Cassie Furnari (17) believes in stability and hope for everyone — especially for populations that are stigmatized by society. Furnari is the founder and executive director of Milele International, which provides housing, trauma-informed counseling, discipleship, and education for teenage boys and young adults experiencing trauma, abuse, addiction, and living without proper housing in Kitale, Kenya.

“The idea of Milele is to get young adults off the streets,” Furnari said. “Through our program we train them and counsel them and help them be ready to go back into society.”

Milele started with two staff members, providing housing and education for 12 boys who were living on the street. Now, Milele has expanded to accommodate over 70 children and employs over 15 staff members. Milele now provides a versatile three-month transitional rehabilitation program to help meet children’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, and to encourage them to reintegrate into a stable environment.

Furnari grew up with a passion for international missions and often traveled internationally with her family. She’d visited Kenya several times before college at PLNU, where she earned her bachelor’s in international studies in 2017 with an emphasis in African cultures.

“I went into college knowing I wanted to go into either missions, nonprofits, or politics,” Furnari said. “I had already had a passion for international cultures and development.”

Although she was always set on helping others, she was initially looking into larger organizations that were already well-established. In 2016, Furnari completed a three-month summer internship with the Precious Kids Center in Kitale, Kenya. There, she was awakened to the large population of children and teenagers who lacked proper housing and struggled with drug abuse, broken homes, and tribal conflicts that resulted in segregation and prejudice. She also found that many of these children and teenagers are stigmatized both by local residents and nonprofit organizations that often prioritize children younger than 14.

Furnari speaks to a group of students gathered under a tent outside.

“There were other organizations working, but none that were working with teenagers,” Furnari said. “They basically said they’re too old or too far gone.”

At the end of her internship, Furnari and a few other college students helped provide the funds to send a few boys to school. After graduating from PLNU the following year, however, Furnari returned to Kenya and realized these children needed more than just education.

“Education is a great solution, but I realized there was a lot more that needed to be done,” Furnari said. “They needed things like housing, discipleship, counseling, and drug rehabilitation.”

Milele, named for the Swahili adjective that means “forever” or “eternal,” was founded that summer of 2017 in order to bring education, hope, restorative care, and empowerment to youth, ages 14 to 25. The mentorship of PLNU professors Jamie Gates, Ph.D., and Lindsey Lupo, Ph.D., helped Furnari shape the ministry and informed her about how best to run the program — as well as how to share leadership. Furnari explained that letting local Kenyans guide the direction of Milele International was crucial.

“The biggest thing that PLNU classes had taught me was that local people in Kenya can [best address] their own problems,” Furnari said. “I could be a part of that, but I wanted this organization to be run by local Kenyans who knew the issues, the culture, and the correct solutions.”

“The biggest thing that PLNU classes had taught me was that local people in Kenya can [best address] their own problems. I could be a part of that, but I wanted this organization to be run by local Kenyans who knew the issues, the culture, and the correct solutions.”

Furnari described her role as supporting and equipping locals from the United States. Furnari visits two or three times per year and oversees the fundraising from the U.S., while the staff in Kenya runs the program and creates the curriculum. Although the local leaders are able to witness incredible transformations in students’ lives, Furnari feels blessed to see Milele create change even in the U.S.

“I feel super passionate that I’m on the fundraising side of things,” Furnari said. “I get to see people’s hearts change because God changes something in people’s hearts when they give.”

Furnari emphasized that Milele is not an orphanage. In fact, one of Milele’s biggest goals is to reintegrate teenagers with their families. Kids who live on the streets in Kenya typically have family nearby but are affected by tribal clashes, instability, and other trauma. Milele hosts individual counseling, group counseling, and family counseling to help children reintegrate into their family and city lives. They also partner with the Kenyan ministry of education, the local police department, and the department of children services to help ensure the boys achieve the transformation and resources they deserve.

“I’ve seen God heal and restore families where we didn’t think it was possible,” Furnari said.

Furnari has a powerful vision for expansion for Milele, which currently rents two properties in Kitale. However, neighbors often raise concerns about “street children” living near them, to the point of prejudice and harassment. Furnari’s vision is for Milele to have a property of its own with room for growth.

“To have our own property is super important to give us stability,” Furnari said, “a place where we know we can stay in.”

In the coming years, Furnari’s goal for Milele is to become self-sustainable. With environmentally conscious agriculture and poultry farming, the organization can reduce its fundraising costs and generate income, providing enough to sell to local communities. These projects will also help the children to be more focused, caring, and passionate in these potential areas.

“We want to have income-generating projects, whether that’s agriculture, poultry, or creating businesses that boys at Milele would funnel into,” Furnari said, “like a Milele mechanic shop or a bakery.” 

Furnari with Milele students

Furnari has been inspired not only by the ways in which children have transformed their lives but also by the ways people’s hearts have been changed all around them. Local individuals and organizations have seen Milele students shatter stereotypes and reconnect with their families and communities in powerful ways.

“We just had unbelievable success with this age group; we just had one student graduate high school in the top 0.1% in all of Kenya,” Furnari said. “There’s so much potential for [these kids], if only they’re given an opportunity.”

Toby Franklin is the copy editor for PLNU’s Marketing team. He is a reader and writer of speculative fiction and comic books.