Return from Kenya

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Interfaith Youth Group Returns from Kenya Service Trip

A mission trip to Kenya April 18-27 was the culmination of two years of preparation by the Brattleboro Area Interfaith Youth Group, led by Pastor Lise Sparrow of Guilford Community Church. The 12 youth and 8 adult chaperones, representing five different church congregations in Windham County, returned with lasting memories, a great appreciation for their host village and a deeper understanding of their common humanity. 

They also came home with a commitment to continue to support the children orphaned by AIDS whom they met in the district of Nyeri, Kenya.

Youth participants were Maeve Burke, Graham Glennon, Dorothy Kinney-Landis, Molly Rice, Sam Green, Peter Green, Tilden Remerleitch, Jessie Falk, Jeff Kahler, Jon Erik Brodhurst, Daniel Fooks, and Connor Hodgkins. Chaperones were Lise Sparrow, Sue Owings, Dr. Cheri Ann Brodhurst, Stephen Dybas, Jesse deVries, Jean Hodgkins, Marguerite Monet, and Paul Ochieng.

In addition to the Swahili lessons, African cooking classes and cross-cultural discussions which took place before their departure from the U.S., the group held fundraisers nearly every month. Besides covering their expensive airfare, they were able to purchase shoes (a requirement in Kenya for school enrollment) from local cobblers for 120 orphans in their host village of Kaiguchu.

Sue Owings, a chaperone from Brattleboro, admitted being taken aback by the importance the village placed on their shoe project. “On the first day, there was an elaborate ceremony to thank us, with traditional dancers, and people came from many villages to participate. Each child had their photo taken with their new shoes and you could see how delighted they were. The chief, guardians and grandmothers especially, expressed profuse gratitude,” Owings recalled.

“I was surprised how friendly people in other parts of the world can be to complete strangers,” recalled Daniel Fooks, of Brattleboro. He found this to be true when the Vermont group visited classrooms at nearby Karuguririo Primary School where they delivered books to start a library, sang songs, heard poems, asked questions about Kenya, and answered questions about Vermont. Younger children were presented with small hand-knit dolls that staff from Deerfield Valley Elementary school had contributed.

The Kenyan students were especially taken with one American participant, Jeffrey Kahler of Dummerston, whom they mistook for celebrity John Cena of world wrestling fame. The young students were curious to touch the blonde, red or curly hair of some of the participants which was so different then their own. The curiosity was mutual and by the end of their village stay, many of the females in the Vermont group were sporting their hair in corn rows.

Wangari Maathai, who was born near Kaiguchu, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work connecting environmental activism with human and social justice through an organization called the Green Belt Movement.  For many years before Maathai set foot on the world stage, the Guilford Community Church supported her efforts and maintained a special relationship with her home village, this trip being the most recent.

By the time of her death last year, Maathai had inspired woman around the world to plant more than 30 million trees to help improve the environment by stopping desertification. With the older students from the school, the Vermont youth group added 1000 trees to a nearby hillside to prevent erosion, as a tribute to Maathai.

The group cleaned up an area in town and built a bench around the community’s large sacred fig tree, as a memorial for Maathai, with the assistance of Kaiguchu community members.  Jon Erik Brodhurst of Brattleboro, who has plans to build a companion bench around a tree at Guilford Church planted there by Maathai during a visit to Vermont several years ago, expressed his excitement to see the project (part of his Eagle Scout badge) come together in just eight hours. “I was extremely excited when we had finally finished. This whole experience is one that I will treasure for the rest of my life,” Brodhurst exclaimed.

Group members stayed with families in the village, a highlight for many of them and, according to Dorothy Kinney-Landis of Guilford, the people she stayed with felt like family very quickly. “Leaving and saying goodbye was definitely one of the toughest things on the trip for me and I already miss them quite a bit,” Kinney-Landis said.

What struck Tilden Remerleitch of Guilford the most was the sense of joy she felt emanating from the villagers, who had much less material wealth than most Americans. “Their lives were pretty simple by our standards, but it didn’t seem to affect their level of happiness,” Remerleitch recalled. “It made me think about our priorities.”

“I was impressed with how flexible and resilient our students were at every turn of events,” said chaperone Sue Owings. “We had many wonderful, memorable moments, but we also faced many challenges and had to re-direct our energies almost every day. Every single one of them became worthy of the title of ‘most excellent ambassador.’”

The group will be sharing photos and stories from their trip at the various churches they call home in the coming weeks. There will be a presentation at All Souls Church in West Brattleboro on Sunday, May 13 at 10 a.m. during the service and at Guilford Community Church at noon on Sunday, May 20, among others.  The public is encouraged to attend.