The culmination

So, long time no see, eh? I know, I know… I’ve been a bit AWOL lately. However, I’ve been waiting for the right time, and now is finally the time to share some exciting news about Kenya Simba Scholars (KSS) that has been brewing for about 9 months or so. But first, some much-needed back-story…

My return to the US in May of 2014 – after spending another 3 months in the land of warm sun, exotic animals, African climate, and amazing little children – was long-awaited and highly welcomed… by me. To be honest, the idea of coming home early appealed to me, and was presented to me on more than one occasion by my pastor/boss. But ultimately, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had made this commitment, and I was gonna stick with it. I’m glad I did. It was a rough 3 months, though, in which we had to let go of supporting 2 of our 4 Kenya Simba Scholars locations (the result of growing pains, Kenyan political climate, accountability measures, and other aspects combined). The KSS Advisory Board at Saint Joseph United Methodist Church was on the verge of shutting down the whole ministry due to the unforeseen problems and no immediate solutions. Our available resources were not what they needed to be in order to keep the ministry thriving, and we had no way of getting those resources any time in the imminent future. It was a huge blow, and a heavy realization for us. Despite that, the children were still in need. Moreover, we had made promises to them. We had begun to form relationships with them. How could we fulfill the need, and stay true them? How could we continue to support the kids? Was that still our mission? If not, what would become of the children we’d met and sponsored for years, who were still living in poverty and affected by the severe lack of education that loomed over the bleak horizon?

Was God telling us that this ministry was only meant for a season? Was our ministry actually helping these children? These were honest questions that needed honest answers. One of the most dangerous things to do in ministry is to keep walking along, pretending that you’re actually doing good (especially when money is involved!), when in fact your “help” could be hurting others more than anything. It was time for serious thought and a lot of prayer.

Deliberation ensued. We were in a trench hole – a much-needed one, to be sure. I feel that with any pertinent growth, there will come a point of such pain that you question if you can go on. The ultimate point of growth into wisdom comes if you can answer the questions that arise with full honesty. Thus, a decision had to be made. The idea that we could stop all sponsorship really loomed over me, and threatened everything I’d worked so hard for the previous 2 years. Had that been my mission? To see the end of it all? I spent my days in constant thought and prayer. Encouraging words from fellow mentors and friends reassured me that even if the children only had 5 years of sponsorship, that was still  5 years that they were blessed with a gift. I tried to be ok with that, but I deep down I wanted there to be something else. Ultimately, the board decided that we needed to partner with an organization who had shown the ability to be successful in child sponsorship, and who could help us manage our ministry in Kenya. If we couldn’t achieve this, then we could no longer support an international ministry in Kenya. There was just too much at stake. Too much harm that we could do. And with the potential harm we could do, we knew we would eventually hurt the children in ways that we’d never fully know. That realization was more devastating than halting the program.

The summer of 2014 was met with lots of phone calls to many different organizations around the country, in an attempt to gain wisdom, advice, partnerships, networking contacts, and anything else that would help us make the final decision for the fate of Kenya Simba Scholars. I spoke to Executive Directors, Financial Chairs, CEOs, VPs, field workers, fellow missionaries, and anyone else who would answer my phone calls or emails. I got a lot of advice for things to watch out for, things to do in our ministry, suggestions of other people to talk to instead of the person I’d called, and knowledge that would’ve been great had I received it before I’d started on this journey. I was grateful for all of it, however, the outlook was looking pretty dim. More prayer. I was seriously considering the idea that God really didn’t want this ministry to continue. Perhaps it wasn’t our place to be sponsoring children for education internationally. It was a pretty lofty mission, after all.

But one day in October of 2014, a sliver of hope appeared via an email response that I received. It was an invitation to come out to Valparaiso and have a meeting and lunch with the Senior VP and HR Director of Kids Alive International, with a side note of “What a nice surprise to find out that we have a fellow Christian worker here in N. Indiana who is serving children in similar ways that we are in Kenya!” My diminishing hope was perking up. Is this for real? I heard my realistic self speaking to me internally: Don’t get your hopes up. It could turn out to be nothing in the end. My skeptical side prevailed in an effort to hold back my potentially extreme excitement. You see, this was the first positive response I’d had. What were the odds that something good would come of it?

So I decided to find out if this was meant to be. Along with my trusty travel partner, Brie (who has spent 2 months in Kenya with me on previous occasions), we set off to Valparaiso one cold, snowy day in late October… not knowing what thoughts or feelings the end of this meeting would leave us with. Matt and Gordon greeted us at Kids Alive, listened to all of the honesty about Kenya Simba Scholars – where we were financially, resourcefully, and emotionally with the ministry, and everything that had happened within it up to that point – and at the end of it, they were still interested in further conversation with us about the potential for a partnership! With their 99 years of experience in child sponsorship around the world, and a staff of 70 on the ground in Kenya, they were in a position to expand their organization, bringing on more children. This was exactly what they were looking for. What? I had told them the nitty-gritty, the ugly parts, the stuff that I wanted to get rid of, and they just sat there calmly and said they wanted it? Who ARE these people?! Did they hear me correctly? It was still too good to be true. Realistic Jen maintained her composure. And skepticism. Sadly, I was still gearing myself up for the ultimate “pulling of the plug” if it came down to that. We all moved forward, nonetheless. Now that I was on this train, I would take it as far as I could.

