Around two years ago, I was looking around YouTube when I came across Melissa's YouTube video of her trip to her Kenyan 'ushago'. A year later, I would receive the news that Melissa had won Face of Kenya U.K. Amongst the things that had given her a winning edge were her numerous volunteer activities and her personality. So just who is Melissa? I caught up with the 22-year old to find out.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Melissa Ida Petty. I graduated last year from University of Hull in LLB Law. I am now studying my Legal Practice Course and Master's in Professional Legal Practice at the University of Law in Leeds.
You aspire to be a family solicitor and a human rights activist. Why is that? How did you decide on that career path?
From an early age, I knew I wanted a career where I could help people, and where I could make a difference. My mother was a social worker and I admired her work with families, and upon studying family law I found it very interesting. However, during the past few years I have been aspiring to train as an immigration lawyer. I have always found campaigning for human rights very important. Growing up as dual heritage, with a Kenyan mother and an English father, I travelled to Kenya from an early age and I saw the differences in England and Kenya, such as the lack of education for girls in rural Kenya, and felt that I wanted to help these girls in Kenya to have the same opportunities that I have myself. I am particularly passionate in campaigning education should be for all no matter your background or gender.
You recently finished your term as Face of Kenya U.K. What made you want to compete for the position of Face of Kenya?
Upon finding the organisation Face of Kenya, I felt that it would be an amazing opportunity to give myself a challenge to raise as much money that I could for Mama Melissa Foundation. I also wanted the opportunity to meet more people in my community.
What were your duties as Face of Kenya U.K.?
My mission was to promote and be an ambassador for Kenya in UK. I have had the privilege to be a part of some amazing projects. I have campaigned for Ivory Belongs to Elephants, raising awareness to stop the ivory trade which is endangering the African elephant. I have also promoted World Oral Health Month in Kenya. I visited Gatina Primary School in Nairobi alongside Dentists and Dental Students to demonstrate to the children how to brush their teeth properly. I also collect ballet supplies from schools I attended in England and donate them to Anno’s Africa. I visited Kibera in April this year, where the project holds weekly after school creative programmes, and I was happy to see the classes in action.
You’re a trustee of the Mama Melissa Foundation. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
From the age of 9, I became an active volunteer for Mama Melissa Foundation which is a fundraising body that supports disadvantaged young girls in Kenya by paying for their school fees to give them access to secondary education and give them viable opportunities for earned income and tools to self-advocate their own life choices. I always loved fundraising, and felt education is so important and everyone no matter where in the world every child should have the opportunity to be educated.
How is the Mama Melissa fundraiser for the dorm for kids with disabilities going?
During a visit to Kenya in 2015, I became aware of the lack of opportunities for children with disabilities. It saddened me that it is estimated only 1 in 6 children with disabilities in Kenya attend school. I visited A.I.C Kangeta Primary School in Embu, Kenya. This is the one of the few schools in the area which provides education for children with disabilities. The school has a class of 16 disabled children. However, they have no facilities and there only option is to teach the children outside, which is not suitable at all. Last year, as part as my fundraising as a Face of Kenya ambassador, I started a campaign to build a classroom for the children with disabilities in the school. During the past year, I raised over £1000 which have already brought the materials needed for the classroom, I am still raising more funds so the classroom can be constructed and finished at the end of the year. This classroom will facilitate 25 disabled children.
Mama Melissa Foundation Website: https://www.mamamelissafoundation.org/about/
Mama Melissa Foundation recently added on the objective to spread breast cancer awareness. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
This year, myself and Mama Melissa Foundation have made a mission to promote awareness of breast cancer particularly in Kenya. In 2015, my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. I am blessed that she is healthy and here with me today. It is difficult to picture your family, friends or even yourself to go through such a traumatic experience but, in reality, 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among Kenyan women and constitutes a major public health problem. Women in African countries are twice as likely to die from cancer as a woman in first world countries. 80% of reported cases in Kenya are diagnosed at an advanced stage, leaving few options for curative treatment. This can be prevented with just awareness. In April this year, I visited Embu Mbeere Hospice, a Hospice Mama Melissa Foundation are proud to be in partnership with. Speaking to the volunteers, it saddened me to find out that the hospice has had to turn people away on occasion due to a shortage in supplies. Therefore, we have made it our mission to provide their yearly supply of morphine, which roughly costs £600 per year.
You have also raised awareness on maternal health amongst the local Maasai tribe in Kenya. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
During Easter 2018, I travelled to Magadi with Nelson, a public health student at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. We visited Magadi Hospital to raise awareness of maternal health among the local Masai tribe. We visited the Masai manyatta where we gave the young mothers milk and bread and informed them about the services of the hospital. People need to be educated, particularly some of the tribes which still follow their traditional methods which limits them from using hospital facilities to ensure safe delivery of babies, and make sure mothers and their children are healthy.
