Rhubarb, garlic, and parsnips for peace! What do these have to do with the Friends Peace Testimony? At Orchard Park (N.Y.) Meeting, we think they have everything to do with rooting out the seeds of war.
A few years ago, an organic farming couple brought their parsnips to meeting, asking that in exchange for them, contributions be made to Crossroads Springs Institute in Kenya to support children whose parents had died of AIDS. Soon a decorated gourd was placed on an African tablecloth to collect donations for bed nets for the children, recognizing that malaria is a primary cause of death of African children under age five.
For the last four years, Orchard Park Meeting has partnered with Kenyan Friend Dr. Meshack Isiaho and his family and staff in supporting and educating AIDS orphans at Crossroads Springs in Hamisi, Western Kenya. The mission and vision of Crossroads Springs Institute is to provide food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, and education so that orphan children will not only become self-supporting but also become leaders in service to their country. In addition to the current primary school classes, plans for the future include secondary school studies, as well as training in such skills as tailoring and computer technology.
What is it like to be a child at Crossroads Springs? Anastasia’s story is telling. This seven-year-old girl put on her pink checked uniform and walked to school the morning her mother died. She had already lost her father to AIDS. She is one of the million AIDS orphans in Kenya. At Crossroads Springs she found solace, friends, and the support of caring adults.
In 2004 my husband, Arthur, and I facilitated a group of 12 Americans and Canadians who spent two weeks at Crossroads Springs as volunteers and friends. The children sang "Welcome our visitors!" for us upon our arrival every day. They followed a lesson schedule, which was painted in bright colors on reused woven plastic sacks. Lively teachers taught math, reading, and other subjects in English, often with songs, always with writing on the blackboard painted on the wall. Small plastic chairs of many colors had taped name labels for each of the 40 children.
At recess they played games across the street on the village athletic field, which an international student group had helped build in 1962. After recess, the children lined up on the veranda to wash their hands in a basin as a teacher poured water from a jug. A healthy cup of porridge was served for snack time, prepared over an outside home fire and brought to school in a big plastic bucket.
Classes continued as we assisted local masons, tilers, electricians, and woodworkers who were working on this building’s conversion to a school. While one of us was helping tile a bathroom, a teacher came by and asked if she could have the empty tile box. She used it to make flash cards for the children, gluing beans and rope to make letters and numbers.
During classes, we were always welcome to join in singing or finger plays. It was clear from the songs that the children felt the loss of their parents: "I’ve lost my parents, what shall I do?" they sang. But they also sang of hope for the future with words like "Education is our cry!"
Dr. Isiaho named Crossroads Springs Institute for the legacy of the Operation Crossroads Africa group that brought him together with us in 1962. Through Operation Crossroads Africa, founded by Dr. James Robinson, advisor to President Kennedy in establishing the Peace Corps, Arthur (leader) and I and a group of U.S. and Canadian students spent the summer of 1962 working beside Kenyans to build the athletic field in Hamisi. Meshack was the young sub-chief asked by Chief Hezron to guide the group in meeting and understanding the community.
In 2003 Arthur and I asked Dr. Isiaho about the plight of AIDS orphans in his area. Dr. Isiaho responded, "Right now I have the names of 200 desperate children. I would give the rest of my life to helping them if I could find donors."
Since our visit in 2004, other volunteer groups have visited Crossroads Springs, teaching and learning, painting murals and playing sports with the children. There are now 210 children, and upper grades have been added. Here is a summary of accomplishments, 2004-2008:
- An unfinished tourist hotel has been converted into several classrooms, a kitchen with wood-conserving stove, a staff room, and sleeping rooms for up to 100 of the neediest children.
- The number of children served has grown from 40 in Early Childhood (Kindergarten) to Standard II (Grade 2) to 210 in Early Childhood through Standard VI (Grade 6). They are 4 ½ to 11 years old.
vLunch, a rarity in Kenyan schools, is provided, and routine health checks are made. Uniforms, shoes, and school supplies are purchased as needed.
- Classroom chairs and tables, as well as dining hall tables and benches, have been built on site.