The months that followed were filled with emails to and from Kenya, Valparaiso, and Fort Wayne in an effort to see what the possibility would be of a partnership between Kids Alive International and Kenya Simba Scholars. A full meeting in January of 2015 with the KSS Board and the Kids Alive Senior staff gave us yet another high voltage jolt into a sphere of hope that I hadn’t seen in a very long time. (One of the men who came to the meeting was a Kids Alive child in Lebanon in the 50s. His name is Jed. Probably in his 60s now, Jed is currently the VP of Operations for Africa & the Middle East for Kids Alive. This was encouraging beyond anything I’d felt yet. Could our kids have the same potential?) They were now talking about taking on the administration of KSS in Kenya, and eventually bringing on Lydia (our KSS Kenyan Director) to their Kenyan staff. How was this going so well? The KSS board members were stoked that we would still be able to help the children that we’d spent so many years building relationships with, and that we’d be able to offer even more to them and to our sponsors. The conversation continued. Along with that, so did my hope for KSS, the children, and everyone who has been so profoundly affected by this international ministry.

And so, months later, a Kids Alive trip to Kenya, many phone calls to Lydia, several KSS advisory board meetings, and a long story short, here we are today… over a year later, and the hope that was once nearly gone has re-surfaced, and is glowing. Realistic Jen is still here, but the reality is that this is happening! Kids Alive International and Kenya Simba Scholars are joining in partnership with one another. Moreover, Jed will be the one overseeing the KSS program in Kisii! What does this mean for “our” kids? Whereas KSS could offer only tuition for the children, Kids Alive will offer them healthy meals, basic medical care, spiritual guidance, education and extra tutoring if needed. They will still help nurture that precious relationship between sponsors and scholars via letters, pictures and occasional gifts. What does this mean for our sponsors? Well, we hope to keep them! KSS will still be a ministry of Saint Joseph UMC, but it will be under the umbrella of Kids Alive, who will see that every child is being attended to, and getting what they need via their in-country staff. St Joseph will continue to recruit sponsors for the children in Kisii, Kenya, and the relationships built between sponsors and scholars will continue to grow. I have never felt more hopeful for this international child sponsorship ministry at St Joseph! I have learned, again, that I can trust (this seems to be an ongoing lesson for me!).

And to think… a year ago some of us were preparing ourselves for the end of it all. I chose not to share any of this publicly as it was in-progress due to not really knowing much about the path forward until just recently. But I’m delighted to be able to share it now that things are progressing in a positive way. As far as my position as International Advocate to Kenya – well, that is officially over at this point. Although, I will definitely remain a huge advocate for the ministry here in the US. My heart still remains there, though. The children and families from Kenya will forever be a part of me & who I’ve become. They’ve taught me so much about life, purpose, patience, hope, and trust. They’ve taught me their culture, their languages, their way of life, and helped me know the beauty of Kenya. They’ve shown me the joy that comes from giving, and the blessed humility in receiving. They’ve shown me what it means to allow the gift of generosity to pour from those who have much less than I do, and the grace that comes from that. I am overflowing with gratitude to them. I do hope to visit again someday to see all the kids & families, and know how they’re doing. In the meantime, I rest in the fact that they are in great hands. I might even get the chance to go on a mission trip with Kids Alive at some point! And who knows… maybe one day I’ll write a book about all of this.

So, the culmination of my mission was this:  I set out into the unknown, having committed 3 years of my life to this journey, clueless as to what the end would be or needed to look like (only knowing that I needed to go). I enjoyed a magical, travel-induced fairytale for a while before it turned into reality, leaving my heart broken, my faith in all of it lost, and me deciding there was little to no hope for any of it. Only, I was proven immensely wrong, and later regained my trust that God can do all things miraculous as the whole thing turned into something better than I ever could have imagined… almost 3 years later, on the dot.

To all of my sponsors who believed in me enough to financially support me in this mission, to everyone who stood by my side through all of it (or even part of it), to everyone who sent up prayers and positive thoughts on behalf of this mission… I cannot say “Thank You” enough. You have truly changed the lives of so many… for years to come. It could not have happened without you.

******

If you’re interested in watching the introduction of the partnership and more about Kids Alive, we broadcasted live this morning (July 19, 2015), and it’s up on YouTube for viewing here:

And don’t forget to check them out at http://www.KidsAlive.org!