Tell us a little bit about your collaboration with Jim Nyamu to raise awareness in the U.K. to stop the domestic ivory market.
Jim Nyamu is a scientist and the founder of Elephant Centre Nairobi. He is a campaigner for the Ivory Belongs to Elephants project. I worked with him in England in raising awareness to stop the ivory trade, which is endangering the African elephant. Spending time with volunteers of the project, I learnt hard hitting facts that one elephant is killed every 15 minutes for an ivory, and that UK is the second biggest consumer to ivory, below America. Elephants cannot speak so we need to be the voice for them. In December of last year, Jim came to England and walked all the way from London to Bristol - in English winter - to raise awareness. He is now preparing to walk from Kenya all the way to South Africa! He will be walking from July to December.
More on this campaign: http://elephantcenter.org/cause/do-you-want-to-support-east-africa-walk/
Can you tell us a little bit about the Universal Peace Federation Young Achievers Award which you recently received at the Houses of Parliament?
Universal Peace Federation (UPF) is an international and interreligious network of individuals and organisations, including representatives from religion, government, civil society and the private sector, who are dedicated to achieving world peace. UPF is an NGO in special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, UPF supports the work of the UN, particularly in the areas of interfaith peacebuilding, peace education, and the strengthening of marriage and family.
The UPF Young Achievers Award is an award to celebrate future leaders of the world. I was honoured to receive an award for my humanitarian work in Kenya, and I was inspired by the all the awardees achievements.
You’re mixed-race. What has been your experience as a mixed-race person in the U.K.?
I have always loved being mixed-race in UK. It means I can enjoy both cultures, and I am always so proud to represent both countries. I also found it made me unique amongst my peers, uniqueness is something we must celebrate and treasure.
How do you keep in touch with your Kenyan heritage while in the U.K.?
I love eating Kenyan food when I can, I love eating chapatis and mandazi. I also love listening to African music.
Your parents are divorced. How was your experience growing up as a child of divorced parents? What would you say to encourage children from divorced homes?
It is never easy to go through such an experience, especially at a young age at 9 where you know something is wrong but you do not quite understand why everything is happening. You have to learn quickly to deal with change, and compromises, but this experience has only made me stronger. I have not been disadvantaged by anything coming from a divorced home, as my mother has worked so hard to provide me and my sister with everything we needed. Children from divorced homes should know that it is not their fault; their parents love them so much and will never stop loving them. Although this will make things different, your future is bright and this will not limit them from achieving everything they want to achieve. I am an example of this, amongst many others.
You do ballroom dancing competitively. What attracted you to ballroom dancing? What awards have you won in ballroom dancing? How many countries have you been to in competing for ballroom dancing?
I had been dancing different dance styles from the age of 2½, when I started ballet, however when I was around 10 years old I saw a demonstration of ballroom and Latin dancing and absolutely fell in love with it. It was not until my second year of university where I found my dance partner. We have mainly competed around England; however, we did get the opportunity to compete in the Netherlands where we won the Latin event. I love ballroom and Latin dancing as within this type of dance is more styles of dance which ranges in technique and character, from a Viennese waltz to a sassy samba. Dance has always been an outlet for me to express myself, and the fact I can share with my partner is amazing. Also, the outfits are amazing.
You like travelling. How many countries have you travelled to so far? Which was your favourite one? Which is your favourite travel destination in Kenya? Which places do you have on your bucket list?
I absolutely love travelling! To experience a new culture, food, meet new people is the most amazing thing. I have travelled so far to 10 different countries. It’s difficult to choose a favourite as each have so many amazing unique qualities. I enjoy travelling around Europe, I also love America. My favourite travel destination in Kenya is Mombasa; it is simply beautiful, and has everything you need for a perfect break from reality. I would love to go to Asia soon, particularly China, and South America.
You have a YouTube channel where you post about your travels and other parts of your life. What made you want to create your own YouTube channel? Will you go back to posting on it soon?
I started making a YouTube channel around the age of 15. I loved watching YouTubers and felt I would give it ago myself. YouTube has been such a positive experience for me as I have got the chance to make friends all around the world, such as in Canada and in Hungary. I post videos many for myself to remember my travels and experience, so I can watch them again in the future. I also post so other people can see if they want to travel to the same destination, and for them to get some ideas on the places they can visit. I will be posting very soon, I have vlogs from Berlin, Latvia, and Kenya I am in the process of editing. I also plan to do some sit-down vlogs on my experience in law school, and some tip videos on university life.
