the team members prepared for the journey over several weeks while they were still in Darmstadt. They booked inexpensive flights, received vaccinations, made presentations, and wrote intranet articles in order to solicit donations for the project — and of course they also worked on plans for the playground. What should it look like, and how would they transport materials and tools to Nairobi?

“At first we wanted to buy all the materials in Germany and send them to Nairobi,” says Jonas Müller. “However, we soon realized that this would be too expensive and complicated. Fortunately, we were able to find a local workshop in Nairobi that could saw the wood for us and weld the seesaws and the slides.”

The only things that had to be sent from Germany were tools and some toys, so the team packed a big box and sent it on ahead to Kenya. It was filled with a variety of things ranging from pickaxes to balls for the children.    

An adventure playground

The apprentices and their vocational training instructors were greeted by a workplace they certainly won’t ever forget: a dusty field sparsely dotted with bushes in the grounds of the Pangani Lutheran Children’s Centre, baking in the equatorial sun 30 kilometers south of Nairobi. The apprentices’ very first workday was full of challenges.

I’ve done a good deed. I didn’t come here in vain.

nino-vincenzo singh

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany apprentice

The box of tools had not arrived on schedule, so they had to revise their original plans. “Because we didn’t have our pickaxes, we had to get support from local workers in order to dig holes in the ground, which was as hard as a rock,” says Nino-Vincenzo Singh, who is in the second year of his apprenticeship as a chemical technician. “Before we got there I could not have imagined that we would be working so hard — all day long under the burning sun!” For five days, the trainees dug holes, assembled playground equipment, mixed concrete, poured foundations, and planted trees. Through their efforts, the dusty vacant lot was transformed into an inviting children’s playground.    

Children’s laughter was their reward

After the playground was finished, the girls shouted with delight as they took possession of the swings. Nino Singh expressed the feelings of the whole team when he said, “I’ve done a good deed. I didn’t come here in vain.” Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany has made long-term plans for supporting the home for girls as part of its social responsibility activities. Next year it will once again send apprentices to continue expanding the center. Everyone will benefit from the project. The girls will have e a better future; can go to school and will be able to start apprenticeships. And the apprentices from Germany have seen that they can help the girls in a very practical way. Of the project, Jonas Müller says, “We are learning to take on social responsibility and passing the positive ‘helping virus’ on to others.”

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