Categories: Kenya, Kenya Simba Scholars, Ministry, Reflection | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Reminiscing

I keep remembering Kenya. I sporadically remember tiny moments in time… some come back more frequently than others. My last Sunday in Kisii, one moment in particular keeps coming back to my mind & replaying itself in my mind….

We were sitting in church, up at the front, on the side so that we could be seen by the rest of the congregation & also see the pastor with ease. It was Easter Sunday & we were about 4 hours into a never-ending service. I really had to pee. Since we were in the land of no indoor toilets, I had to excuse myself out the side door, which would lead me around the back of the church and up the hill to the outhouse. As I walked outside toward the back of the church, a little girl who had been playing outside squealed & ran around the corner to hide from me, as if she was scared that I’d found her out. I kept walking towards where she was, all the while she and another girl peeping their heads around the corner to see if I was still coming. When they saw me still walking towards them, they’d quickly pull back behind the building again, squealing with delight now. I think they realized I was pretty harmless. As I rounded the corner to the back of the church, one of our Simba Scholars, Alphonsia, threw her arms around me in a bout of excitement, and several other girls followed suit. Suddenly I had about 5 or 6 girls with their arms all wrapped around me. “Jane!” (As they call me here in Kenya) They managed to say my name in between squeals & giggles & laughter as they reached for my hair – something they all like to do out of sheer fascination. Only this time, they didn’t pull their hands away quickly for fear that they were doing something they weren’t supposed to.

I don’t remember exactly what I said to them next, or who else said what, but I remember the moment of complete joy as they all crowded around me & threw themselves on me outside the church that day. (For the record, I did ask them later why they weren’t in church & they told me they were bored. After sitting for 4 hours, I was bored, too. I commended them for their honesty.) I remember their excitement. I remember the boys keeping their distance, watching the scenario unfold from afar.

I think the thing that makes this moment pointedly memorable is the fact that whenever I’ve been around these same girls before, they’ve been overly polite, reserved, quiet, passionless, & extremely well-behaved. They were suddenly different. I keep replaying that occasion in my head to find what made it different, and I’ve come to realize that I was the only adult there outside the back of the church with all the children. They weren’t surrounded by their parents, elders, pastors, teachers. It was them & me, unlike any other time I’ve ever been around them. And they were joyful.

I guess I should mention a bit about Kenyan children in general here. They have a completely different air about them than American children do. Generally speaking, American children have that certain glean in their eyes of confidence & entitlement, even from before they are seemingly conscious of it. It’s like they’re born knowing that they get to be an individual, be whatever they want in life. It’s as if they’re born knowing that they’ll have opportunities. For the most part. Kenyan children, on the other hand, are brought up to be a part of a community. They don’t get to be an individual. They’re taught to be submissive, quiet. They must be quiet when speaking to authority. They’re shy, innocent & unsure of themselves. At times unsure if the future exists. It’s in their eyes that always look down; it’s in their barely-audible voices – even the ones who are amazing students & have a relatively good family situation. Moreover, the girls are taught to always do what they’re told… to keep the house clean, wash clothes, do the housework, cook, do dishes, carry boxes on her head, watch the babies (maybe all that with one tied on her back). Girls are taught that they must labor hard, never be independent, and even when they grow up, always listen to what her husband is telling her to do. I want to point this out to paint a picture of the incredible impact these girls had when they lost their completely composed “perfect” selves and grabbed onto me that day outside the church.

I don’t know what the girls think of me, or completely how they see me, but this allowed me to see them in a different light. It allowed me to see the beautiful children that they are, and that if we allow them to be, they are loving & free… everything they should be. There is always a time for children to be well-behaved. But there is always room to allow them to simply be children, and to be ok with that.

As I reminisce now on that day, I can still feel how I felt there at the back of the church with Alphonsia, Alice, and the others. I can still feel their excitement & their hugs. I find myself wanting more of their outbursts. I want to see more of their outward affection… not necessarily for me, but for anyone. I want to see more of them as they truly are. I want to see their incredible joy, and for them to feel free, always.

Girls sipping soda & eating chips

Simba Scholar girls sipping soda & eating chips

Categories: Kenya, Kenya Simba Scholars, Ministry, Reflection, Ria'konga | Leave a comment

Until we meet again

She couldn’t sit still. She fidgeted. She sighed loudly. She sat in her airplane seat looking around her, looking over me and out the window into the black night sky outside. When I got up to go to the bathroom and came back, she quickly removed all the stuff in my seat so that I could easily sit back down. A few minutes later, she turned to me and asked me to turn her overhead light on – not because she couldn’t reach it, but as I discovered, she wasn’t quite sure how to turn it on. She kept looking over at me, then out the window.

What is going on with this girl? I’m on my way to Korea, trying to make it through the first leg of my flight, which will soon be landing. Thoughts of Kenya swirling around in my brain, and I can’t shake any of it.

