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A Foundation in ROCK

By Tom Larson, Sun Tribune

There are few places on Earth right now that are witnessing the suffering and strife that engulf the African nation of Kenya. A political power struggle born of recent, controversial election results have ignited riots and ethnic killings, and there doesn't appear to be end to the madness.

It's not the place one would expect to find unconditional love, but an area organization readily finds it there, especially for its most vulnerable inhabitants, and is doing all it can to see it spread.

Since 2004, Outfitters for Adventure has been making trips to Kenya to bring its ministry to orphaned and destitute children there through its outreach mission program ROCK - Reach Out to the Children of Kenya. At home, Outfitters has been seeking sponsors willing to donate a small sum to place the orphans in the homes of Kenyan families and help them support the new child in their midst, or help families which have lost a parent keep their children in their homes.

"The Kenyan people are so willing to take in more children -- even though they have several children of their own - if they can get just a little financial help," said Jan Nieland, a rural Starbuck resident and member of Morris Community Church. "Sponsors are not only helping that orphan but families, too."

Morris minister Neil Thielke founded Outfitters for Adventure in 2004. During his first trip to Kenya he met two pastors, named Kennedy and James. They are responsible for the religious well-being of a network of eight Kenyan congregations.

As Nieland said, "they'll never run out of orphans in Africa," due to diseases like AIDS and malaria, and now because of the fighting and killing that erupted following contested election between Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki against opposition leader Raila Odinga.

Many observers say Kibaki rigged the elections to win, which ignited the first wave of violence. After some weeks of calm as the two leaders worked on a power-sharing arrangement, violence again swelled when the talks broke down earlier this week.

The unrest has produced many orphans, but even before it, through discussions with the Kenyan pastors, Thielke became convinced that raising money to build orphanages was not the answer. The ROCK program was developed instead.

ROCK started with a list of 10 children who needed homes and the group set out to find sponsors.

In July 2004, with the money committed by two sponsors - equal to $17 per month, two orphans were placed in Kenyan homes. Currently, ROCK has 61 sponsors for Kenyan orphans placed in Christian homes within the congregations of Kennedy and James, Nieland said.

For those who doubt the impact $17 can have, Nieland offers some sobering statistics. In some areas of Kenya, an infusion of that modest sum doubles the household income. In others, $17 represents between 30 percent and 50 percent of the home's monthly income.

"There are so many orphans there that anything we can do to help with that makes a big difference," Nieland said. "Generally, the people in these areas are very poor."

Homes are made of cement blocks or mud, and some still have thatched roofs and most have dirt floors. Cooking is done indoors in fire pits. Foodstuffs are available but modest.

An eight-member group traveled to Kisii-land earlier this year. The group included Thielke, Nieland, Angie Franey, of Morris, and other members from Outfitters groups in Fargo and Grand Forks.

Kisii so far has been free of the violence raging in other parts of the country, making it a haven for those displaced by the political and social upheaval. The group visited a cathedral in Kisii and were told that more than 18,500 refugees sought help through the church, including many orphans, Nieland said.

The Outfitters group pledged to find sponsors for 20 of the orphans who came through the cathedral, and Kennedy and James located those 20 kids in short order. Now, Nieland said, "we're looking for 20 people willing to step up and say, 'Yes, I'll sponsor one of 20 kids.' "

Outfitters makes sure it knows where sponsors' money is going, conducting interviews with the families and the orphans to ensure the money is being used for its intended purpose. Groups that make the trip each year pack light in carry-on bags and devote their checked luggage to clothes for the children and families. Other necessities are taken in donation, such as mosquito netting, bicycles for pastors, mattresses and home repair items, Nieland said.

The trips aren't cheap and Outfitters members fund their own trips. As such, a different team likely will make the trips each year. Nieland, for one, said she's not sure when she'll make another trip to visit. But her one trip left an impression.

"There's something about going over there and actually experiencing it that really brings it home," she said.