Friday, December 21, 2007

In Retrospect

My three months in a remote experimental village in East Africa were packed with life changing events. From constructing a coffin for a four year old child to the exuberance of a goat barbecue, a tragic drowning, helping with a business plan, extended travels and visits to heavily impoverished areas are emotions that rarely rest in the middle. I find myself wondering which peak (or valley) I will reach next.

Sister Mary, the Executive Director, is an inspiration to all who come into her presence. She visited the village frequently and is instrumental in keeping alive the vision of Father Angelo D'Agostino, who in 1992 founded the first hospice for HIV positive orphans in Kenya. He directed the rapid growth throughout the last fifteen years of his life.

Before reading my report I hope you will take a few minutes to read the Christmas letter from our executive director, Sr. Mary Owens. It tells the Nyumbani story and captures the spirit and vision that can come only from her heart.

It is especially fitting that at this Christmas Season I add to her words my Christmas Greeting. Nyumbani has helped me strengthen my Christian commitment. As I observe ordinary people doing the work of Christ I'm more convinced than ever that His earthly mission lives on. My Christmas hope is that you, too, in your small way, will be able to witness and spread the unconditional love that is the foundation of this, and so many other religions.

Upon Arrival

My first opportunity to visit children at the orphange, upon arrival on September 8, 2007, was having my picture taken with a little guy shining his shoes. Happy children that accept responsibility, and enjoy life.The second impression of Sr Julie caring for a child . . . a child that died a few weeks later, was a somber reminder that HIV+ continues to be a very serious problem Many of the abandoned children are simply left to die of neglect in spite of the fact that often newborns with HIV-infected mothers give a 'false-positive' and never actually develop the virus themselves. Nyumbani seeks desparately to identify these children and give them a second chance, whether it be through adoption, a suitable community placement or permanent residency.

First Impressions

I read someplace that Kenya has the most ideal climate in the world. I believe that . . . at least where I'm living in this remote corner of Kenya. The temperature is comfortable, humidity is low, evenings cool and unbelievably clear. The milky way seems to extend from one horizon to the other. I imagine it following the path of the equator. I wait for the moon to rise so that I can take my evening walk, but I can't locate the big dipper! At noon with the sun directly overhead, shadows shrink and it is hot, but not unbearably hot. The nights and days start rapidly and are consistently twelve hours long. Without electricity the night seems much longer. Taking a cold shower from a basin will only be enjoyable when it is over. I quickly took up an offer to pay someone to do my laundry. I enjoy clean sheets. Using the pit toilet requires a pre-warm up, at least for an old guy who hasn't done squat thrusts since high school football. The meals are nutritious but lack flavor and variety. I lost 16 pounds, but that's O.K.Tea is half milk, the only "dairy product." I drink instant coffee. All children and adults are friendly. The volunteer staff, out of necessity, bond quickly. We are all very different, but share common goals. I don't feel like a tourist, but a legitimate native of Nyumbani village . . . a rare privilege and making an old white guy with white hair somewhat of a celebrity.

The Village Farm . . .

. . . is everywhere. Sustainability is a frequently used word as staff struggles with what will be needed to keep the Nyumbani dream alive. Farming is a big part of the answer and the weather a major factor. Crops are carefully selected and nurtured with an elaborate solar powered irrigation system. Day workers are brought in to cultivate. Volunteers continue to make a major contribution. Each family unit has their own garden and often their own chickens. All the children helped plant and care for their garden. Planning and hard work are needed to assure adequate food to feed a rapidly growing community. Without the traditional source of electricity and consistent supply of water, food processing and preparation will continue to be a major challenge.

Sunday Hikes

This is a view from our dining table at the guest house. I knew I would climb this mountain some day. Sunday morning is the time for serious hiking. The first one I did alone and from then on Jen became my hiking partner. They were interesting because we always ended up visiting local farms and talking with people and children along the way. Sometimes we traveled on trails but just as frequently we headed in the direction that looked most interesting. Our latest and most strenuous adventure was a major hike to the mountain.