As the plane starts its descent into Ethiopia, the girl turns to me, taps my shoulder, and asks me in her thick Kenyan accent, “Are we descending?” As I look at her for the first time face to face, I realize how young she is, how innocent she must be, and guess that this must be her first airplane ride.

“Yes, we’re descending into Addis Ababa. Have you been here before?”

“No, I haven’t. Where are you going?”

“I’m on my way to Korea to visit some friends. What about you?”

“That should be very nice. I am on my way to Lebanon. It’s my first time outside of Kenya.”

Every synapse in my brain begins firing at this point. Is this what I think it is? “What are you doing in Lebanon?”

“I’m going to work.”

I’m on the verge of hyperventilating. OH MY GOSH, SHE’S BEING TRAFFICKED!!!!! “What kind of work are you doing?” I try to maintain my calm exterior as my heart is pounding almost outside of my chest.

“I got a job working as a house girl there. I signed up for a 2-yr contract and I will be working to get myself out of poverty during that time. I’m going with an agency.”

Is she serious?! Does she KNOW how dangerous this is?!

“What’s the name of this agency? Did you look into it well before you signed a 2-year contract with them?”

“Yes, they have permission from the Kenyan government to hire house girls from Kenya and take them outside the country to work. So it’s ok.” The Kenyan government? The day I trust the Kenyan gov’t is the day hell freezes over.

Finally, I just say it… “You know that human trafficking is a huge issue in the world right now, don’t you?” I’m on the verge of tears.

“Oh, yes. My mom and I looked into it. I don’t want to be a part of that at all. We heard success stories from other girls who’ve gone with the same organization. They worked for 2 years and they came home to Kenya and they had money. This is what I want for myself. Someday I want to have children, and I want to give those children the best life they can have. I want to get out of poverty so they can have a better life than I’ve had.”

Oh man, this is breaking my heart. I asked her what organization it was, and she immediately got out all her official papers and showed me. I didn’t know what to do with all that information, except write it down to research later. This made me feel slightly better, but I still had huge doubts.

“What’s your name?” Probably should’ve asked that a long time ago.

“I’m Esther.”

“How old are you Esther?”

“21.” As she looks past me, out to the night sky, she sees the lights of Addis Ababa below and gasps excitedly. “Oh! I’ve never seen such a thing! I’m so proud of myself for getting out and doing something with my life! I’m the only one in my family to do this!”

I really hope that’s what you’re doing, my friend – something good for your life. This is how it always begins… girls who want something better for their lives. They want the dream so badly, they miss all the warning signs and dive head first into disaster.

The plane finally lands, and she looks at me and says with a grin, “I only hope that I will get to work for someone as nice as you.” She grabs her bags and heads out, as I stand there with my mouth wide open in disbelief, waiting for someone nice enough to let me out, too.

Once inside the airport, I’m greeted with a larger than life “welcome” poster exclaiming how hospitable Ethiopians are, and how glad they are that I’m now in their country. A few steps more, and it’s immediately one of my least favorite airports in the world, rivaling CDG at this point. The poster is a lie.

What do I do?! This girl could be headed into a sex trafficking ring in Lebanon and all I can do is walk around this awful smoke-infested airport picking my nose. No wi-fi, no phone service. Who would I call anyway? Probably nobody that would tell me what to do in the next hour to save this girl’s life. I imagine myself finding her in this crowded airport, forcing her onto the plane with me, and taking her with me to Korea. This is probably not the best decision to make.

After walking around in circles for an hour and a half, pondering the whole situation and why I’m here, and what I can possibly do, I finally go to my gate, and who else but Esther is sitting there at the same gate, waiting for her flight to be called. I sit next to her and chat with her a bit more. The final punch in the stomach came when I asked her who was picking her up at the airport in Lebanon… “The man that I’ll be working for.” GAH!!! I can’t take it anymore. I get out a pen and paper….

“Esther, here is my email address, and my Kenyan phone number. If you need ANYTHING, please contact me.”

“Ok, thank you so much,” she says with a sweet smile as she writes down her sister’s email address, and her own full name so I can find her on Facebook.

“Esther, I won’t forget you.”

“I won’t forget you, too.” She gets up to leave as her flight is called, gives me a hug and turns to walk away. I haven’t heard from her or her sister since then. About 25% of the population of Kenya has her same name, so Facebook contact is impossible. It has been 2 months.

***********

I tell this story because its theme is reminiscent of so many situations I’ve encountered over the past couple of years in my work as an advocate for those who aren’t always able to fight for themselves. Helpless. It’s so hard to hear someone basically screaming for help, and to walk away knowing that I had no amount of measurable impact on their situation.  It’s so hard to think, oh it’ll be alright in the end, but I can’t do anything right now. Betrayal. In several instances I’ve felt like I’ve betrayed the very ones that I could have helped if I’d had the right resources or knowledge. Can you walk away and say, “I did nothing”, and feel good? Maybe not, but it’s got nothing to do with you feeling good. If there’s nothing you can do, you have to take a different perspective on it.

