It all began with Made in the Street: an organization that provides street children, ages thirteen to eighteen, with both a general and vocational education. Upon my arrival to Kenya, I spent a week at the school in Kamulu teaching english lessons and cooking classes, hosting a soccer tournament, working in the nursery, and offering my services whenever and wherever they were needed. During the second week, I went into the slums of Nairobi and saw the circumstances under which these children grew up. It was unfathomable. I could not bring myself to believe that the children I had spent the past week with at MITS once stood in the same position as the street children standing before me, wearing rags as clothing, sniffing glue to cure their hunger pains, and sleeping on heaps of eroding trash to stay warm. It was moments like these that I could not explain to my family when I got home. Instead, I decided to bring my mom and sister back with me the following summer. I could not believe how many of the students remembered my name, but even more shocking than that was how much they had grown both physically and mentally since the summer before.
Children are resilient. Though young and seemingly fragile, children have thick skin and a sense of fearlessness that fades as they grow older. In the process of growing up and figuring out what it is that sets each one of us apart from the rest, we learn to stand up for ourselves. For some of us this is easier said then done. I’m sitting here hard pressed to think about a single struggle that I had to overcome in my childhood. And then I think about the 392 patients that showed up to screening on my mission to Ghana. Each and every one of those people had lived somewhere between 14 days and 60 years with an unhide-able facial deformity. Each and every one of those people had to learn how to cope with the inevitable challenges they would face. Each and every one of those people acquired an unparalleled strength by means of being different.
With an infectious smile, Matilda, an eight-year-old girl with a cleft lip who I met on my medical mission, ran up to me the moment we made eye contact and introduced herself with more confidence than most adults. She was even able to bring smiles to the faces of the other patients on the mission, most of whom were overcome with sadness. I have an imprint of Matilda in my head that I know will never fade. She taught me more about people, the world, and myself than any single person has ever done before. But most importantly, Matilda showed me how powerful just one smile can be.
After coming back from my third trip to Africa, you might think that I would be done for a while, but the urge to go back took me to Ethiopia with Mending Kids International less than two months after getting home from Ghana.
Why do I feel the overwhelming need to keep going back?
The answer took me a long time to figure out but it now seems so clear. It’s the people. Not only am I inspired by each and every child that I have encountered on my missions, who have endured more in their few years of living than I probably will in my entire life... But I am also blown away by every volunteer in the nonprofit field. I have yet to have a single boring conversation on a mission trip. Each person is more interesting than the next.
It’s not about the numbers; it’s not about how many lives you can change. It’s about the one-to-one relationships that you build. For me it’s about Ruby from Kenya; it’s about Matilda from Ghana; it’s about Amarech from Ethiopia. I can only hope that I have impacted their lives, but I am certain that they have impacted mine, shaping my every thought and decision, instilling in me the desire to not only be a better person, but also to make the world a better place.