Kenyans are great runners. I know that from my own serious running days, when they won all the races. Perhaps it's the altitude, cool temperatures or diet . . . and lack of public transportation, but they all are beautiful runners. So soccer (or football as some call it) is a natural sport. Sunday afternoon was the time for the weekly dust bowl and most of the community showed up for the event. Sometimes there would be a delay until a soccer ball was located . . . or repaired and the unmarked field seemed to cover several acres. No goalposts, no referee, no arguments, just hard fun . . . the way a sport should be. . At one point I was given the assignment of constructing swings and other playground equipment. I got bogged down when I was unable to locate the necessary hardware and portable equipment to get into the field and do the job!

The Village School

The school is essentially pre-school through grade eight, although they use different terminology. At the eighth level all students are given a standardized test which will determin if they advance to high school. A great deal of emphasis and pressure is placed on the students to pass this test. If they don't pass they stay in the elementary program until they do. The students who have advanced to high school attend a nearby boarding school and one student has gone on to the university. The curriculum is largely academic. Hopefully as the poly tec center expands it will provide exposure for those students not qualified to move through the academic program. A crucial question facing the village is to educate children for a changing world or to eke out a living as for centuries their ancestors have done. (More and photos Here)

A Tragedy

Kenya has very little precipitation in September and October. I was told they were in a prolonged draught. Not a healthy condition for a community intent on producing their own food. All the river beds are bone dry. Locals manage to find a bubbling spring and scoop our water for their use. November is the start of the 'short' rainy season and this year the rains came early and heavy. It held promise for a good growing season. It also opened an opportunity for tragedy to hit the village. The water had backed up to a significant depth behind one of the dams, forming a beautiful swimming hole. One of the boys got in trouble another went to his rescue. Both drowned. I assisted with the body recovery. The next week was consumed by funeral preparations as the village sought to deal with its sorrow. Every child had already experienced the death of parents, this was a grim reminder.

A Wedding

Each of the roughly 20 homes is staffed by a grandmother (only one grandfather) who may be a blood relative to one or more of the children. They supervise the family, including assigning chores, laundry, planting and caring for the garden and provide a loving, caring home atmosphere. It is working. It was a big deal recently when a grandmother and her new friend were married in a formal church service. Although it followed many of our traditional customs, it took at least three hours to complete. I was disappointed that the traditional kiss was hardly more than a peck on the cheek. However I should not have been surprised. There is practically no public show of affection in the Kenyan culture, even in the larger cities. It also got me to thinking about how these adolescents handled their natural sex instincts. HIV/AIDS is on every ones mind. Abstinence seems to be the only choice. The wedding was fun, with the children dancing and all in a happy mood, the spirit of love and commitment was evident.

SR Little

It was Sr Little who arranged for my visit to Lea Toto. She lives up to her name in stature only. Her spirit is very large and she does know how to get things done! A supply of medication needed to be delivered and we hitched a ride. She was well known and respected by Lea Toto staff and had the contacts to assure that my visit would be complete and meaningful. She may have had a small hidden agenda as well! After declining a ride back to Nyumbani she opted for a bus and several times asked if I had shopping to do . . . Which I didn't . . . And informing me she did not have money for the bus fare. . . We stopped at a local supermarket. She picked out some food staples, pans and garden supplies, carefully noting just how much money I had. I quickly offered to pay for what ever she needed. We stopped in Karen and she led me on a winding trail to 'The Farm.' After presenting 'my gift' to the two boys tilling the land and the 'caretaker' (not sure of relationships) and we ventured beyond the hut, through a break in the vegetation to her 'paradise.' It was exactly that. She knew every plant and weed by name and looked upon both with tender love. It was a farming lesson I will never forget . . . from the heart with the only objective being to provide food for the children. It didn't cost her a shilling and she gave me a gift . . . what could be better?

