Think of all that substantiates a childhood, from the second we take in our first breath to that big day when we leave home for college or a job, and all the moments in between. Try to imagine the millions of vital inputs – dads, moms, siblings, hugs, a comfortable crib, timely feedings, warm clothing, vitamins, medical care, toys, pets, friends, swimming, safe neighborhoods, preschool, school, camps, lessons, awards, church, vacations, holidays, birthdays, graduations, and yes…hardships that grew life-muscles for us. If you allow yourself to sit quietly and remember, perhaps a tear or two will fall to think about how it all went down. Day after precious day, some harder than others, swept by like a bittersweet symphony that can never be captured in words or pictures or video. You have only some of it now, held in memories. But man, was it valuable.
Now stop and imagine far less of all that. What if you mattered little to the world and those around you, because few ever knew you existed, and society couldn’t do much to build a decent childhood around you? Think of weeks, months, and years landscaped by hunger, pain, illness, neglect, lack, and the ache of having very few choices. And every iota of it was the evidence that your own dreams would never come to fruition.
I have definitely lived the one and seen enough of the other with my eyes and my heart now and I am certain of something. The gap is smaller than we think and can be measured in units of care, bridged with action, and eradicated by grace, rather than insufficient mercy. Love is far less expensive than excuses, than turning a blind eye, when you get down to the business of it.
Mercy says give a tin roof and some walls, at least a bit of food and clothing, “more than they had before”. Grace says give everything you would have wanted, and far more. It is loving with an out-turned purse, doors, life, and heart. Jesus on a cross, still broken for an undeserving thief next to him.
Emily and Will, our precious two, live in California and Virginia now. No physical distance from Julie and me in Kenya can take away the permanence, the endowment that we and hundreds of others helped to build for them as they grew up. From Lewisville/Flower Mound, TX to Kijabe, Kenya and back, there were people, buildings, institutions, patterns, ideas, traditions, and all the infrastructure of an incredibly rich upbringing. It is no accident of circumstances that they are now successful, loving, well-rounded, intelligent, young adults. In reality, we had little to do with the decades, the centuries of intentional planning and executing by Americans and others that went before us, efforts that helped ensure childhoods that launched their successes. The parenting part we added was like the icing on the cake. Some still refer to what they got as the American Dream.
Whatever you call it, you only have to live outside of it for a bit to know when it is not there for a child. After 14 years of living in rural Kenya, traveling back and forth to the US twice annually, researching what children coming from backgrounds of poverty need to succeed, we have learned that early inputs in key developmental domains matter tremendously. Expenditures on programs that provide early nutrition, an intensive focus on literacy, healthy play, attachment, and engaged parenting all bring the most bang for the buck.
LEAP Preschool has been at the work of giving grace, a real childhood, to 100 Kenyan toddlers at a go. Each morning they wake up excited, though still living in meager community homes that dot the Rift Valley landscape around Naomi’s Village Home. Most have only a mom, 3-4 siblings, and one set of clothes. They live in a “house” that has less than 150 sq. ft. of dirt floor, hardened mud walls, and a tin roof. Food and clean drinking water are scarce, and there is no plumbing or electricity. Before LEAP and Cornerstone sprung up nearby, these kids’ futures would have included intermittent schooling in overcrowded public schools with few resources, rampant corporal punishment, and poor academic outcomes.
Arriving at one of several local bus stops on foot before 7:00 a.m., they are picked up by one of LEAP’s clean, safe school buses. Within minutes they arrive at beautiful Naomi’s Village, normally a children’s home for 90 parentless kids, most of whom attend nearby K-12 Cornerstone Preparatory Academy daily, leaving their campus free for LEAP Preschool to use. Squeals of joy erupt as they file off the bus, don their color-coded uniforms, and join their teachers in groups of ten. The school day begins with a full tummy, thanks to a nutritious breakfast in the brightly decorated dining hall. Hands are washed in clean running water, bodies are relieved using sanitary flush toilets, and a few faces are licked of any last crumbs by 3 Labrador retrievers (Abby, Hazel, and our new puppy Panther).
What follows after that is a brain-building bonanza of play focused fun, literacy, intensive learning, singing, dancing, and loads of development packed into 6 mornings a week. Snacks and lunch refuel muscles and neurons for the tasks at hand. Children start out quiet, scared, and often malnourished on day 1. By several weeks into the 3-year-old class at this two-year long academy, they are transformed into ebullient talkers, fancy dancers, involved learners, and confident participants in life.
Last week LEAP held its monthly birthday celebrations. Sweet students smiled and laughed and ate cake, each one unique and wrought by the hands of a loving Maker, who must be so pleased with them. Seeing their pictures summed it all up for me. The buildings and grounds and trees and clothes and food and teachers and hugs…all of it really matters to their success, because each one matters infinitely and eternally, to Him. I understood again that life’s value isn’t summed up in dollars and trivial things we can own. It is better to be mined, to be discovered with wonder as diamonds once buried below the surface. Like divinely shaped treasures are the unadulterated smiles of LEAP’s children, who once could not shine so brightly. They now know they are somebody, headed somewhere, with much less fear and pain than before. With hope and purpose and the shape of a real tomorrow in view, they beam because God’s love has taken up residence within their hearts and minds.
Thank you, each one of you, for helping to make this happen. We have rooms available at our Naomi’s Village guesthouse, which is 30 yards away from LEAP. You can wake up daily to the sound of preschoolers singing, have your coffee and breakfast on the porch, and then go join in. Please come and witness this with your own heart. There are more children who need sponsors so they can have the same chance to flourish. Help us as you are able. We want to grow.
Dr. Bob Mendonsa
C.E.O. – Naomi’s Village, Inc.