Reflections: What do I miss?

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At the end of each year, I take time to think about the future, make goals for myself and plan out the year. Before I do that, I want to remember the past year and all that I’ve learned, the ways I’ve grown, the fun I’ve had! Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll use my blog to share some reflections from my life in East Africa. I’ll ask myself a few questions and share with you those thoughts. Hope you enjoy joining me in a time of reflection.

What do I miss about living in East Africa?

I miss the simplicity of life in Kenya. It’s hard to explain what I mean; it’s just a simple life in the best sense. There are less distractions and a more conscious focus on what matters most in life.

I  miss the noises. I miss the chaos. I miss the people walking on the side of the road and in the road. I miss the heard of cattle holding up traffic. I miss driving home on the by-pass watching the sun set behind the Ngong Hills. I miss waking up every morning hearing the loud Ibis singing outside my window and knowing that I had fulfilling work ahead of me. I miss falling asleep at night exhausted but satisfied. I miss the dry, cool air. I miss the early sunrises. I miss driving on the wrong side of the road. I miss the feeling of accomplishment when you arrived to your destination alive. I miss the smells – always a faint scent of burning charcoal. I miss my friends that God so clearly and timely put in my life as I moved to Nairobi. I miss the smiling faces of the children at New Hope Academy. I miss the grumpy faces of the women of Project Biashara that inevitably turn into smiles when I attempted to greet them in Swahili. I miss reading and talking about Kenyan politics. I miss walking through the mud to get to work every morning. I miss my church. I miss 59 Miotoni Close. I miss doing business on River Road. I miss my runs in Karen and my running partner. I miss meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories. I miss Festus, Madame and all the leaders at NHI Kibera.

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I always got a thrill out of going downtown Nairobi to purchase supplies for our business project. Always an adventure…

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Every time I got behind the wheel, it was my mission to arrive safely at the destination. Driving in the U.S. is boring now.

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Purchasing beads with the ladies of Project Biashara.

Starfish

kyalo

I have to share a photo of this kid. He makes my heart smile. His name is Mwongela Kyalo, and he is in Class 1 (first grade) at New Hope Academy. His Dad works as the school caretaker and he has 3 siblings in the school as well.

This summer I noticed a child playing off to the side, away from other kids and appeared to be very sad. At closer look, he seemed very small and quite honestly, malnourished. Teacher Nelson was standing close by, so I asked him about this kid. It was Mwongela. He had recently been admitted to the school since his Dad had recently been hired to work at the school. I was very concerned from his physical appearance and the fact he was by himself and not interacting with the other kids.

As I talked to Teacher Nelson and then inquired a little more about his home life, I discovered that his Dad is a single parent providing for 4 primary school children by himself. Head Teacher, Festus, decided we could offer some additional support to the family through contributing staple foods and a cooking oven.

Now, as you see in the above photo, Mwongela has been in the school for about 4 months and is doing much better. He is healthy and he has friends. I continue to find him on the playground with a huge smile on his face and many kids around him playing.

New Hope Initiative impacts hundreds of children and families around the world. But the reality is that the work is really about individuals. Changing lives. Seeing people grow. Providing support for individuals to be the person God created them to be.

Pray for Mwongela. He still has a long way to go. And, life is very uncertain and fragile. But, God cares for him and New Hope Academy has given him hope for the future.

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Proud Mama

Steven

In July of 2014, I began telling you about a certain boy named Steven. I originally met him when New Hope Initiative hosted a one-day community medical clinic at our school in Kibera. He was 6 years old at the time and came to the clinic alone, because he had an infected bump on his head. Well, it turns out the “bump” was from a car accident a few weeks prior. He had been playing in the street near Kibera and got hit by a car. He was lucky to survive. The local staff and neighbors named him “the survivor”.

To say the least, he is living up to his name. After our first meeting, I prayed that I would see him again and be able to get to know him better. Sure enough, I spotted him the next week playing in the slum alone. After several meetings, I learned that he was not in school, because his mother could not pay school fees. I asked our Head Teacher, Festus, if we could take him at New Hope Academy. Festus agreed and Steven was enrolled in our pre-unit class July 2014 with the help of a generous donor in the States that agreed to sponsor him.

