By Ed Karvoski Jr., Contributing Writer
Grafton – While many travelers are preparing for summer vacations, Linda Casey of Grafton has already returned home from a five-week trip to Kenya. She arranged the getaway with International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ).
“They subcontract to social service agencies in developing countries that place you in positions where there’s some work to be done,” she explained. “It’s much cheaper than regular tourist travel because you’re not staying in luxury hotels. It’s an opportunity to travel and to learn about another culture.”
Casey’s first experience with IVHQ was two years ago when she took a two-week trip with her then-17-year-old grandson to Costa Rica. There, they worked on a coffee farm.
“We lived in a shack with bunkbeds and didn’t always have showers,” she relayed. “It was a good experience and I wanted to do it again, but realized that two weeks was not enough time to do anything useful.”
For this year’s five weeks in Kenya, she was matched with a young graduate student from Macau, China, on her school break. They were placed to volunteer in the slums of Mlolongo, which is 20.5 kilometers from Nairobi via Mombasa Road. The accommodations that they shared with other volunteers was a small two-room building with two sets of bunkbeds and one bathroom.
“My Chinese friend and I were sent to Mlolongo because they had a project there working with HIV-positive women and children, called Positive Life Kenya,” Casey said. “They run two schools for vulnerable and orphan children, many of whom are affected by HIV.”
According to the Positive Life Kenya website, “HIV/AIDS has reached an alarming level in the Mombasa Road corridor. The Mlolongo area concentrates truck stops, manufacturing facilities and commercial sex for survival that has contributed to the spread of the disease.”
Casey was particularly interested in going to Kenya to help with a women’s empowerment project. Volunteering with a group of women who were being trained for skills to improve their financial future, Casey drew upon her past experience as owner of Yankee Bookseller in Grafton.
“These women were training to be tailors or dressmakers and ultimately hoped to set up a business,” she noted. “We talked about the elements they need to think about in order to run a small business. They tended to have low self-esteem, so we discussed how they could be proud of themselves. These women’s empowerment discussions were really rewarding.”
Typically, she volunteered with the women and children five days a week and then could sightsee on weekends. As her most fun memory of the trip, she cites a weekend when they visited volunteers of other projects and took a bike ride.
“We rode bicycles through the savanna where zebras and giraffes were grazing on the side of the road,” she recalled. “We saw warthogs in the distance. It was quite incredible.”
While helping to empower women, Casey feels that she learned a valuable lesson from Kenyan people of all ages.
“Sometimes as Americans we have so much and appreciate so little,” she said. “The people in Kenya have a fabulous spirit. These are the poorest of the poor and yet they find joy in something every day. Considering their background, these children are the most joyful and resilient kids. They go to the school and get one meal a day because they don’t have any food at home.”
Grateful that she decided to add three weeks when planning her second venture with IVHQ, Casey said, “Five weeks is not a long time, but I felt that I was able to really accomplish something worthwhile.”