Students bring lessons from Kenya home

The 2010 winter break was more life-changing than expected for Northern Kentucky University Professor Willie Elliott and seven of his social work students. It wasn’t about lying around the house as the snow fell outside. It wasn’t about working hours upon hours to make as much money as possible before the spring semester began. Instead, it was about changing the lives of children battling a disease that has left them hopeless.

Elliott and his students spent 14 days out of the winter break visiting Kenya to research how social work was practiced in another country, with an emphasis on HIV positive children and how they form attachments after being abandoned by HIV positive or deceased parents.

Throughout the trip, Elliott discovered that children who have been abandoned by parents affected by HIV/AIDS deal with attachment, or lack thereof, in different ways. They attach to siblings and other children and use human touch to connect, according to Elliott.

“It really was an experience seeing the world from their perspective and being in line with their customs,” Elliott said.

Elliott and three students of the group, Katie Henry, Matt Arnzen and Kayla Ulrich, recounted their trip to Kenya through pictures and stories on April 13 in a Faculty Lunch Seminar called “Kenya: Children and HIV.” The group spoke to about 10 students and faculty members in one of Steely Library’s interactive classrooms.

Over their 14-day trip, the group visited seven different orphanages and also had the opportunity to take a three-day safari. And the trip was not all about fun, the group had made it clear that they wanted to make a contribution, according to Elliott.

Along with their own luggage, the group took 200 pounds of peanut butter and about 100 pounds of toys to give to the children. The students explained how important it was for the children to have American peanut butter because the protein content was much higher than African.

The toys were collected in a contest between students and faculty, in which the students won. But it was a fun way to get people involved for a good cause. The group handed out the toys to children at the carnival they held at each orphanage.

“Altogether, I would say each children’s home had its own impact on everyone,” Henry said.

Henry, who organized the entire trip, presented a slide show of photos that documented their time with children, ages ranging from newborns to teenagers, that were either HIV positive or abandoned by parents with the disease.

The group used a faith-based agency called Christian Services International instead of NKU’s education abroad services to organize the trip, even though the trip was not meant to be a religious one. Arnzen explained that they were the first non-Christian group to go through CSI, but the agency worked hard to adjust their agenda accordingly.

Throughout the trip, the group visited a school center where 11 out of the 14 children there were HIV positive. The remaining three children lived with their elderly grandparents and walked to the center daily.

The group also visited a baby center that housed over 100 infants, ranging from newborns to one year old, as well as some older children. It was at this house where the group had their first experience with the “realization that you don’t have to be an adult to care of an infant … because there are not enough adults to step into those homes and do that.”

Along with visiting homes and playing with the children, the group also contributed to a water project that provided one children’s home with a chlorinator for their drinking water well. In that certain home, the drinking water well and the toilet water had combined; so with the chlorinator, the children could learn how to purify their drinking water.

Upon returning to the United States, Elliott described the feeling as “reverse cultural shock.” “When you come back to this country, your own home is overwhelming with stuff that we just take for granted, you realize how unnecessary it is,” Elliott said.

Henry said the trip taught her a “new form of compassion” to realize that every person matters.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if they’re clean, it doesn’t matter what they look like — they are still human, and they still are deserving of the same love that we are,” she said.

For all of the students, as well as Elliott, the trip to Kenya was a life-changing experience. Henry is looking into jobs in African social work as a plan after she graduates, and Arnzen has already booked his ticket to return in December.

Story by Claire Higgins