Snowmass firefighter brings aid, toys to Kenyan islanders |

Snowmass firefighter brings aid, toys to Kenyan islanders

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Correspondent
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Mark Ross

Brandon Potter is a world traveler, but he’s hardly the typical tourist.

The Snowmass Village firefighter, who also works as an Aspen Valley Hospital paramedic, prefers foreign lands where he can lend a helping hand.

So, Potter will return to the African village of Kolunga, on the Kenyan island of Rusinga in Lake Victoria, later this month with more than exotic travel in mind. Rather, goats, teddy bears and construction will fill his itinerary.

He will explain it all today at Jimmy’s restaurant in Aspen, where locals are invited to take in a short slide-show presentation on the efforts of the Kolunga Village Foundation, bid on a slew of silent auction items that area businesses donated, and enjoy wine and hors d’oeuvres, compliments of Jimmy’s, plus beer donated by the Aspen Brewing Co. The event takes place from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.

Potter will leave Nov. 24 for five weeks in Kolunga – his second visit to the village.

There, he and longtime friend Mark Ross, an American working as a guide in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, will continue the efforts of the foundation that Ross helped found after he stumbled into the fishing village while he was jogging on the island.

There are about 15,000 people on Rusinga Island, including 1,200 to 1,400 children, roughly 800 of whom have been orphaned – the result of AIDS among the adult population, according to Potter.

There is no orphanage, there, though. Instead, others in the community have taken the children into their homes.

The foundation has built a school in the village, and last year shipped hundreds of stuffed animals to Kenya to be distributed to Kolunga’s youngsters. Customs officials in Nairobi, however, confiscated the bulk of them and had to be bribed into letting the rest through, Potter said. Some 1,200 children showed up, hoping to get one of 300 toys.

“Handing out the last one just wrecked me,” he said. “It was really hard.”

This year, Potter and Ross are determined get 1,200 stuffed animals into the eager hands of children. Anyone who attends the event at Jimmy’s is welcome to bring along a stuffed toy for the cause.

Perhaps more importantly, the foundation has raised enough money to purchase another 15 dairy goats to be distributed to families in Kolunga. The high-yield goats cost $450 apiece, purchased from a Kenyan farmer. The village decides which families will receive them (15 were also distributed last year), and the recipients must build a pen for their goat and plant fodder to feed the animal.

“They had to do something in exchange,” Potter said. “It’s not just a handout – I think that’s important.”

The foundation is also working to raise $20,000 to build a medical clinic in Kolunga, to be run by a native who works as a nurse there. The $9,000 raised so far has gone to the construction of a foundation for the building. Potter intends to help build the clinic during his stay this year.

“As long as we can raise the rest of [the funds] by the end of November, we’ll be good,” he said.

The Aspen Volunteer Fire Department has given a generous donation, Potter said, and the Snowmass Ski Patrol has kicked in outdated medical equipment and supplies.

Potter, who began work for the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District in 2002, first became hooked on what he calls “philanthropic tourism” while he studied pre-med and finance with a tourism emphasis at CU-Boulder.

In addition to his work in Africa, he joined a medical mission to assist Amazonian tribes in Ecuador in 2007.

“It [became] important to me that everywhere I go, there be some philanthropic means to it,” he said. “I decided I didn’t just want to be a tourist anymore. It’s giving back – not just showing up, buying trinkets and leaving.”

Go to for more on the Kalunga Village Foundation.

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