August 24, 2007

A call to change: Kenya trip inspires Brebeuf students to give back, make a difference

During a trip to Africa, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School student Jessi Stevens of Indianapolis learned about the devastating effects of the AIDS pandemic on that continent. She also learned the difference that can be made through human connections. (Submitted photo)

During a trip to Africa, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School student Jessi Stevens of Indianapolis learned about the devastating effects of the AIDS pandemic on that continent. She also learned the difference that can be made through human connections. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Sometimes the horror and the heartache overwhelmed the students during their trip to Africa—like the day they toured a hospital and saw each bed filled with two or more people dying of AIDS.

Or the day they drove through a slum crammed with people who lived on streets where piles of trash marked every corner and the smell was so bad it seemed to seep into their skin.

In those moments, a sense of helplessness—and even a touch of guilt for all they have—threatened to overcome the 12 students and four adults from Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis as they spent 15 days of their summer vacation in Kenya.

“Sometimes it was hard,” says Ben Knapp, a 17-year-old junior and a member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis. “You want to help, but they’re in such a dire state. You don’t know what to do.”

And yet, reaching that awareness can often be the start of an education.

The hope for the Brebeuf student trip was “to increase their understanding of life in the developing world, and to learn about medical and religious efforts to respond to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa” that devastates millions of families, according to school officials.

The journey provided several of those opportunities. During their first full day in Africa, the group visited a school for children orphaned by AIDS, a school in Nairobi that was founded by Jesuit Father Terry Charlton, a member of Brebeuf’s first graduating class in 1966.

They then spent time at one of the best AIDS treatment programs in Africa—the IU-Kenya Partnership between the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis and the Moi University School of Medicine in Eldoret, Kenya. The partnership has led to the treatment of more than 30,000 HIV-positive patients in Kenya.

“They also visited workshops where HIV-positive patients who have benefited from treatment with anti-retroviral drugs are employed producing pottery, jewelry and crafts that provide them with needed income,” notes Courtney Mikoryak Jones, Brebeuf’s director of communications.

Their travels also led them to an effort called the Heart n’ Harvest Initiative—a group of farms established by a man from England who had been a high school dropout. Under his direction, the farms employ people with AIDS and feed 30,000 people a day, according to the Brebeuf group members.

“I had a deep admiration for all the people we saw who made a difference in such creative ways,” says Jessi Stevens, a 17-year-old senior at Brebeuf. “They learned to cope with it. They separated people from their circumstances. They made relationships. They all have the ability to bridge the gaps, make relationships and help people succeed. That’s the person I want to be.”

That possibility encouraged the students even as they struggled to make sense of the poverty, disease and death they constantly witnessed.

“Even as we had those moments when we were confronted by the comfort of our lives and the things we take for granted, there were so many moments of inspiration,” says Freezell Brown, director of diversity at Brebeuf.

“Sometimes it came from the children and the sense of joy that persisted in the midst of lots of reason for despair,” he says. “Sometimes it came from these different people who had their different ways of trying to give. It was really a person looking at a need and seeing how their gifts could make a difference.”

The students experienced that feeling as they drove across Kenya and unexpectedly came upon a group of school children during their lunch break.

“These children were so excited to see us,” Jessi recalls. “They were asking questions. They led us through the woods. I was with this one little boy. He couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak his language, but we were marching through the woods together laughing. We couldn’t speak, but we had this moment of friendship. When we left, he hesitated. It was almost like he wanted to climb in with us and leave with us. That was really moving for me.”

The encounter was also a moment of epiphany for her.

“I was naïve,” Jessi says. “When I first came to Kenya, I was naïve in thinking they needed me. I feel we need them just as much. They’re open and friendly and loving. The faith there felt so much more than what I ever experienced in America. They showed me a purity of spirit. I can’t think of Kenya without thinking of the poverty, but I also think about the purity of spirit of the children.”

Nearly two months have passed since the group made the trip to Africa in June, and its impact continues. Their memories and experiences still haunt the students at times, but they also give them hope and a challenge for the present and their futures.

“I learned it’s extremely important to help people and make relationships with them,” Ben says. “It’s also important to take what you can from the trip and change yourself—how you act with people, find peace within yourself and spread peace to other people.”

Jessi nods in agreement.

“It definitely opened my eyes to all I’ve been given,” she says. “I don’t know if I’m going to be a doctor or what my profession will be, but right now I’m trying to live my life in such a way that my everyday activities will be more like these people who have made a difference. We all have a responsibility to give back and get the most out of everything we do.” †

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