Surprised by Africa

Heather Mekelburg (left) and Kylie Schnell (right) wait for elephants to cross the road.Kylie Schnell, a sophomore education major at Union College, was surprised by Africa. In the fall of 2007, she and her friend Heather Mekelburg traveled to Maxwell Academy to be student missionaries. The school is just an hour south of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and it didn’t meet Kylie’s expectations of an extremely poor, third-world country.

“Going into it, I was a little disappointed,” Kylie said. “It wasn’t as remote as I’d thought it would be.” But with dogs and barefoot children running around campus, a market full of donkeys and fruit-sellers, and water that she couldn’t drink right out of the tap, she agrees that it was an experience that she wouldn’t have been able to have in the United States.

Teaching at the elementary school on Maxwell’s campus was also a new experience for Kylie. She had 14 students in 5 grades—Kenyans, Chileans, Americans—all of whom were children of missionaries. “Teaching mission kids is different than teaching other kids,” Kylie said. “They have crazy lives. One girl had almost been kidnapped and another girl had her car gasolined. Also, English was not the first language of several of the kids, although most of them knew it well enough that class went smoothly.”

One of Kylie’s most significant experiences during her year at Maxwell really confirmed her desire to be an elementary school teacher. Two of the kids in her class had come from the Kenyan education system, which is based on memorization and rigorous testing. Their transition into the American system was tough, and they were especially struggling in science class.

“I tried some pretty crazy ways of teaching,” Kylie said. “One day I asked the class to act out the different parts of the ear. On our last test, both of the students got A’s, and they’d never gotten anything above a C on their science tests before. That made me feel really proud.”

Kylie Schnell and Heather Mekelburg with children in Kibera SlumHowever, Kylie’s desire to help kids didn’t stop with the children in her classes. On Saturdays, a group from Maxwell would drive north to minister to children in one of Nairobi’s slums. “These kids were mostly orphans or single-parent children,” Kylie said. “We played tag with them, hugged them, showed them love. They are so needy for love, and to see some consistency, to have someone come back and visit them time and time again. It shows them that they are very important.”

Kylie and Heather also made friends with Fred, one of the security guards on campus, and his wife, Margaret. The girls started visiting the couple’s house regularly and became close to them and their four children. When the town started building a new Seventh-day Adventist elementary school, Fred and Margaret were both excited and apprehensive. “We know that if God wants our kids to be at the school, that they’ll be there,” Fred said. “We just don’t know how it will happen.”

When Kylie and Heather heard about this, they both e-mailed some friends back in the U.S., explaining the situation. Between the two of them, the girls raised $2,400, a year’s tuition for the two eldest children, Faith and Nehemiah. “The kids were so excited,” Kylie said. “They showed us their schoolbooks and tried on their uniforms for us several times. It was really fun.”

Whether she was helping struggling kids in a science class get an A on a test, mingling with neighborhood children on the side of the road, or making friends with a local security guard and his family, Kylie’s entire experience in Africa was one of learning and service. “None of the kids are the same,” she said, “and it’s exciting to learn about them and how to reach out to them as individuals. I also learned that service isn’t always a big thing, like going to a foreign country to teach. It can be a small, like hugging a child. It’s not hard and it doesn’t have to cost money. I learned that I am blessed by serving others more than they are.”