Because he had not been in school, we learned quickly that Steven was behind academically. His teacher recommended that he be held back and the school leadership decided that was best for Steven. So, at the beginning of 2015, he started pre-unit again. Pre-unit is the equivalent to kindergarten in the United States.

Kenyan schools give examinations to the students regularly to track their progress. At the beginning of 2015, Steven scored 52% on his class exam. It was a very poor score and we all began to worry if he could keep up and stay motivated to remain in our school. His teacher, Rosemary, agreed to stay late everyday and to tutor Steven to help him catch up. After much hard work on both Steven and Rosemary’s part, Steven scored 84% on his most recent exam! What an improvement!!

Today, I talked to our Academic Director, Ken, as well as Rosemary to ask them their thoughts and observations about Steven. Ken said, “We have seen great improvement in Steven. He is catching up and we are seeing changes. We have hope for him and believe he will be in Class 1 next year!” Teacher Rosemary reflected on his arrival, “From the time he came to New Hope Academy, he was totally bad. But now, his character is better. He is not stubborn any more. He is disciplined now and a nice boy. And, next year, he will join Class 1!”

Can you tell they are excited about his promotion to Class 1?

I was very happy to hear Ken and Rosemary’s comments. To hear that New Hope Academy has not only helped Steven academically but also helped him grow his character is such a blessing. I think it reflects the goals and vision of the school to not only educate kids but also to grow their character through the teaching of God’s word and by showing them the love of Christ.

Please continue to pray for Steven and his academic progress. Also pray for Ken and Rosemary and the rest of the teaching staff as they work hard to help these kids learn and grow to become the next generation of Kenyan leaders!

He may have been behind in academics and character but never in popularity.

He may have been behind in academics and character but never in popularity.

Steven says he has two mamas - his Kenyan Mama (left) and his Mzungu Mama (right).

Steven says he has two mamas – his Kenyan Mama (left) and his Mzungu Mama (right).

Karibuni Kenya

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This evening, I will arrive in Nairobi to visit for a few weeks. When I left back in August, I decided to return with NHI in October to finish up some projects and help the founders host a team from the US. I feel like there’s so much to do and so little time.

In addition to the NHI work that I’ll be doing, I plan to spend time with several friends. I am also starting to work on my next career step and it involves continued work in Nairobi. I haven’t fleshed out all the details to make an official announcement, but it’s exciting, and I’m looking forward to making connections this month that will further my intended plans.

So, what am I looking forward to in Kenya…enjoying the weather, catching up with my friends and Kenyan colleagues, checking in on Steven, and making stops at Java House, Talisman and many other yummy restaurants. I am also looking forward to reconnecting with my church community at EBC.

 

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” – Gandhi

Now, that I’m stateside and still working with New Hope Initiative, I’ve taken a bigger role with our project in India. You may remember a couple of blogs (here and here) I’ve written about the project that New Hope sponsors there. I visited last October and hosted the project leader, Grace, in Nairobi this summer.

NHI sponsors the Child Blossom Center in Hyderabad, India. Also known as CBC, the center is home to 20 children with severe, mild, and moderate level of mental and physical disability. There are also a few normal, or typical, children at the center. All the needs of the children are met including food, clothing, education, medical and psychological. The children are taken care of by full-time staff some of which live on site at the center.

Grace and I are meeting via conference calls regularly to establish our working relationship and also to identify her needs as a leader. Our first action item is creating easier ways for Grace to communicate the work of CBC. We are working on a blog site for her to update regularly and tapping into social media. We are also looking for new partners to support her ministry.

If you have any interest in our special needs orphanage in India or know someone who may like to partner with us, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Below are a few recent photos from Grace.

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Life Givers

There are just those people in your life that give you life. You know who yours are. I tend to have quite a few. It would take me a while to name them all. Unfortunately, they are now scattered across the globe. I guess that’s what happens when you live in one of the most transient cities in the US (Washington, DC) and like to travel. I have been blessed to know some really incredible people and build deep friendships with them.

This past weekend, I got to spend some time with a few of those people. Some of those DC friends have moved to Houston and Dallas, and NHI’s founders live in Houston. I flew in for the weekend from Atlanta. So, what else to do than have a dinner party at the Monsivaizs?!? Gerard spend all day preparing brisket and Krisi made an abundance of tasty side dishes then sat us around the best dining room table for fellowship. We laughed. We ate. A lot. We talk about God. We talked about the challenges the world faces. We talked about the challenges we face in our individual lives. The only problem is that it ended too early. Well not that early – we were there past midnight. But, it was still not enough time.

