When Nancy Stevens travels to Kenya next month to visit her sponsored child Erick, she’ll probably recognize him. On the first visit, in 2004, she didn’t.
A Minneapolis native and mother of six, Stevens grew up with dreams of joining the Peace Corps. As each of her children became old enough to appreciate it, she would sponsor a child who matched hers in age and gender. Though three of her own children have left home, she still sponsors six children, including four in Africa. “I was born with this love of Africa,” explains Stevens, who works as a human resources leader for a large frozen foods company. “I would have been a pastor or a Peace Corps worker. So I’m scratching that itch through ChildFund.”
On that first visit with Erick six years ago, Stevens and her brother, Tom Gustafson, finally reached the village of Kendu Bay, on the banks of Lake Victoria in eastern Kenya, after a couple of flights and a tooth-rattling car ride. She was a little disoriented and shaky — not prepared for the rousing welcome that came next.
A group of women in green skirts and white blouses stood before them singing, with young children chanting along and stamping their feet. Thanks to several years’ worth of pictures received through their active correspondence, Stevens recognized Erick’s mother, Jane, amid the sea of faces. But where was 14-year-old Erick?
“There was this little child standing in front of me, and he was marching in place,” she remembers. “He was so short — so much smaller than my own son. Then one woman said, ’Here’s your child, Erick.’ The whole place started clapping, and I almost started to cry. He was so much smaller than I expected. And he didn’t really look up at me.
“I remember hugging him, and he timidly put his arms around me, and it was the most amazing, beautiful moment,” she says. “Mother Jane came through the crowd and kind of shook my hand and then gave me this great big bear hug.”
Afterward, there was feasting in Erick’s house. Stevens remembers stepping inside “this little mud shack with cut-out windows and door, and there I was — all over the walls and hanging from strings, cards that I had sent, maps showing where I was and where he was.” Her voice wobbles in the telling, even six years later. “It was overcoming, to see how the little I had done had been so huge for them.”
That “little” gave a new roof for Erick’s family’s house and two oxen for the Kendu Bay village. “We sent books so they could start a little library,” says Stevens. “We sent money for them to buy books in Swahili.”
It doesn’t sound like “a little,” but, in fact, modest sums in that part of the world go a long way. Stevens has seen Erick grow from a struggling little boy into “this wonderful young man who’s going to school.”
Erick’s success takes on added meaning in light of the devastation AIDS has wrought in the area. In fact, ChildFund’s Kendu Bay Family Helper Project exists to support children who have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Erick was little when his father died of the disease, and Jane has taken in several children from the extended family. “The fragility of life is so poignant,” says Stevens. “It’s just part of what life is like there.”
After the first visit to Kendu Bay, Stevens and Gustafson took a 200-mile fundraising walk through Africa’s Great Rift Valley, bringing in $15,000 each for Operation Bootstrap Africa. This August, the pair plans to scale the highest mountain in Africa, the 19,344-foot Mount Kilimanjaro, this time to raise funds for ChildFund through their own contacts.
Soon after committing in March to make this second trip, Stevens wrote to Kendu Bay’s program director, Onesmus Yogo, asking about the most pressing needs in the village. She got back a two-page letter documenting a variety of needs — fees for secondary school, 100 bags of maize, two water catchment tanks, replacements of worn-out equipment for the Early Childhood Development Center — and exactly what each would cost in American dollars. The pair has set a $25,000 goal. They’ve been training for months.
“I think of Africa every day of my life,” says Stevens. “This year, I’m going to add all kinds of new memories to that.”
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