UW News

December 7, 2007

UW graduate student Peter Kithene named CNN Heroes Honoree

University of Washington graduate student Peter Kithene has won $25,000 as a CNN Heroes Honoree. Kithene, 25, was chosen as one of six honorees out of 7,000 nominations sent in by CNN viewers in 93 countries.

He received the award during a live, global broadcast Thursday night in New York. In late November, he won $10,000 as one of 18 CNN Heroes finalists. According to CNN, the Heroes program honors “unheralded heroes – people driven to exceptional achievement in service to others.”

“I feel so energized,” Kithene said. “I just want to keep working.”

At the UW, he’s studying for a master’s degree in health administration and will use a portion of the prize money for a prenatal unit at Mama Maria Clinic, which he founded two years ago in his native Kenya. In CNN Heroes, Kithene won in the Medical Marvels category. The other categories are Champion Children, Community Crusader, Defending the Planet, Fighting for Justice and Young Wonder.

“We’re honored to shine the spotlight on some of the world’s lesser known heroes,” Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide, said in a written statement.

As an undergraduate, Kithene applied what he learned in the classroom to something he is very passionate about,” said Janice DeCosmo, associate dean for Undergraduate Academic Affairs. “He is driven to provide hope and real services to people who need them in his home village. We are incredibly proud of him as a graduate of our university, as he has taught us the true meaning of global citizenship.”

Mama Maria Clinic treats all comers, but is particularly focused on widows and orphans. In a continent ravaged by poverty and deadly but treatable diseases such as malaria and HIV-AIDS, women and children often bear the brunt of losses.

Born one of 10 children, six of whom died in childhood, Kithene (ki-THAY-nay) attended elementary school in Muhuru Bay, a remote Kenyan village near the country’s border with Tanzania. When he was 12 years old, both his parents died of undiagnosed diseases, and he was left to care for three younger siblings. An orphan on a continent where such children are regarded as ordinary, Kithene was frequently advised to drop out of school to support his siblings.

He worked odd jobs to support those children, but eventually moved to his maternal grandmother’s village so he could continue school. Eventually, Kithene won a scholarship to Starehe Boys Centre, a top-notch high school for poor children in Nairobi. Later, he was accepted at the University of Nairobi and the UW but chose the UW because it offered more relevant and technologically advanced education.

His first quarter at the UW, Kithene lived with Larry and Stacy Crites, who’d met him when they ran a medical clinic for a relief organization in the region of Kenya where Kithene lived.

“Everybody there has needs, even those doing well,” said Larry Crites, “but Peter asked what can I do to help you. It was a total flip flop. Peter really stood out.” The youngster wound up organizing skits to educate groups of Kenyans about AIDS, this while attending school and working odd jobs to support his family.

By his second quarter at the UW, Kithene was supporting himself — and sending money home to Africa. “He knew what it was like to be in that place,” Crites said.

Two years ago, Kithene married Katrina Haynes, who met him while she was executive director of Leadership Advancement International, a Seattle nonprofit founded by Ivan Lumala, a native of Uganda who wished to use money he made at Microsoft to help grow African leaders. Kithene impressed staff members at Leadership Advancement, including Haynes, who eventually left her job to marry him. A UW graduate in English and creative writing, she’s now e-mail marketing manager for Alaska Airlines, and with Kithene now has an infant son, Matho, named after his paternal great-great-grandfather.

The CNN award is both over-the-top and completely appropriate, Katrina Kithene said. “From the time Peter was a tiny kid he had a dream about this work, and it shaped who he is. The crazy thing is the way all these things have fallen into place. It took a lot of work, but was also like it was meant to be.”

A staff of 20 makes Mama Maria Clinic the largest employer in the area of western Kenya where it’s located. Its offerings include prenatal care, well-child care, vaccinations and emergency service.

At the UW, Kithene has a Mary Gates Leadership scholarship and a Munro Public Service Award. This past year, he received the Edward E. Carlson Student Leadership Award. With a master’s degree in health administration, Kithene hopes to open additional clinics based on the Mama Maria model.

Lisa Rey Thomas, a research scientist at the UW Drug and Alcohol Abuse Institute, guided Kithene during a research project with the Suquamish tribe. “Peter and his wife had a baby while he was working with us; he was also going to school full-time and managing the (Mama Maria) clinic,” Thomas said. “He was always poised, humble, respectful, funny and incredibly bright. He was committed to developing projects that served tribal communities around the world.”

“I feel very excited about the CNN award,” Kithene said. “It’s a great honor for me and the people I serve.”


For more information, contact Kithene at pkwilson@u.washington.edu or (206) 235-6872. For additional information about Mama Maria Kenya, go to www.mamamaria.org. Photos available upon request.