Lea Toto (In Swahili: 'To Bring Up the Child')

Lea Toto is a community outreach program associated with The Nyumbani orphanage. It supports families affected by HIV in the surrounding Nairobi communities. The program includes free medical care, family counseling, HIV transmission and prevention education, door-to-door counseling and promotes awareness and behavioral changes. These photos exemplify the despair shown by so many and my moment of joy as I held a lfie that had been rescued. My visit, arranged by SR Little started in the clinic where parents (primarily mothers) were coming with their children for treatment. Many for the first time. The staff were cheerful and hopeful, perhaps because they knew with proper medication these children would have a chance to survive.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Nyumbani Village - - - My Job

The village is located about 20 miles from Katui which itself is located a rugged four hour trip East of Nyroubi. The five year goal is to turn this 1000 acre of bush country into a self sustaining community. Over 25 structures, including a school, a 'poly-tec' center, administrative offices, health clinic worship center and housing for 250 children and grandparents. Upon arrival I was introduced to the Italian manufacturer who was at the "poly-tec' center to install a generator that would enable us to use the extensive, donated woodworking equipment. It was a natural for me. Along with Tietus the local carpenter and Matheca an 17 year old student apprentice we set out to build tables, benches, desks, beds a prototype bee hive, 'special orders' and much more. As long as we were able to get suitable lumber and other supplies and equipment . . . and keep the generator operating . . . it's a great job!

Friday, August 24, 2007

I'm Back!

Slow down . . . try to contain your enthusiasm!

I know it's been a long time since anyone stumbled on my blog, but I do have some interesting days ahead that I will want to share with you. I'm not even sure if I will be able to send e-mail from the remote village called NYUMBANI (Swahili for home) near Nairobi, Kenya, where I will spend the next three months. But, at least until September 9, 2007 when I leave, bookmark me and I promise to keep you current.

I really do hope you care!


Saturday, July 14, 2007

Early Years . . . The 1940's Part One

I became a football fanatic when I was in the 6th grade. It started on a Saturday morning in 1942 when I was invited to play in a true, sand lot football program behind the Harold Steele family home. Harold was a coach in Grand Rapids and salvaged some discarded pads that made me feel (if not look) every bit a football player. That year for Christmas I was given my very own shoulder pads and helmet, endorsed by my hero Davey O'Brien. In 1938, O’Brien’s first season as starting quarterback for Texas Christian University, was named to the All-Southwest Conference first team. He was only five-foot-seven, and 150-pounds but became an All American quarterback, won the Heisman trophy and played for the Philadelphia Eagles. He was my hero.

The next year as a 7th grader I made the Oakleigh Wolves Six-Man football team and won the first of four letters. I somehow was able to purchase my first (and only) "Varsity" sweater with one stripe. We couldn't afford another. That year (1943) our team won the Kent Suburban league championship. The team included a lot of big guys, one it was rumored had returned from WW2 army service to continue his education. He was huge and enjoyed running over me during our practice sessions. I kept getting in his way and we both kept falling. I think that was what won me a letter. The photo is of that 1943 team. I'm fifth from the right, top row.

Coming up: Team photos of the 1944, 45 and 46 teams and report of the recent Six-Man league reunion held in Grand Rapids.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

On The Winter Road

We left snowy Michigan on Christmas day and arrived in Texas alomost in time to pick up Dylan, Emerson and Eliot at the airport. We had a wonderful ten days with them. The weather was perfect. the remainder of January and early February is another story!
I (Don) traveled to Mississippi and for much of February worked on various Katrina relief projects, (See Below). I was introduced to KC Carter and his Missionary Supply Organization. Great things are methodically happening . . . one family at a time. It was a privilige being a part of project Isaac and this ministry. Check it out!
It was also enjoyable visiting and helping some of the families I worked with last year. God's presence is evident!
Project Isaac - Bay St. Louis, MS
Project Keith & Diane
Changes at Pass Christian
Ms Althea

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Project Isaac

I plan to leave South Padre Island on Feb. 5, 2007 and return to MS for the month of February as a Katrina volunteer.

