Spring break: Kenya or Cancun beaches?

Courtesy of Jake Forsythe

Americans have wealth, but not always happiness. That’s one of the lessons that a group of local young people including Sierra Lillard, left, and Bella Bussian say they learned from their recent trip to Kenya. Lillard holds Regina, one of the younger children at the orphanage where the Durango-based contingent served. Parents of children at the orphanage have died of AIDS.

Before you read this, you’ll need to get off your grumpy couch.

You off it? OK, please read on.

It seems that we Americans tend to spend a lot of time on that couch, despite all our advantages. That’s what local high-schoolers found after a life-changing experience in April with the impoverished people of Nairobi, Kenya. They returned to find their classmates to be a comparatively sullen bunch. The Kenyans, despite their lack of material wealth, were full of love and joy.

“The (Kenyan) kids taught me to be happier,” said Haley Cotageorge, a Durango High School senior-to-be. “Coming back to America, so many people were on their grumpy couch. They were just a mood killer. I just wanted to be happy.”

Four youths and trip leader Jake Forsythe gathered last week to discuss their spring break mission to Africa that included work at an orphanage and a school in the slums. The two-week trip was sponsored by Durango’s First United Methodist Church, for which Forsythe serves as equipping and missions director. The team included 12 youths – from Durango, Animas and Bayfield high schools – and eight adults.

The term “grumpy couch” comes from a song the students learned on kazoo just before the trip. The trip to Kenya energized them, underlined the simple basics of life, made them understand the importance of education. Their fellow students, meanwhile, just didn’t get it. They were unmotivated and apathetic, saying “I hate school” and were all about “gossip, gossip, gossip.”

“I feel like we got back, and our lives were changed,” said Carl Sallee, a recent DHS grad who will attend Seattle Pacific University this fall. “Whereas a lot of kids, if they went to Cancun or something, they got back, and they were the same people.”

“Only tanner,” said Cotageorge, eliciting laughter.

Durango’s First United Methodist has sent mission teams for the last four years to HOREC, an orphanage in Nairobi. This was the church’s first youth group to go. The orphanage serves kids younger than 18 whose parents died from AIDS.

Forsythe said, for the last two trips, the teams also have gone to the Spring Valley slum near Nairobi, where 20,000 live on a former dump site.

The students were eager to go to Kenya, but not quite sure how they’d be treated.

Mikayla Jeffryes, a senior-to-be at Durango High, said she expected weird looks and the people to not be welcoming.

“That’s definitely not how it was at all,” she said. “Everyone we met was so nice. They were so excited to talk to us. They were asking questions about America. It was very different than what I expected.”

Sallee said he pictured the people being downcast and lacking hope. “Once again, that wasn’t the case at all.”

U.S. residents may tend to derive happiness from material things. “The people in Africa weren’t obsessed with getting more stuff. They were peaceful and satisfied with what they had already,” Sallee said. “They were all even happier than people in America.”

Sierra Lillard, a recent DHS grad who will attend the University of Colorado-Boulder this fall, said group members were constantly on the go.

They built a patio with pavestones at the orphanage. They played with the kids. They made necklaces of beads. They brought little pedal-less bikes for the kids to ride, as well as kickballs, soccer balls and a parachute.

In a short time, they’d established close ties with the kids there.

An example: The Kenyan kids heard the Americans singing “La Bamba,” and became obsessed with the song. They asked Lillard “100 times” to sing it for them, though it’s not even in English.

“Then the song got stuck in their heads,” Lillard said.

By the end of the trip, they’d walk by and hear even the smallest kids singing, “Da-da da-da da-da-da.”

Kenya’s wealth is not well-distributed. It’s hogged by those few in power. You see this in the Spring Valley slum, the students said, where dirt roads littered with trash and sewage connect tiny corrugated-metal houses that nearly touch.

The 20 Colorado visitors divided into three groups one day to deliver food baskets in the slum. Often, not all the group could fit in the homes. Forsythe said the extreme poverty was eye-opening to the youths.

“Compared to us, they don’t have really anything except each other and prayer,” Cotageorge said. “And they’re just so happy. It’s kind of amazing to see that.”

The visit was an even trade, Sallee figures.

“They need the physical sustenance more than we do,” Sallee said. “But I got the feeling from this trip that we needed the spiritual and emotional sustenance that they are full of.”

When asked if they had second thoughts about their choice of spring break vacations, they all instantly answered “no.” And all would love to go back.

The students suffered from the heat, from the substandard food, from the trickle of water coming out of the shower.

But whatever it was that the 12 youths and eight adults acquired from the trip, it definitely got them off the grumpy couch.

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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