“It was a treasure of a lifetime – an absolutely, breathtaking experience.”
That is how Mitch McGonigal of Hubbard described her recent ten day mission trip with POET to Sultan Hamud, Kenya.
From May 26 to June 6, 22 POET employees and family members from South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and Indiana volunteered their support at Travellers’ Oasis Centre, an all-girls boarding school.
Travellers’ Oasis Centre was first established by missionaries and when POET CEO Jeff Broin and his family travelled with their church to Kenya in 2012, they saw an opportunity to make a difference.
The experience was life-changing for Broin and subsequently for many POET employees, said POET Communications Specialist Courtney Heitkamp.
Initially, the school’s enrollment included grades K-12 with 240
students. But when Kenya recently mandated that all girls be educated, the government established primary schools and the focus at Travellers’ Oasis Centre shifted to grades 8-12. The boarding school now has an enrollment of 150 girls, said Heitkamp.
As in the United States, education in Kenya is an important step up, said Heitkamp.
“It is not a common thing for girls to get into high school,” she said, explaining that girls and women usually spend six hours every day retrieving fresh water and cooking meals.
“They are never given the opportunity or given a chance to live the life they want to live,” said Heitkamp.
Jeff Broin chose to support the girls’ school because the young girls are the most vulnerable, said Heitkamp. Many are expected to marry at a young age. Those who are not supported by their families are forced into prostitution and genital mutilation is a standard practice.
Many of the students at Travellers’ Oasis Centre are orphans, so coming to the boarding school provides them a safe haven, said Heitkamp.
“It is a more stable environment” she said of the school.
With Broin’s expertise in agriculture and the school’s need for a solid, reliable partner, an alliance with the missionary organization was formed.
“Mr. Broin saw that POET had the potential to do great work in the country,” she said.
In addition to helping with the school, POET also works to improve crop yields and livestock practices that will move the population from sub-subsistence to autonomous agriculture.
In 2013, POET volunteers returned to Kenya to help build a greenhouse that could supply not only a daily food source but enough extra produce that could be marketed, explained Heitkamp.
In 2014, another POET team returned to help begin work on a dormitory for students.
On this summer’s trip, the team focused on laying the foundation for a new kitchen, dining hall and community center, said Heitkamp.
The POET team members worked side-by-side with local contractors to help begin projects that will be completed throughout the year by the local citizens, said McGonigal.
“There was a lot of shoveling and we moved dirt by wheelbarrows,” she said. Her job as a material handler at the POET plant in Jewell is primarily that of an office worker, so it did little to prepare her for the strenuous activity.
“They don’t have the equipment like we have in the U.S.,” she said.
The labor was intensive and adding to the challenge was the language barrier.
“They speak Swahili so there was a lot of sign language and gestures,”said McGonigal.
Despite the physical labor and the communication challenges, the Kenyans and the Americans enjoyed working side-by-side, said McGonigal.
“It was very inspiring,” said McGonigal. “The average construction worker makes five dollars a day. Yet, they have a happiness in their work.”
When one thinks of Africa, one imagines oppressive heat, but the climate was comfortable, she said.
“It is winter there now but it feels like our summer,” McGonigal said. Without any humidity, the average temperature was about 80 degrees during the day and it dropped down into the 70s at night.
McGonigal was grateful for the moderate temperatures because Kenya has a Muslim population and all the women were required to dress modestly. So instead of shorts and t-shirts, the American women wore long pants and sleeved shirts, she said.
On the last day of the mission, the group met with some of the girls who attend the school. For McGonigal, who was a teacher in her native Philippines, the experience cemented the lessons she had learned on the trip and showed her that her efforts were all worth it.
“One girl – she was such a sweetheart – wants to be an electrical engineer,” she said. “The other girls – they are so hungry for learning. They are shy, (and) quiet but talented.”
During the trip, the POET team was invited to attend a worship service which McGonigal found to be inspirational.
“It wasn’t in a church,” she said. “It was out under a tree and they sing and dance. It just makes you want to jump in with them.”
When McGonigal returned home to her husband Michael and sons Jerick, 23, and McKale 11, in Hubbard, she felt “rich in spirit.”
“It opened up my horizons,” admitted McGonigal, who saw people who lived in poverty yet were optimistic about their future.
“I came home and realized, ‘What do I have to be worried about?'” she said.
The experience also helped her rediscover her own inner wealth of potential.
“I realize that we all have love that we should be able to share,” she said.
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