I'll be going with my old work crew from Central IL hoping to add to the progress of a new home being built for Isaac and his mom. Contibutions would be welcomed at:


Their story:

Hello, my name is Isaac. I am four years old. That’s me standing with my mom, Rhonda in front of our new house in Bay St.
Louis, MS. I have four brothers and a sister. Their names are Julio (8), Joseph (15), Pedro (20), Daniel (21) and Elisa (18).
Daniel is currently serving our country in Iraq. We are very proud of him. Elisa is married and on her own. Julio and Pedro
are living with my dad in California. Joseph lives with me and mom but he has gone to California to get his new prosthetic
eye. He lost his eye due to cancer when he was four years old. He even had a heart attack caused by the chemo treat­
ments and almost died.
We moved here after my mom and dad got a divorce because my mom wanted to be close to her sister. Mom used all the
money she had to buy our house so she wouldn’t have a mortgage. We moved in and got everything fixed up two months
before hurricane Katrina hit. Mom even had a good job at Oreck Corp. Of course, all that changed when the storm hit. I
remember being really scared when mom packed us up in the car and took us to Stennis Space Center to hide from the
storm. We didn’t know at the time that we would be there two weeks before we could go back home. When we went back I
couldn’t believe the mess. The house was still there but it was broken to pieces. Mom was able to save her jewelry and coin
collection but that was about all. She also found our old tent and we camped out on our deck for five weeks until FEMA
could bring the trailer that we have now. I like camping but it was pretty miserable with all the bugs and mosquitoes; and, it
was hot too! I remember mom was really worried about our safety.
Well, we have been in that FEMA trailer for a year now. Mom has been working hard on trying to get our new house built.
Somehow she got set up with Walls of Hope. Those nice people brought volunteers in and put up the foundation, walls and
roof. Mom had to buy the materials so she has spent all the FEMA money she got. I heard her say she didn’t have insur­
ance because she didn’t know we were in a floodplain. She even traded her jewelry and coin collection so a contractor
could put shingles on the roof. She has no way to buy anything now because when she went back to work after the storm
they said they didn’t need her or 60 of her friends who worked there. The only money we get is from mom babysitting my
cousin while my aunt works. She has been looking for another job but she can’t do much until she has an operation. She
recently found out that she has uterine cancer, whatever that is.
Oh, one more thing. We had to move out of the FEMA trailer for a while because it got smashed recently when a big thun­
derstorm came through and made a tree fall on it. I don’t know how but my mom still has a good attitude. She says “the
government doesn’t owe us anything”. She believes people should help each other. She even volunteers with Walls of
Hope to help others. If there is some way you can help us that would be good. We don’t really have anywhere else to turn
right now. Thank You

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Spring Break 2007 . . . A Winter Texan Looks Back

For over ten years, from our 12th floor condo, I have had a panoramic view of spring break. To the South my view includes, swimming pools, tennis courts and balconies of three other buildings in our complex. To the East, the beach . . . as spring breakers trudge with their kegs and set up camp. Looking North is the Radisson, Coke stage, the prime meeting space for all daytime activity. To the West, the view extends the length of the causeway and much of Padre Blvd.

Not only do I observe from the 12th floor, but every day in March I walk the area; early morning and in the afternoon at the peak of the Radisson activity. In the evening and often into the night I observe the cruising and often walk the Blvd. (See some of my yearly reports at; )

Why do I do this? Because I enjoy it!

Now, many of my winter Texan friends (and my wife) think I'm crazy. I listen to them and I observe . . . and I keep coming back. So do more and more friends from the North.

As they begin to realize. the first two weeks of March are not much different than the last two weeks of February . . . except that often the weather is better. Those that have not left, play tennis, golf and hang out around the pool and often engage the kids in conversation. It's fun!

The first weekend of Texas week the tempo picks up and reaches a crescendo Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, but even those three nights, over the years, the activity has lessened. It's downhill from there and by the next Sunday the Coke Stage is quiet and another spring break is history.

I'm certainly no expert on SPI commerce, but I do know the kids pay big bucks to stay here, tote groceries and beer to their rooms and must be spending some money at the clubs, restaurants, bars and T-shirt shops.

And each year, from my perspective, the number of visitors decline.

It is my understanding (but I'm not sure) that local-Texas schools now have a different spring break than the colleges, accounting for the relative calm during the week. So it does come down to a couple of weekends - - and falling.

Maybe by shifting gears so dramatically for spring break we are chasing away the very best (in my opinion) clients that frequent the island.