“I just needed to,” said the 22-year-old from Champlin who also learned her name means “I’m happy” in some African languages.
At 17, Mengelkoch started searching for ways to make her dream a reality. But her parents wanted her to get a college degree first.
In May 2012, she graduated from Mankato State with a degree in Child Development and Family Studies. As her college years were winding down, Mengelkoch discovered International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ), an organization that facilitates international volunteering for more than 4,000 volunteers annually. One of the many places they send volunteers is Africa.
While the organization coordinates volunteer efforts from one week to six months, Mengelkoch was ready to dive in for the long haul. Since she met her parents’ expectations of getting a college degree, they helped fund the $6,000 five-month trip.
But this isn’t your father’s experience in a third world country. This is 2012 and while the connection was sometimes sketchy, Menglekoch would have access to internet and set up a blog to record her experience. Thus her blog, “Kenna in Kenya” was born.
In her initial posts, Mengelkoch talks about being excited for her adventure and thanks friends and family for donating toys for her to bring to the children she will work with in Africa. She didn’t know much about her volunteer assignment before arriving other than she requested to be in Nairobi and to work with children.
Upon arrival in Africa, she was admittedly in culture shock.
On June 5, 2012 she wrote:
“The town is very small that [I’m] in, it kinda reminds me of a Mexican town with small markets. Donkeys pulling carts. It’s also a long walk up hill to get home from town, close to a half hour hike. Which means I was really happy when I got up the huge hill and realized I forgot to pick up water for the night. At least then I won’t have to use the bathroom!! I was told not to take pictures in town because it is considered very rude, so I’m sorry there have been very few pictures.”
She started out her experience staying with a host family and working in a school lunch program.
“The students have to go to school to get a free meal, which is often their only meal,” she said. While she thought the program was a good one, being assigned to a kitchen with no cooking skills was proving not to be quite the match Mengelkoch intended.
Eventually, she learned she would be reassigned. While working in the kitchen, Mengelkoch recounts some very real aspects of Kenyan living including how many of the children that attend the school have ringworm and aren’t allowed to have hair to prevent the spread of lice.
Mengelkoch moved on to help out in the orphanage Future Hope and Baby Center just outside Nairobi. Here, she met several kids and one woman who left an indelible impression on her.
Jane, the founding director of Future Hope and Baby Center, visited an orphanage in 2006. While there, it was reported that there were 2 abandoned children in need of rescue but the orphanage could not assist the younger of the two girls, named Hope.
Jane could not walk away so she took the baby home with her. Unable to move because she was suffering from rickets, Jane took Hope to a hospital. After two months of proper feeding and care, Hope was finally able to walk.
The experience inspired Jane and her family to help other children. Word of Jane’s kindness spread and she was soon brought more and more children.
To date, the Future Hope and Baby Center is home to 19 children between 5 weeks and 8 years old.
What makes Jane’s story even more awe-inspiring is that in order to fulfill this mission, she walked away from a posh life she was afforded being a teacher and wife of a politician to help these children. She now lives in a house where the water and electricity are regularly turned off and she struggles to pay the bills.
Mengelkoch went to Africa with a head full of images and preconceived notions. She dreamed of seeing Pride Rock (of Lion King fame) and experiencing a new culture. She had the chance to do these things since IVHQ periodically hosted trips for volunteers to go out and see more of the country they were serving in. She is grateful for the experience but her emotions have run the gamut. From pity for abandoned children and respect for their resilience, to frustration at watching people in poverty behave complacent about their lot in life happy to let others carry the workload, to awe for a woman who gave up everything to help others.
The lessons were many but not exactly what Mengelkoch always expected.
She came away with a newfound respect for food waste.
“I have a huge thing with food,” she said. “There is so much food waste and people are dying for that food.”
She also came away with a greater respect for immigrants.
“It’s really hard to move,” she said. “It felt weird, all the cultural differences and language barriers. To be willing to move to another country — it’s terrifying.”
But she also came away learning more about the politics, how it changes people and what it really means to make a difference in the world.
Many people tell her she’s “made such a difference” and what she’s done volunteering in another country is “so great.”
In her final blog entry before returning home, Mengelkoch sounds off on that.
“I appreciate it, really I do. And I’m all for the optimism, but I came here because I wanted to, because it was MY dream. If I really wanted to “make a difference” I wouldn’t be sitting in a third world country with an iPad and a $150 rain jacket (granted it was on sale but really who would pay that much for a RAIN JACKET). To make a difference you can’t just go somewhere and live like people live and think that you are changing anyone but yourself.
Since I’ve been here these kids have gotten close to, and left by 15 different volunteers. Making a difference isn’t living in a shed (which is pretty good living Here) and eat rice and lentils everyday (which means I ate everyday, unlike a lot of people)…. That’s not making a difference, that’s just walking in someone else’s shoes.
Sure maybe putting a smile on a kid’s face is worth it, trust me its an amazing feeling. But I also feel like I’m just putting a band-aid on a gun shoot wound. It’s not fixing anything.
That being said I have gotten to know some of the most amazing, annoying, funny, terrible, loving, angry kids while I’ve been here. They have changed me, I haven’t changed them.
Like there is Angel. Actually Angel isn’t who I want to talk about, angels mother is. Angels mother was raped when she was 13-years-old by her uncle. And before she gave birth to and named her baby Angel she found future hope baby center and asked Jane to take care of her baby until she had finished school, in return she would work there on her school holidays for free. That’s an amazing person. A 14-year-old who was able to make that decision, she deserves to be told how amazing she is and how her actions are making a difference.
Or there is Munge who is I believe 8, he came to the orphanage 1 year ago when he got lost from his parents, and they still haven’t been found (and they haven’t been looking for him either) he isn’t mad or bitter or sad. He is THE happiest kid I’ve ever met.
Or let’s talk about Jane. She gave up her posh life style, being a politician’s wife, she gave up working, and having extra money and living a nice lifestyle to help these kids. Would you be able to live off rice and lentils for the rest of your life with no running water to help some kids? I wish I could say I would, but the truth is most of us wouldn’t. She is an amazing person, what she’s doing makes a difference.”
Don’t be fooled by Mengelkoch’s moment of cynicism. She returned to Champlin last fall and is motivated to find a way to continue helping, no matter how small her contribution may be. In the case of Future Hope and Baby Center, she hopes to start a fund to help with their expenses. She has also recently moved to California to be with her fiance, Eric Wentsworth. He is in the military and stationed in the Mojave Desert.
“The Mojave Desert? I’ve been to Africa,” she said. “Bring it on.”
To find out more about Mengelkoch’s experiences in Africa, read the rest of “Kenna in Kenya” at www.mckenna-mengelkoch.tumblr.com/.
Contact Mindy Mateuszczyk at email@example.com