It was a good lesson for me to take advantage of those special moments when worlds collide and everyone is in one place at one time. Such a sweet time. Such sweet people. My heart is refreshed and full.

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Also, as an update to all my supporters out there, I’ve been spending most of my time in Georgia visiting family, getting to know my new baby niece and helping out with the older niece and nephew. I’ve also been living out of a suitcase (well, let’s be honest, 6 suitcases) for about 7 weeks now. Today, I’m moving into an apartment in Midtown Atlanta. As I get settled, I’m looking forward to finding a church in Atlanta, connecting with old friends and meeting new ones and also continuing my work with NHI stateside. I’ll stay on with NHI until the end of the year and keep you updated on what’s next for me. Thank you for your care and support of me over the last year and a half. It’s been a true blessing.

ATL skyline from my apartment

ATL skyline from my apartment

 

Fuzzy

Well, after a crazy last week in Nairobi, I am back in the U.S. I hope to take some time over the next few weeks and reflect on my time and work there. Hopefully, that will produce some more blog content as well i.e. lessons learned, NHI’s future, my future, etc.

For now, I just wanted to share that I have officially ended my time in Nairobi, but not necessarily with NHI. I’ve completed the commitment I made to New Hope and feel very satisfied in the work I was able to accomplish in Nairobi over the past 16 months. There is still more to do, so I will continue on with NHI until the end of the year and then move into a volunteer support role next year. It’s my intention to stay connected to NHI and the work in Kibera for a long time. I’ll return in October to help host a team of visitors and finish up some projects that I am working on.

Last Friday, the Kibera staff had a wonderful farewell party for me including a Kenyan feast, presentation of gifts and very kind words. I was overwhelmed by their love and appreciation. To say the least, it was hard to leave Nairobi. I had built a life there and made some great friends. While I do hope to stay connected, it will not be the same. But, who knows…maybe I’ll be back there again one day to live.

In the meantime, I’ve had some very important business to attend to here in the U.S. First on the agenda was my brother’s Family Meeting chaired by Family President Parks and then on to meet the newest member of the family, my sister’s daughter, Edith Lauren.

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Not a good photo of me, but I couldn’t crop out myself and still get the gavel. Yes, she has a gavel. With her name on it.

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Edith Lauren Atkinson

Laughter is the best medicine

Today, I had one of the most frustrating days since I have been in Kenya. I don’t want to get into the details except to say that the best part about the day was spending it with Festus Muendo, New Hope’s local leader in Kibera.

Festus and I drove three and a half hours (one way) to check on our Penda students who are in boarding school. New Hope sponsors over 130 high school and college students in secondary and post-secondary education. Seventy-six of those students attend two boarding schools outside of Nairobi. As Festus and I were driving along the last 40 minute stretch which was a dirt, washed out road, we both asked the question “why did NHI pick this school?”

Well, our question was answered quickly when we arrived and met with the school staff. The leadership of both schools (boys and girls) were professional, smart and cared deeply about our kids. Festus and I both left encouraged and confident in choosing these schools.

If you are interested in learning more bout Penda Project, check out the website here.

The frustrating part was when we learned that someone we care about disappointed us. That’s never easy and for me creates a lot of internal frustration. On the flip side, I learned that Festus is one of the best people to be with in a crisis. After a thoughtful time of reflection and cooling down, he cracks a joke about the whole situation and we both have a good laugh. Like I have said before, sometimes humor is the only way to cope with life in Kenya.

I have learned so much from Festus. I am going to miss him when I am back in the States.

Festus and Steven.

Festus and Steven.

Festus leads exercises for the kids before their exams to help them relax.

Festus leads exercises for the kids before their exams to help them relax.