So it’s in these moments when I have to remember that God doesn’t always call me to fix things. He doesn’t always call me to do something. Sometimes he just wants me to be in a moment. Present. I may not know what the reasoning behind it is, but I have to rest in the knowledge that I can’t do anything sometimes, and maybe I shouldn’t do anything.

I have no idea what the overall impact was, or why I sat next to Esther on the plane. Maybe I was the one that needed a message delivered to me. Maybe I needed to be reminded of something. The ever-present struggle with faith. Faith is what you have when you can rest in the knowledge of unknowing… and be happy in that. Knowing that ultimately things will be ok. Maybe Esther is ok. Maybe she always has been. Maybe it really is a legitimate organization that hires house girls from Kenya (although I’m still skeptical). There are such things. On the other hand, maybe she’s not ok. But she went into it knowing the dangers that exist in the world. At what point do we call something someone else’s responsibility and tell ourselves they should handle it on their own?

So many questions. I have no answers. I can only do what I am able to do, all the while remembering that I will do the things that I am able to do.

And so, I put Esther’s story in my heart, along with so many others, to revisit another day… maybe that one day when I hear from her again.

Categories: Reflection | 1 Comment

The boy with 9 fingers & a smile

I took his little hand in mine as he greeted me with a genuine smile. He really does have only 4 fingers on his right hand, I noticed. Ambrose, age 10, with only 9 fingers.

I didn’t know who he was when I first saw him, mixed in with all the Simba Scholars when we took them to the park one day for chips and soda. I watched him that day as he played with the rest of the kids, and I didn’t mind buying him a treat along with the others even though he’d *snuck* in. He just wanted to be there with the rest of them, a part of the group. He fit right in.

“Hi Jen!” he said to me that day as he reached out his hand to me, everything on his face beaming – from his eyes to his teeth to his cheeks. Who is this beautiful boy who I’ve never met, that has taken the time to not only learn my name, but then call me by it in an attempt to connect with me? I wanted to know more about him. What was his story?

“His father was a drunkard,” Lydia explains. This is no news to me. About 90% of the stories I hear about the children I work with begin with that same line. Unfortunately, I’ve begun to expect it. “He used to beat Ambrose’s mother horribly.” Another thing that I expect to hear. “There was a day Ambrose saw the father beating his mother, and he tried to help her. He stood in front of her in an attempt to protect her. The father, being so drunk, took a hold of Ambrose and cut off his pinky finger right there.” I was sick. And sad. Not only did he have a horrible home life, he had an appendage cut off because of a fit of rage caused by too much alcohol, and he will have to live the rest of his life with the physical evidence right before his eyes of what his father did to him.

But here he was, acting as part of the Simba Scholars group… having a good time, laughing, playing, running, enjoying chips in the park. This happens to most of them. You can never tell what they’ve been through by merely looking at them. The boy who was sodomized by his dad, the girl who was buried alive by her dad, the boy who’s dad died and was abandoned by his mother, the boy who watched his father murder his own mother… You’d never be able to tell the trauma they’ve lived by looking at them.

As for Ambrose, he just wanted to be a part of this “cool group” of kids called the Simba Scholars. He wanted to fit in, to feel loved. If that is the most important thing, besides education, that we can give these children, then that’s what we’ll do. I want all of them to feel that they are loved and special.

And Ambrose isn’t the only one who’s trying to make his way into the group… I was also approached by another little boy who presented me with a hand-written letter explaining why he wanted to be a Simba Scholar and accompanied the letter with his most recent report card from school (awesome grades, I’ll add). Kenya Simba Scholars is having such a positive effect on the children, the families, and even those who aren’t yet a part of it but that have hope to become a part of it.

My hope is that these children will know that life can be exciting, life can be joyful, life can be filled with incredible passion, life can be filled with love… even in their worlds that are so filled with hurt.

It may go without saying that Ambrose is now up for a KSS scholarship at the Ria’konga Center.

Categories: Kenya, Kenya Simba Scholars, Ministry, Ria'konga | Leave a comment

To you from them…

For those of you that sponsor a child’s education from Ria’konga, watch this message from the Ria’konga community that was filmed in their church.
It’s simple, but it says a lot… especially since many of the parents don’t speak English! Their hearts are filled with gratitude for the love and generosity the sponsors give to the children here.

