When Felesia Onimbo graduated from high school in Kenya, her dream was to study accounting and become a successful businesswoman. But that dream was shattered when she came to grips with her financial reality. Her parents were struggling to meet basic needs for her and her three siblings. There was simply no money for a higher education.
Reeling from disappointment, she fell into a crowd of girls who abused drugs and engaged in sex work. Before long, Felesia became pregnant. Life spiraled down further when her baby’s father abandoned her at age 19, leaving her with the sole responsibility of taking care of their daughter. In order to survive, Felesia washed clothes and utensils, often for people who refused or delayed paying the little money she charged.
Then a knock on her door changed everything. Recruiters going door-to-door in Felesia’s neighborhood signed her up for a local DREAMS program. DREAMS is a PEPFAR-led public-private partnership designed to help girls in 10 sub-Saharan African countries develop into Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe women.
Since its inception, DREAMS has reached over 1 million adolescent girls and young women with critical comprehensive HIV prevention in high-burden geographic areas to reduce their risk of HIV infection, help them to know their HIV status, and ultimately prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
During her needs assessment with DREAMS staff, Felesia said she wanted to find work to support her child. Thanks to a public-private partnership between DREAMS and Alibhai Shariff, a hardware company that also runs a car wash franchise, Felesia attended a professional car wash training and landed a job with the company washing cars at a high-end mall in Nairobi.
“At first, I wondered how I would be able to address clients coming from a slum background,” she said. “But I was trained how to handle different clients. It really helped to boost my self-esteem and I am now very confident when handling clients.”
Today, as a 21-year-old, Felesia earns enough to support her daughter and siblings. She is also able to put away money for college. Her supervisor noticed her dedication and offered her an internship in the company’s accounting office during hours when she’s not washing cars.
“Felesia does her work diligently,” her supervisor said. “She is hard working and most clients like her work. As a company, we are proud of her.”
But Felesia’s story doesn’t end there. She became a DREAMS ambassador, speaking with other girls and young women about how she is succeeding a in a career typically dominated by men. Her inspiring story is transforming other girls’ attitudes toward venturing into jobs not usually filled by women. Felesia and the DREAMS program are empowering girls and young women to pursue their chosen career path, which reduces their risk of HIV infection and creates opportunities for them to achieve their dreams.