From Kenai to Kenya — Montessori school takes a page from missionaries’ generosity

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

To Americans doing missionary work in Kenya — at an orphanage for kids left parentless by the AIDS epidemic, at a school in one of Africa’s largest slums, and at a preschool in the rural outback that serves as the one neutral location in an otherwise war-torn region — it isn’t hard to find striking examples of the disparity between the rich, safe, comfortable life in the United States and what Kenyans endure.

It also isn’t hard to find ways to help. When people have next to nothing, it doesn’t take much to make an immense improvement.

In the seven years that Charlie and Cathie Schmelzenbach, of Soldotna, have been doing missionary work in Kenya, they’ve seen needs that dwarf any contribution they could ever hope to make, yet they’ve also found never-ending ways in which even seemingly small efforts — by American standards — have a large impact.

“When we first found these kids they were sleeping on a dirt floor. They were walking a mile to get water. They had no electricity, no water. Some of them had beds, some of them didn’t. You just can’t walk away from something like that,” Cathie said.

On a photo safari trip in northern Kenya, they visited Archer’s Point, a point where travelers need to stop and join with an armed guard before venturing into the aptly named badlands. There they visited a preschool, which serves as a regional meeting place and agreed-upon neutral ground safe from the intertribal violence that is endemic in the area.

The school has a dirt floor, no electricity and relies on light coming in through an open window and slats between wallboards. Cathie, a retired computer specialist in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, is particularly touched by the challenges schools in Kenya face.

“They knew I was a teacher and so the kids said, ‘Oh, come with us, teacher,’” Cathie said. “So they took me into their classroom and this one girl went over to the bookshelf and got their one book, and held it over their heads so nobody could touch it, and she laid it on the table and said, ‘Look what we have.’”

One book for an entire school, and they felt blessed to have even that.

Kids at a preschool in Archer’s Post, Kenya, play with a bicycle rim this fall. Missionaries brought donated books, pencils, toothbrushes and other supplies to kids in Kenya.

Later, when the Schmelzenbachs were back in Soldotna, where they run their Loon Lake Resort off Sport Lake Road, they contacted Mo Sanders, principal of Soldotna Montessori Charter School.

It can be challenging to talk to U.S. students about how kids in other parts of the world live, since concepts like mud-and-stick huts with dirt floors, walking miles to fetch water from filthy ditches and subsisting on a diet of goat’s blood mixed with milk are so foreign they can be difficult to comprehend. But only having one book? That’s a need school kids can wrap their heads around.

“They brought back beautiful photos of African animals and pictures of the slum and orphanage and school, and they only have one book. And they’re very proud of their one book. I said, ‘Well, we can send books,’” Sanders said.

She made a presentation to the school and asked students to bring in gently used books to donate to kids in Africa.

“One of the foundations of the Montessori philosophy is if peace is going to come to the world it will come about because the kids do it. Another premise is to reach out to the world, to do community service locally and globally,” she said.

Many areas of Kenya are desperately poor, with kids in need of everything from shoes and school supplies to clean water and medical items.

A three-week book drive this fall generated far more than the 100 pounds of books the missionaries could take with them.

“We got way more books than we could send. We got tons of books. I couldn’t get into my office when they were stacked in there,” Sanders said.

They ended up donating the leftovers to an Alaska State Troopers program that distributes books to kids in the Bush.

When the Schmelzenbachs and fellow missionaries returned to Kenya in October, distributing the books was a highlight of the trip.

“They really did a super, super job,” Charlie said of the Montessori book drive. “We were kind of shocked. We weren’t expecting so many.”

“And I wasn’t expecting the quality of books,” Cathie said. “They were all hardbound and they were all just beautiful books.”

Popular U.S. characters like VeggieTales were introduced to African kids who may never have seen a spear of asparagus before, much less one with eyes and a ball cap. Some books had pictures of animals in Alaska, and a few were books about Africa.

“That was pretty cool getting several books about Africa and books about Kenya, so that might have meaning for those children,” Sanders said.

The books were split between St. Paul’s orphanage, near Nairobi, a school in the miles-wide, desperately poor Kibera slum in Nairobi, and the preschool at Archer’s Post.

“When they got the books it was like, ‘I get to hold it? I get to look at it? I can touch it?’” Cathie said. “Even the adults came and looked at the books, since they’d never seen one before.”

A child at Archer’s Post in Kenya looks at a book donated by Soldotna Monetssori School students, while another student reads an “Alaska ABC” book.