You’ve worked as a camp counsellor for Echo Hill Camp. How did you go about getting that position? What made you want to be a camp counsellor?
I wanted to have the experience of a camp counsellor at a young age. I always loved the movie Parent Trap with Lindsay Lohan and always thought that American Camps looked like the most amazing place.
When I was 18 years old I sent my application to a company called Camp America. Camp America is used by camps in America for them to find international staff to work for them. As an applicant you write your skills, such as sports, arts, music etc, then Camp America find you a placement. I was placed at Echo Hill Camp in Maryland. This was a very memorable experience as this was the first time I had planned a trip and the first time I was travelling so far away from home by myself. I worked at camp for 3 months as a camp counsellor. I particular enjoyed teaching the kids dance, and art, but also got to do a lot of activities such as kayaking and beach hikes. Whilst I was there I was also trained and qualified as a lifeguard by the American Red Cross. I would recommend to anyone who loves working with children and wants a life changing experience to work at an American Summer Camp. It’s a great way to travel as you get paid for the work and you can go through organisations, such as Camp America, who can help you with your visa and your flights.
How do you balance taking part in extra-curricular activities with your school workload?
From primary school I have always taken part in extra-curricular activities. However, I made school my priority. I feel education is very important. Everyone should get involved in extra-curricular activities, anything from music to martial arts, as it’s a way to de-stress and to distract yourself from the pressures and stress of studying and the outside world; but don't forget that your studies are the priority. It's important to find a balance.
Tell us a little bit about your pro-bono asylum scheme.
During my second year of university, I decided to take part in Pro Bono Scheme for Asylum Seekers. This was aimed at providing free legal advice. I worked in a group and had to prepare and present a presentation to Asylum Seeker on a given topic. My presentation focused on how Asylum Seekers in the UK can access education.
What are your plans for the future? What can we look forward to seeing from you?
Over the next year, I will be finishing my LPC and LLM at University of Law, after which I wish to obtain a training contract with a firm where I can specialize in immigration law. Training contracts take two years to complete, and once completed I will be a qualified solicitor in the UK. I still plan on doing my campaign for breast cancer and supporting education in Kenya with Mama Melissa Foundation. You can also look forward to seeing more on my YouTube channel. I also plan to travel more around the world. I’ll keep you posted!
Too many to decide, I love all music from Afro Beats to Rock.
I love the Harry Potter movies and anything Disney.
Favourite fictional character?
Hermione Granger, intelligent strong woman not to be messed with.
Whom do you look up to?
My mother. She is the most inspiring person.
Do you have pets?
If so, what are their names? No, but I love dogs.
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Lately, life has been getting away from me. In the midst of all the bad news we get nowadays, it can be hard to feel a semblance of happiness. It's not uncommon to feel under the weather, and I had been feeling this way until I saw a recent photo of Megan Markle at the Commonwealth Youth Challenge reception. Her bright yellow dress gave me a Tig moment.
Those who were avid readers of Meghan Markle's - now the Duchess of Sussex - blog, The Tig, would know what this means. A Tig moment - named after Meghan's favourite wine, Tignanello - simply means a moment of awareness. In Meghan's words, "So there I am, with very minimum wine knowledge, and I take a sip of this wine. It just wasn't red or white - suddenly I understood what people meant by the body, legs, structure of wine. It was an ah-ha moment at its finest. For me, it became a 'Tig' moment - a moment of getting it."
Now, you may be wondering, what about the colour of her dress was so important? You see, she was wearing this bright yellow dress, and yellow is quite a happy colour. It is a colour I associate with happiness. Seeing that dress just gave me a cheerful feeling, and suddenly I understood. I got it. I had to take a step back to reflect on the happy moments.
Negative headlines get much more attention than positive headlines. That's why the news is dominated by bad news. Does it mean that the world is getting worse and worse everyday? In some ways, yes, and in some ways, no. Bad things aren't the only things that happen, good things happen too. And while we need to pay attention to the bad things so that we can fix those issues, we also need to pay attention to the good things so that we don't get stuck in a loop of depressive thoughts. This was a reminder that I very much needed.
So here I am now, asking you too to take a moment to reflect on the positive moments you've had in your life. Big moments, small moments, all of them matter. A happy story you read, a game you enjoyed, a movie you liked, a song that got you on your feet, an award you won, a moment of inspiration... What makes you happy? What is it you enjoy doing?
As for me, I'll take the weekend to have some cake, kick back, and relax. Here's to finding those Tig moments.