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The joy is palpable, but to be honest so are the nerves. On this, my third Awareness trip with Unbound, I recognized some of the feelings in my stomach as a series of on-time arrivals carried me from the podium of the Columbus Catholic Women’s Conference through O’Hare airport in Chicago and Frankfurt, Germany to my final eight-hour leg to Nairobi. To be honest, I enjoy these long flights. The time to rest, but also to simply look out the window and ponder the enormity of God’s imagination, is splendid.
I don’t try to be “productive” on international flights. That’s a wise choice because coming off of the amazing experience of speaking at the country’s largest gathering of Catholic women left me needing a moment to both process the “high” of that experience and to rest, to come down from the mountaintop before ascending a new one. I decided to let myself simply watch a few episodes of “This is Us,” catch up on my Lenten devotional, nap (one of my superpowers), have a glass of wine or two, and enjoy the ride.
I remember opening my window shade at one point and being absolutely struck by a golden body of water pouring itself open in the sunset (or was it sunrise?). Consulting the airplane’s navigational tracking device on the seatback in front of me, I confirmed that we were flying directly over the Nile. Will I ever see it up close, I pondered, from its shores? While I certainly hope so, to be honest, that “Wow” moment was enough to once again remind me that the capacity of God’s ability to surprise me is boundless.
Whenever I take an international flight alone, the moments that cause me the greatest bit of anxiety are that slice of time that begins immediately after deplaning. Though I have nothing to fear, crossing into a new country makes me question if my documents will be in order. In Nairobi’s airport, the lines were long but orderly. My “e-Visa” made the process a bit smoother and soon I was standing at baggage claim, carrying my too-heavy suitcase (why do I always overpack?!) and running into Unbound Kansas City staffers Jennifer and Neveda. This helped greatly with my other running concern: would I be able to find the local Unbound staffers in a sea of faces outside the airport? I shouldn’t have worried. Amos, the head of the local Kenyan Unbound operation, and his team of dedicated professionals stood outside those doors at midnight, hoisting a huge Unbound logo sign high above the crowd. “We’re here!” I said to myself, the last bits of anxiety slipping away as we drove across a darkened Nairobi to our guest house.
Morning One of an Unbound adventure is a special moment of discovery. We, twenty travelers, have journeyed to Nairobi from all over the United States. Our paths to this place, our ages and experiences may be disparate, but there is a commonality among us that is immediately recognizable. Over strong coffee after too little sleep, we introduce ourselves and I’m grateful for the name tags that dangle around our necks. I am sleep-deprived after a fitful rest, but my heart is ready for a day that will be filled with new friendships. These are generous souls, and I can already tell they are fun and energetic. Each of them will teach me enormous lessons over the next several days.
On this particular trip, many of the sponsors are returning for second or third times to visit the children, teens or elders they support. We Kenya rookies in their midst are grateful for the knowing stories they begin to share. While I have traveled now three times with Unbound (previously to meet my sponsored child in the Philippines and my elder in India), Kenya is brand new to me. And a major difference for me on this trip is that I will not meet a sponsored friend here but will rather enjoy the opportunity to document this trip, to capture photos and interviews with my fellow travelers, to tell their stories and to learn more about the behind the scenes operational structure of Unbound here in Kenya.
This learning begins with an Orientation meeting at Unbound’s Nairobi coordinating office. As our bus enters the gated compound where a team of a few dozen Unbound staffers work daily to change lives, we are greeted by the dancing and singing of a group of Unbound mothers. Their spirit is infectious as the chant they welcome us with expands and enfolds us. I cannot understand the Swahili words of their songs, but their message is clear: you are welcome in this place, our home!
Our Orientation gives us a bird’s-eye view of the scope and scale of the work of Unbound here in this sprawling city. We’re treated to a documentary featuring the stories of several Unbound beneficiaries who share how their years-long support from their sponsors has given them hope, sustainable support, and the promise of a brighter future. After tea and introductions to the local team, we rejoin the dancing, singing mamas outside. I cannot help but boogie down with them, caught up in the rhythm of their songs and swaying my hips in time, mimicking with far less grace their joyful dance. We have only just arrived, and I’ve already fallen in love with Kenya and her people.
Next, our bus carries us to a conference center owned by the Catholic Church. We enter a hall filled with Unbound sponsored friends and their families. Again, I sense the nervousness of not only the young children and elders waiting to meet their sponsors but also of the sponsors. In many cases, a social worker will provide translation services to ease the communication between folks who have previously only known each other via letters written to one another. One by one, we sponsors introduce ourselves and give our basic “bio” – hometown and information on our relationships with Unbound. Among my fellow travelers are generous spirits who sponsor multiple children around the world. After our introductions, those sponsors with friends sitting in this hall are introduced to their sponsored friends. With each moment of uniting, my heart expands. Sponsors hug children or elders, sometimes for the first time or sometimes after years of knowing one another. Mothers grip the hands of their children’s sponsor, thanking them over and over again, often through tears, for their generosity. Sponsored elders, often lacking the language skills to thank their sponsors in a common language, share wordless sentiments with oversized hugs and smiles. Gifts are exchanged, relationships develop, and nerves slip away. We are a family.
Over lunch, as the sponsors dine with their sponsored friends, I am treated to lunch with an amazing young Unbound graduate named Humphrey. Humphrey is 23, the same age as my Adam, and a senior studying journalism and broadcast media. At seven years old, he joined Unbound after being identified in Nairobi’s slums as a child who would benefit from the program’s services. After only a few moments with this kind, eloquent young man, I witness firsthand the difference that education, attention, and compassion can make. I’ll be sharing my full interview with Humphrey very soon. I can’t wait for you to hear directly from him about how Unbound has changed and blessed his life. I think to myself as we are talking about how a small sacrifice, a sponsorship gift that costs less than dinner in a restaurant, has the capacity to pull a child from the slums, offer him the tools to excel and fill him with goals for the future. One of the most impressive things about Humphrey is that he has a desire to “repay” Unbound’s kindness by helping others like himself. I leave our time together confident that he too will change lives.
Our first day winds up with an impromptu outing for “Tusker,” a local Kenyan beer, and conversation. By 7:30 pm, my eyelids are heavy, and I drift into a dreamless sleep under the protection of my mosquito netting. Day one is in the books, but we are just beginning our adventure!
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Copyright 2018 Lisa M. Hendey