Categories: Kenya, Kenya Simba Scholars, Ministry, Ria'konga | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Blessing of community

Once again, they’ve stolen my heart. The sense of community, the joyous laughter, exuberant singing, daily greetings, delicious fruits, adorable children, and the overall care they have for each other… I am so blessed to be even a small part of their home here in the land of Kisii, wherein lies the small town of Ria’konga. The poverty is there, but they never show despair. What I see when I enter here is love, joy, family… and miles and miles of greenery that smells so deliciously earthy after a good rainfall that all I wanna do is take off my shoes and go running through the trees.
There is nothing “western” about this place, as many parts of Nairobi are. There are no malls, no grocery stores, no other white people. Every female wears a skirt or dress. No exceptions. I share my seat on public transportation with roosters and chickens. I stuff myself into 14 passenger vehicles… with 25-30 other human beings. This is the only way to travel here. If there is a small empty space anywhere… it should be filled. Makes breathing hard sometimes, I’ll say.
But even with all of that, it’s totally worth it when we arrive at Ria’konga every morning, seeing all their happy faces smiling back at us… so excited that we’re there, so excited that their children are going to school now because of the Kenya Simba Scholars program. The investment they have in their children within this community is so hopeful for me to see. They care enough to be involved. A man who grew up in Ria’konga and became successful came back and opened a brand new school this week for their baby class, nursery class and pre-unit classes (3 years of school before they start 1st grade in Kenya). This was so the youngest children didn’t have to travel so far to attend classes on the other side of the mountain. The community wants to see all the children succeed… even those that don’t have parents and that nobody can call their own. Those children belong there, they come from there, and the village wants the best for them.
I have been so filled with joy from spending time here this week. The people of Ria’konga remind me of what a blessing it is to be surrounded by a loving, caring community. They don’t live in richest conditions by worldly standards, and some of their stories would break your heart into a million pieces, but they take up their crosses, and live in the joy of each other. During this Holy Week, I have been reminded that we all take up our own crosses to follow The Cross… but we never have to do it alone, and there is always an “Eastering”, or new beginning, to look forward to if we choose it.

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Categories: Kenya, Kenya Simba Scholars, Ministry | 1 Comment

What sponsorship means to them

“Many years ago, I was a warrior on a submarine,” he began. “But one day God said to me ‘I have a better life for you’.”  He continued to speak to the children about what it means to have a “better life”, and how we can find blessings and contentedness in life whether we have much or have little. Being Brad Foster’s daughter, I’ve been subject to his talks, speeches and lectures for the past 32 years of my life, sometimes listening for what seemed like hours on end to the wisdom he had to offer. A simple “yes or no” question would get me a response that would render me still pondering what the answer was 45 minutes later as he was still talking… if I even remembered what I’d asked in the first place. I think if I added up all those hours, I’d probably have a few full years of my life of just listening to him speak. So this speech for the kids was nothing new to me. But what I didn’t expect was the emotion that came when he stood in front of those 41 little orphans at Neemaland for the first time in 6 years. “I am SO happy to be here with all of you right now,” he managed to say as he touched two little heads in front of him, fighting back tears of joy, barely able to let words flow. It’s an odd thing when my dad is rendered literally speechless.

But here he stood for those little kids, the kids who don’t know what it’s like to have a real father, or experience true love from an older male. Upon entering the room they were all in, the children loved on him like he was their own. Dad’s own sponsored child, Brian, is a child from Neemaland, and he had drawn him a picture on the chalkboard to welcome him “home”. So many fellow travelers I’ve brought with me to Kenya, and never have I seen this kind of reaction from the orphans at Neemaland. They’ve always been pretty shy when we meet them in the orphanage, but here they all were, withholding nothing, excitement soaring. They wanted to hold his hand, to wrap their arms around him. They wanted to show him their school, and all their classrooms, and where they sat. The boys wanted to show him their room where they sleep, and pictures they’ve collected of all their favorite football players from around the world. “What’s your favorite football team?” Brian asked my dad, excitedly. Now, Dad’s not really into sports, so he just picked a team that he knew off the top of his head… “Um, Manchester!” “Mine TOO!!” he exclaimed proudly. Boom. Immediate connection. It might go without saying that the boys have never even tried to ask me, or any of my girls, what our favorite football team is.

Brian Asoka from Neemaland has been writing to my parents for years now since they began sponsoring him. He was abandoned as a small child because his parents couldn’t take care of him, and has never truly known what the love of “Mom & Dad” feels like. He’s recently begun signing his letters to my parents “Brian Foster”. The relationship they have is a unique one that they’ve developed through letters back & forth, and it has brought them to this moment in which Brian feels like he has a real dad, and that he’s part of a real family. Watching them together from afar, I was able to observe the complete admiration that Brian had for my dad, and the outflowing of love that my dad offered in return. Talking to Lydia and Dominique (one of Grace Omundi’s grown children), they were surprised that Brian was this fluent in English. “I never knew he could speak so well!” Lydia commented incredulously. Dominique says he’s never heard him speak this much at all, period.

It’s amazing what power child sponsorship has on the individual child, and what talents & skills it might bring out in them. You can never know how you’re affecting a heart thousands of miles away when you say “yes” to a child in a third world country, but I can tell you that I’ve seen self-esteem rise, hope flourish, and families grow beyond the boundaries of blood relationships. You can’t know what that little one feels because they have been “chosen”. You can’t know the mountains that move.