Leonard Ball, a photographer, of Soldotna, joined the mission trip in October and combined it with a photo safari in Kenya. Before he left Alaska he visited central peninsula businesses and requested donations he could bring to kids in Kenya. He brought one bag filled with his camera gear, clothes and items, and another filled with donations of pens, pencils and other supplies from Beemun’s, and toothpaste and toothbrushes from Dr. Jerry Hu.

He was shocked to find that something as simple as a pen or pencil was a prized item. This from kids who make do with whatever they can find to play with, often old tires and metal rims from bicycle wheels pushed around with sticks.

“They’re happy most of the time,” Ball said. “(The kids at the orphanage) are clean and well-kept. But any old, broken, nasty thing becomes a valuable toy and it’s shared with other children. This girl had an old broken umbrella and she was just full of joy playing with that thing.”

The Schmelzenbachs’ first trip to Kenya was in 2003, and came about through the tug of family ties. Charlie’s great-grandfather started the Nazarene missionary work in Swaziland in 1907, and was the first white person seen in the region. Charlie’s father continued the missionary work until his death, and his uncle and cousins are involved. Now the Nazarene mission operates in Kenya, headquartered in Nairobi, since it is a centralized location and has a more stable government. The mission founded Africa Nazarene University in 1984, and it was there that the Schmelzenbachs began their work, after Cathie retired in 2002 from KPBSD.

“His cousin talked us into going over,” Cathie said. “He would call me almost every year and say, ‘Are you retired yet?’ And I’d say, ‘No, not yet.’ I retired Oct. 2, and he called me the 15th and said, ‘I hear you’re retired.’”

Cathie’s mother died in 2002 and left them a modest inheritance. She and Charlie wanted to do something with it that would honor her memory, so they decided to use it to live in Africa while they volunteered in missionary work.

“She was really into mission work and so instead of just frittering the money away we decided to do missionary work. We took the inheritance and worked at the school for three years. Hopefully, mother would appreciate that,” Cathie said.

With her doctorate degree in computer education, Cathie taught computer classes at the university, and also wrote an

A girl in Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, plays with a broken umbrella. Kids are creative in making games and finding items to play with.

elementary education curriculum the university began using to train future teachers. In Kenya, having an eighth-grade education is all that’s needed for a certificate that allows you to teach at community schools. Having a college degree, such as the one awarded from the university with Cathie’s curriculum, is a much more comprehensive education.

“The 19 teachers that graduated in January with their bachelor’s degree in education are just a real favorite success for me,” Cathie said. “With the degree program, you can teach in private schools. The pay is higher, you can almost live on it.”

While working at the university, Cathie and Charlie started exploring the surrounding area of Nairobi. Just down the street they found St. Paul’s Orphanage, a corrugated metal shack with a dirt floor, no electricity or running water, and not even enough beds for all the kids. At the time, there were 20 children from birth through eighth grade.

“The lady that started it was a state social worker. When the police department would find kids with no parents they would bring them to her, and she ended up with seven or eight kids in her own house, and she outgrew it,” Charlie said. “So she got out of being a social worker and started the orphanage.”

The Schmelzenbachs started a routine of working at the university in the mornings and going to the orphanage in the afternoons and weekends, bringing other missionaries along with them to help.

“We washed clothes, played with the kids, cleaned the yard, made beds. The kids were so starved for affection you’d sit down and have three or four in your lap,” Cathie said.

Donations started coming in through visiting missionaries to help support the orphanage. Friends of the

Leonard Ball took a mission trip to Kenya as an opportunity to also go on a photo safari, capturing images of leopards, elephants, hippos, giraffes and much more. He plans to exhibit his work at the Funky Monkey in Kenai in March, and proceeds from the sale of his prints will benefit missionary work in Kenya.

Schmelzenbachs from New York, Ardith and Andrew Blumenthal, founded Covenant Children in 2005, a nonprofit organization, to manage donations and offer tax-deductible receipts. Through the support, St. Paul’s now has a concrete floor, a catch-water cistern, a garden, a cookhouse, bunk beds, mosquito netting, a playground, quarters for a full-time nanny, and the building has expanded to house 60 orphans.

Some of the Schmelzenbachs’ most powerful success stories come from the orphanage.

“The babies coming into the orphanage. There’s been two or three babies that have just been thrown away. One, his name is Moses, somebody found him in a garbage pit. He was like an hour old, and so they brought him in and we were able to take him at the orphanage because we had room for him. So lives are saved like that,” Cathie said.

They met a 2-year-old girl who was unable to walk. Malnutrition had led to a case of rickets that left her bones too weak to support her.

“She would just scoot on the floor. We took her to the doctor when we were over there two years ago. She just had rickets, so we got medicine for her and she’s walking now. That’s a real success story,” Cathie said.