My Favorite Emerging Leader

Grace helping out with the kids at New Hope Academy in Kibera

Grace helping out with the kids at New Hope Academy in Kibera

Last week we had many visitors in town, but one, in particular, was a very special visitor. Grace Sathului is the daughter of Pastor Timothy, the gentleman who leads New Hope’s India project. They operate a special needs orphanage on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India. Locally, it is called the Child Blossom Center. Sandy Baird and I saw Grace last October when we visited the orphanage and invited her to come to Kenya to visit our project here. Grace and I had a wonderful time together as I hosted her in Nairobi. She volunteered at our primary school and business project and even got to go on a Kenyan safari. She spotted 4 of the Big 5 – not a bad experience for her first time on the African continent!

Before she departed, I sat down to interview her about leadership and her current role with New Hope. She has a full-time job in Hyderabad, but leads and directs the orphanage with her family in her free time. We believe that she is one of NHI’s most promising emerging leaders.

Q: How long have you been involved with NHI and what position did you start in?

About 7 years ago, my father started taking in children with special needs and by 2005 we were a registered orphanage helping children in our city with special needs. These children were not being taken care of by their parents and/or they were abandoned. At the time, I was in college. About 5 years ago, I finished college and the Lord drew me closer to the project. I started to take more of an interest in what my father was doing at the orphanage. I started visiting the children regularly and taking more interest in the ministry to them. I have a heart for children so that makes me more attached to the orphanage.

Now, I visit the orphanage about once a week when I am off of work. I also help my father in making leadership decisions and directing the work of the project.

Q: Who has been the most influential leader in your life and why?

My brother has been the person that I have looked up to since a young age. My dad has been very influential in my life, because he taught me how to have a heart for children, be service oriented and be obedient to God and no one else. Also, Uncle Sandy (NHI Founder, Sandy Baird) has influenced me, because I’ve learned a lot from him to move the orphanage forward and grow it. The way he helps us, assists us and advises me has been a big example to me.

Q: How do you define leadership?

Leaders are supportive. That’s how things get done. Not being authoritative. Leaders also have the knowledge about what they are doing to accomplish their goals.

Q: What are your hopes and dreams for the children of the Child Blossom Center?

I want our children to have a room of their own and better medical facility. Also, better funding on emergency medical needs; better housing; better teachers and courses or material that can teach students with special needs. My dream is that each of our children would learn daily life activities, so they can do things on their own and be more self-sufficient and, ultimately, have a better quality of life. Their needs will not allow them to be totally self-sufficient, but they can learn activities to keep themselves occupied and give them a purpose for their life.

Q: Anything else you want to tell my blog readers?

I don’t know if you have interacted with children with special needs – if you have, you know how difficult it can be. It’s a challenge, but we believe that God made everyone for a purpose. There are children in India who don’t know that – we want to take care of them and tell them that and help them know they do not have to be alone.

On safari in central Kenya.

On safari in central Kenya.

Meeting some of the staff in Kibera

Meeting some of the staff in Kibera

More bunk beds, more visitors, more grace

Now, I’m up to 3 sets of bunk beds. I am hosting a second team and have a full house. In addition to the team I am hosting from Detroit, we have another team from Houston here bringing our current total visitors to 45. The Detroit team is hosting a day camp for our lower class students and the Houston team is leading a sports camp with the upper class students. The kids are having a blast. And, we are maxing out every restaurant in Nairobi!

With the extra visitors comes lots of logistical challenges and coordination. Our founder, Sandy Baird, is a whiz at the logistics and some how he always gets people where they are suppose to be at the right time. For me, it’s a bit exhausting. I love the visitors and it’s so much fun meeting new people and showing them the work of New Hope Kibera, but it does require an extra dose of grace.

A couple of weeks ago, after hosting our first round of visitors, I was sharing with our Biashara Director, Scola, that I was struggling a little, mostly just tired and lacking patience. Scola is such a godly woman. She listened to me with understanding and just said, “Lauren, God’s grace is sufficient for you.”

What a reminder! She is right. Sometimes I don’t believe it and many times I try to rely on my own grace to get me through the day. I try on my own to bring peace and patience into my life and my daily struggles, but the reality is that I can do NOTHING on my own.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

2 Corinthians 12:9

Our team members are always interesting to our kids...

Team members are always interesting to our kids…

Our kids love when visitors come because they get to take a break from school work and have fun!

Our kids love when visitors come because they get to take a break from school work and have fun!

Team member, Erma, encouraging our teachers.

Team member, Erma, encouraging our teachers.