July 2014

Reflections from visiting our past - but today in Africa

Rob Kivlan, Corey Carothers, and Anthony Stukes, left to right in center, pose for a group photograph with children and staff members from the Majengo Orphanage in Tanzania.

In a June trip totally funded by several donors interested in a children’s home in Africa, three staff members of Diakon Youth Services visited the Majengo Orphanage in Tanzania, to explore whether some connection might be made with it; Diakon Youth Services' Flight Program already has a successful link with orphanages in Haiti.

In many respects, these connections are a reflection of the past, because Diakon's origins lie in two Pennsylvania orphanages and several Diakon services today maintain their mission of care for children and youths and their families.

The trip, says Corey Carothers, executive director of Diakon Youth Services, "was a complete success. After the long travel to Tanzania, we spent two days at the Majengo Orphanage, where we spent time getting to know the staff and grounds, played with the kids, built and painted window frames around mosquito screens on the windows of the kids’ bedrooms, and assisted with building a septic pit.

"I returned home ... understanding I have the ability to give more than I thought possible."

"Later, we drove Arusha and met with staff from the Mkombozi program and learned a lot about how they provide community-based support to homeless and impoverished children in the city and surrounding area of Arusha. We met five children from the area and spent time with them. It was, to say the least, an emotionally draining experience."

Below are Carothers' and two other staff members' reflections on their visit ...

Rob Kivlan, development officer for Diakon Youth Services and founder of the Flight Program:

“What struck me was the fact that although we were halfway around the globe, immersed in an entirely different culture and environment and unable to understand the native Swahili spoken by those around us, no words were needed to understand and interact with those we were serving alongside.

“The same facial expressions of care and concern, body language that conveyed warmth and compassion—attributes I often see among my colleagues in Diakon Youth Services—existed among those serving children in need in Tanzania. There was always a palpable sense of genuine love and concern for the children in their care, unmistakable in the reverence these kids had for those who dedicated their lives to providing for them.  

“Though we were on the other side of the world, spending time with and interacting with the staff at both the orphanage and the ministry for street children was no different from the interactions I experience daily with Diakon’s staff. Caring for others seems to have a unique language of its own, 'spoken' through actions and mannerisms such as patience and kindness, making words in such cases unnecessary.

“Being immersed in this caring environment put all anxieties and worries aside as we pitched in and lent a hand wherever needed. Since the three of us have long histories of having worked with children, playing soccer, working on construction projects together, and being taught how to play the drums become the ways through which we communicate. They were, in fact, ways for us to connect with the kids in Africa. A warm smile and a friendly extended handshake or fist-bump provided the needed ice-breaker for quickly developing a fun and entertaining relationship for the duration of our time in Africa.

“Although I will never remember all of the youths' names, I will always remember their faces. Though I won’t be able to stay connected throughout their journey in life, I rest comfortably knowing they are in good hands.  These caretakers, like so many of us in Diakon, are committed to the well-being of those they serve, which allows such comfort. What a blessing to have had such an opportunity to spend a week with others that live their lives in a way so familiar to us in Diakon—through service.“

Corey Carothers, executive director, Diakon Youth Services:

"After having worked in the child welfare field for more than 18 years, I ignorantly thought I had seen it all when it came to the struggles of vulnerable youth. 

"Now, having visited with 79 orphans and met several kids living and begging on the streets of Arusha I realize there is a whole different aspect of need from a view of the world to which I never gave significant consideration. But in the end, need is need when it comes to children and our mission to meet those needs however we can. 

Corey Carothers, right, works with a staff member of the Majengo Orphanage in Tanzania on repairs to one of the buildings.

"There was, however, another component to our experience: The joy and happiness in the simple things exhibited by most all of the children we encountered are beyond words to explain. To have virtually nothing  including direct family, but to still be smiling, playing and embracing life, reflects an attitude that is humbling to the rest of us, a response I have continued to process every day since our return. 

"The natural question to ask is: 'Where do these children get the strength to endure is such a real way?'  Based on what we witnessed, I came to understand that strength arises from the culture of community and caring for one another. Among the people of Tanzania and the places we visited, there seemed to be almost no aggression or animosity. They welcomed one another into every situation, whether they knew each other or not. There were no barriers of distrust or fear of one another. 

"The children we encountered had little in material items but they had everything they needed in an environment of universal caring and support. I don’t know how far-reaching this culture is in Africa or how deeply it goes—we were foreigners, so we were exposed only to the surface of the culture—but the experience was like nothing we had felt before and one that will affect us for the rest of our lives."    

Anthony Stukes, director, Diakon Youth Services' Weekend Alternative Program:

"Our visit to the Majengo Orphanage in the Mto wa Mbu village and Mkombozi program for street children in Arusha was both eye-opening and life-changing for me.

"Having had a difficult childhood myself, I am familiar with impoverished conditions and the feeling of insecurity these conditions bring. Though impoverished, these children were not what I expected. At first glance it appeared these children had nothing, however after spending several days with them, I came to understand that they had everything they would ever need—love and hope! They were surrounded by loving adults who inspired them to hope for a better future.

"I am proud to have joined them for the short time I did.      

"Expressing my experience in Tanzania in words is one of the most difficult tasks I have ever been asked to do. Every second I spent in the country renewed my energy to serve others. Whether playing ring ball with the girls at Majengo, giving food to the boys at the Mkombozi program, or talking to our guide, Isaac, about cultural differences, I was constantly surrounded by a genuine feeling of love and grace. I returned home knowing that God has blessed me with a beautiful family and understanding I have the ability to give more than I thought possible."

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