Education is a primary focus of the Schmelzenbachs’ missionary work. They support the orphanage in part because it makes sure all its kids go to school. The preschool in Archer’s Post, though it is about 80 miles from Nairobi, where they usually stay, also has a special place in their hearts.

“That’s why we’re supporting this school, it was teaching tolerance. When parents come there they don’t have to worry about the problems they’re going to get if just they go across town. It’s a neutral zone. It’s really nice to see the kids playing, having friends that are intertribal, and it all comes back to education,” Charlie said.

The Schmelzenbachs know they can’t solve the problems in Kenya, but through education they feel like they can help Kenyans improve their own situations.

“For me, it’s that the corruption in the government was so strong. (I felt that) until we were able to educate the masses and the little man had a voice in the government, nothing was going to change. Educating the people enables them to have a voice. That was my main objective in going over there, was to teach the teachers so they could teach the masses,” Cathie said. “We think it’s so important because unless they have education, it is going to be a cycle. They’ll go right back into the poverty they came out of. They need to have an education so they can get ahead and change their circumstances.”

Through Covenant Children, the Schmelzenbachs can offer anyone wanting to help a way to do so. One option is to sponsor a child at St. Paul’s orphanage, which provides a meal a day, clothes and supplies so a child can attend school. While state schools offer free attendance in Kenya, kids can’t go unless they have shoes, a uniform and school supplies.

Noreen Sullivan, another retired KPBSD teacher, of Soldotna, has been sponsoring a girl named Lucy for three years

An elephant gets up close and personal with a tree in one of Kenya’s many parks.

now, Charlie said. Sullivan came on the mission trip in October and wanted to meet Lucy.

“When she showed up (at the orphanage), there were three Lucies — big Lucy, middle Lucy and little Lucy. She wanted to do something special with Lucy, and so she took her to the walking zoo and did ice cream and all that stuff. Well, she ended up taking all three Lucies. They had quite a day,” Charlie said.

Another friend of the Schmelzenbachs who has accompanied them on a mission trip owns a Kona coffee farm in Hawaii. He donated 100 pounds of Kona coffee beans to the Schmelzenbachs to sell. Coffee Roasters, on Kalifornsky Beach Road, has agreed to roast the beans for free and help package them, Cathie said, and she hopes to sell the beans through local coffee shops. She and Charlie also will have beans to sell. Money raised from that will fund a room, board, books and supplies scholarship for university students pursuing their education degree at African Nazarene University.

“They may get a (tuition) scholarship from the school, but a lot of the people who go there, they’re generally married and have a family but there’s no place to stay on campus. They have no income, no money, it’s very, very difficult,” Charlie said.

It takes only $10,000 for a student to have housing, food, books and supplies while they attend college for four years, Cathie said. One caveat is the student must work at the college while receiving the scholarship.

“We want them to work. We don’t want to just give it to them. We want them to learn it has to be earned. We’re trying to break the colonialism,” Cathie said.

The Schmelzenbachs go to Kenya at least once a year and encourage others to join them in missionary work. Covenant Children offers prearranged trips, where people can spend two weeks doing missionary work at the orphanage, the school in Kibera slum and the preschool in Archer’s Post, as well as go on photo safari tours. All told the cost is about $4,500 for 14 days.

It isn’t a vacation and there are challenges associated with being in Kenya, even though it is one of the most stable areas of the region.

“It’s not like traveling anyplace else,” Charlie said. “It’s very much still like a Third World country. You need to practice due diligence when you’re traveling abroad. But people can have bad things happen anywhere. You just go back. You just have to be cognizant of what’s going on around you.”

The needs are never-ending, Charlie said. They want to build a dorm at the orphanage, build new outhouses at the school in Kibera, and all the kids in the areas they serve could benefit from even basic supplies  — shoes, food, toys, paper and pencils, and health and sanitation items.

Any help is appreciated by the Schmelzenbachs and the organizers of Covenant Children, though their appreciation is nothing compared to the response from the kids.

“We brought just a little pencil. It was all we had to give out, but you would think it was the biggest thing we’ve done in the world,” Cathie said.

To get involved:

  • Monetary donations can be made through Covenant Children. Visit http://www.covenantchild.org.
  • Contact the Schmelzenbachs for more information or to purchase Kona coffee, at 262-8435 or by e-mail at loon4@mac.com.
  • Photographer Leonard Ball will have an exhibit of photos from his trip to Kenya on display at the Funky Monkey coffee shop in Kenai in March. Proceeds from the sales of photo prints will support missionary work in Kenya.
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