As I walked behind my dad, holding the hand of Brian and another little boy named Kevin, I saw how much they shined next to him. I saw how much his presence meant to these children – all of them. As we left, they all wanted to make sure that we were coming back again before we left for the States. The boys especially had to make sure they had another chance to show him things and talk to him about cool things like sports. They wanted just one more time to share in the presence of someone they admired, and who cared for them.

Brian wanted just one more hug from his dad.

Categories: Kenya | 2 Comments

Meeting the Other: musings of a world traveler

My best friend, Kim, an American woman who has lived the past 4 years in Turkey and is now moving to Ireland… just started a blog series on the topic of “Meeting the Other”. You can find it HERE. She’s brought up some really interesting points about cultures and how we view them, how they spark our interest & fascinate us…. but why? What draws us closer to them? She brought up how we view them as “odd” and “frightening”, but that we are fully capable of viewing them in a more positive light so as to learn about them and possibly see ourselves reflected back in the mirror of complexities that they provide.

Her blog tells it in more detail, but of course, her thoughts made me begin to muse…

We are made to want to know more. We are fascinated by knowledge. As a baby enters into the world, they are constantly looking around, eyeing everything, eventually touching everything. If they don’t, as a parent, you would assume something is wrong with them. This is how they form themselves. We are geared as human beings to want to know more about the world around us, to be fascinated by it, engrossed in the potential knowledge of the mysteries that surround us. And yes, by learning more about the world, we see ourselves inside of it more clearly… through the mirror…. where we fit in, how we operate, why we operate the way we do… it’s a constant affirmation of our own egos to make us feel more secure in ourselves within this huge mass of constant mystery known as life. But, as with every learning experience, there comes a time when we take what we’ve learned about ourselves and apply it outwardly.

We eventually see things through others’ eyes and it adds flair to what we’ve always known to be “right”. It shakes our ego that we’ve molded and caressed for our whole lives, and if we are open to it, we realize that nobody is “right”, and that The Other is actually in us too. We have so much to learn from each other. As Kim mentions in her post, it would take a lifetime to know even one other culture completely, and even then we still see it through our own filter. But the yearning for that knowledge of The Other is what brings us all closer into connection with each other, and what breaks down the ego that we’ve so carefully put together over the years. Seeking to know The Other (its beauty, flaws, joys, sadness) is what allows us to see the same in ourselves, and puts us in a place that is inside of humanity instead of as a part of a culture that is above humanity. The vast differences between some cultures can be intimidating for those who fear the breakdown of their ego. For others, it is seen as a space where more knowledge and understanding can take place. This is the space where compassion grows…if we’ve truly taken to heart what it means to be a part of this world, and not superior to it.

My time as an International Advocate, living in Kenya for half the year, has really brought all of this home for me. The Other surrounds me. It’s not about me bringing my ideas here and “fixing” things. It’s not about imposing my ideas. It’s about me listening. It’s about two cultures coming together and beginning the path to compassion. It’s about the big picture. What can we do together to bring hope and love to the world? How can I truly see Kenya and break down my ideas of what is “right” and see their reflections inside myself so that compassion and understanding can grow? What does it mean to help them? What does it mean to help anyone? We always think we have great ideas about how to help The Other…. why certainly, I would be helping them if I gave them the things that I’m glad I have, the things I couldn’t possibly live without. That’s my own ego. That is not The Other. My ego has been shattered over and over and over through my personal cravings for more knowledge about something I once knew nothing about. To the point where I don’t have a clue what’s “right” anymore.

Instead, I have to learn to sit back, observe, take it all in – the beauty, the fright, the differences, the simplicity, the complexity, the uncertainty, the novelty, the knowledge that I may never truly understand, but that I can try, and I can be sensitive to all of it. “We are forced to look deeply, to pay attention.” Always aware that I will see everything through my own filter because of how my life has shaped me, despite my cravings to understand more. But in trying to understand, through careful observation, I eventually see the mirror of The Other reflecting myself back at me, because I am The Other. And in all of that, *I* am the one who is changed. I have allowed my ego to break down; I’ve given permission for that piece of security that I’ve always known – that piece of me that says “this is who I am, and this is right” – to slip away as I realize my place in the world. I didn’t plan on becoming different, but it is inevitable when we finally see The Other inside ourselves, and embrace it as if it has always been a part of us. Perhaps it always has been & I just need to be in a place that allowed me to find it. The mirror gets bigger. The world is in me. The Other. Humanity. With that knowledge comes the incredible, overwhelming power to love.

Categories: Reflection | 2 Comments

Bittersweet

She began to show me pictures of all her ideas. Ideas that came from her alone. Carefully drawn on paper, with all the materials she wanted to use neatly displayed in text beside the picture. “These are my own ideas. Is it ok?” I loved it. I loved her for thinking of it. she had come so far in her confidence in herself.
“I am thinking that I will make samples and take them to Beacon of Hope and Banana Box, and try to sell them there, and maybe CWoW can purchase them too… what do you think?”
“Grace, that’s wonderful! This is what we’ve been wanting for you all this time was to come up with your own ideas, and be able to market it on your own!” Grace is the CWoW’s Kenyan contact, and the leader of the Mwangatu Women. She has been helping us take products they already are making, and build upon them to create something that is Kenyan, but unlike anything I can go to the market and purchase. They are all really starting to grow in that aspect of their business. I’ve found myself constantly wondering over the past month, Do they even need me here anymore?

Over the past 6 months, I’ve been able to witness much growth with the Mwangatu Women (Regina, Grace W, Mary & her daughter, Hannah) and Grace Mwangi. As we have been working with them on a regular basis, and finding new opportunities for them to grow their market, they have gained a true confidence in their ability to step up and run their own business without consistent presence from those of us in the US. I have been in conversation with Lorelei, the Executive Director at CWoW about this, and after her own trip to Kenya in February, she was beginning to see the same things. So we are taking a step back. However, this does not mean that CWoW will cease to work with the women. This means CWoW gets to work with them on a more professional level without having to have someone there for every step. Grace Mwangi and the Mwangatu Women are very excited for this opportunity to finally step out and be in charge of their own business. Now, this is empowerment!

With all of that said, my personal role as the International Advocate for CWoW is now coming to a bittersweet ending. CWoW will still bring teams over for short-term work trips during the year, but there will not be the constant need for us to be supervising them. I will continue to see the women on occasion, but I will not be officially “working” with them. I am so proud of all the ladies I’ve had the honor to work with, and I’m overjoyed that they are confident enough to take this next step on their own.

Furthermore, this all comes at the best time possible for the Kenya Simba Scholars. With four different centers to work with, and more and more parents and children to relate to as we grow, more staff development is taking place, and I am beginning to feel more responsibility is required of me in that part of the mission. With obligations to only one part of the mission going forward, I will have more of a focus, and I will feel less like I’m being pulled in many directions all at once.

As with every other twist and turn in this mission, we are taking this as a change brought about at the right time for the right purpose. We continue to seek God’s guidance and counsel through it all, and I will continue to ask for your prayers that the mission proceeds in a way that glorifies Him.

So moving on, my position will only be as an advocate for Kenya Simba Scholars. I’m looking forward to where this will lead, now having extra time to invest in the growth of the scholarship program. Here’s to holding on and enjoying the ride!

Categories: CWoW, Kenya, Kenya Simba Scholars | 5 Comments

Holy mole-y!

So I came to Rongai to visit my friend Grace, and her 5-yr-old daughter Kelly for a few days (well, she’ll be 5 on Saturday). I’m staying the night, eating meals, having couch and kitchen conversations, and watching movies and TV with them and their house help, Ann. Kelly is all too excited for extra company since Grace normally houses volunteers through a local volunteer program, and there are none at the present moment. It’s just the 4 of us for now.

So as Kelly sits next to me on the couch – and at times, on top of me – there is one thing that amazes her. Not the fact that my skin is white – she’s lived with way too many white people for that to be exciting anymore. Not my long hair – that which she can run her hands through and pull into a style, and as soon as she lets go it goes back to exactly where it was before. No. None of the things that other Kenyan children are enamoured with. As she sits here with me, it’s my freckles, moles, and beauty marks that spark her interest. Those brown dots on my white skin that are scattered about upon the surface of my epidermis – some raised above the surface, some not. As a black girl, she doesn’t have any of these, nor are they very common on non-white skin so none of her peers would be speckled with them either. She’s enthralled as she pokes at them,and gives ownership to them…

“This big one is my house, and this small one is yours!” I’m not entirely sure how I’m supposed to take up residence inside my freckles, but hey… I’ve never professed to know what goes on inside the mind of a 5-yr-old.

Grace calls Kelly over to the other side of the room to grab another bite of her dinner. She runs over, reluctantly, then runs back to sit behind me and touch the freckles on my back and neck that are exposed because of the tank top I’m wearing.

“Why do you have these?”

“Because God gave them to me.”

“You can take them off and give them to me?”

“Nope. God put them on me in a special pattern so that I could be unique.” This is my best explanation in the moment, as I have no idea what the scientific reasoning or purpose behind them is. But this is a good enough explanation for both of us right now. *Personal research will imminently ensue*

Grace laughs and shakes her head. “Oh, Kelly!” She looks at me, smiling. “She wants to have your freckles and moles!”

She reluctantly gives in to the disappointment. Knowing that she can’t have them, she doesn’t stop poking them and looking at them closely, inspecting them intensely as if the more she looks at them and the closer she gets to them the more she will understand them. I’ve had them my whole life and I’m still at a loss. In fact, I don’t notice them enough to pay much attention to them, really.

But the wonder in her eyes at something so tiny that I take for granted every day… Love that kid 🙂

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