- Sixty orphan children have been selected to be the first residents. With bunk beds and cupboards built on site and bedding purchased, the children will move in soon. Housemothers and watchmen will provide care and safety overnight.
- An underground water storage tank and roof tanks were installed to hold rainwater runoff from the roof, and a well has been drilled for fresh water.
- A building campaign has been launched to construct eight classrooms to accommodate children though Standard VIII (Grade 8), assuring students the opportunity to complete Primary School. Ground was broken in September 2007, and the first floor is under construction. Progress depends on funding, mostly from abroad. In an area of poverty, local funds are scarce, but people bring gifts of food, and the staff has taken up a collection to support a Crossroads Springs fundraiser in the United States.
- A partnership formed with Both-YourHands, another U.S. nonprofit, has led to small business loans enabling 100 widows and guardians to start seven small businesses. The businesses provide income for families, as well as lower-cost products such as food and uniforms for Crossroads Springs.
When it became clear that the original building could not hold all the children as they moved up through the grades, as well as new entrants in Early Childhood Education, Orchard Park Meeting determined to raise funds for a new classroom building, as requested by Meshack Isiaho. The design and plans were made in Kenya in keeping with the Crossroads Springs Management Committee’s assessment of children’s needs and government requirements. One Sunday, Orchard Park Friends arrived at meeting to find a standing display of the proposed building, rhubarb crumble with recipes, and a donation box. Thus a Friend’s homegrown rhubarb, baking skills, and artwork launched the building fund campaign.
Members of Orchard Park Meeting have felt Spirit-led to carry out the Peace Testimony through raising awareness and funds, and extending a hand in friendship to the caregivers and children at Crossroads Springs. We envision a world without war, in which all children have the opportunity to develop their gifts through nurturing and education. We know, as Stephen Lewis writes in his book Race Against Time, that AIDS prevalence in Africa declines with every higher level of education completed.
Faith and Practice of New York Yearly Meeting quotes London Yearly Meeting of 1937: "We have seen that peace stands on a precarious footing as long as there is unrelieved poverty and subjection." Meshack Isiaho tells us bluntly that children without parents and no money often turn to prostitution and carjacking to survive. As his daughter once said to us, "Poverty makes people do things they would not otherwise do." Children in school with hopes for a future life do not join rampaging gangs.
In November 2007 Dr. Isiaho and his wife Helen came to the United States on a friendship and medical visit. They talked with schoolchildren from elementary to high school, meeting young people who had supported Crossroads Springs through lemonade sales, a school supplies program, and concerts. They worshiped and talked with Friends, leading one member of our meeting to say, "Meshack is now my family." When the children of Orchard Park Meeting heard that the Crossroads Springs children have only their school uniforms to wear all day in school, they decided to do something. They made envelopes decorated with cut out pictures of shorts and shirts to ask Friends to make contributions for play clothes. Meshack and Helen said they were surprised that people in the United States really care about African AIDS orphans and work so hard for their care and education.
Orchard Park Friends realize that to spread awareness of the orphans’ needs and raise sufficient funds for the desperately needed building, they must engage others so they are inspired by the hopes of the children for a full life through education. To meet this challenge, the meeting appointed a Sustainability Committee that brings together community members and Friends. Communities and schools across the United States and Canada have been moved to join in this peace-building activity. We need and welcome all partners of all ages! Please see the website http://www.crossroadssprings.org for information and ideas, and contact Alison Hyde, Assistant Clerk for Crossroads Springs, Orchard Park Friends Meeting.
Does our partnership with Crossroads Springs make a difference? Is it realistic to think our witness to the Peace Testimony through relationship with Crossroads Springs is effective? We know that 210 children are safe, healthy, and learning. We know that teachers, construction workers, cooks, cleaners, and watchmen are employed and can feed their families. Small business loans are fostering businesses for widows and guardians who learn to make uniforms and grow food for the school. We know we are in a valued professional and family relationship.
When a big bag of aromatic garlic cloves appeared at a recent Meeting for Worship for Business, and the gourd stood ready for donations, we knew we would wholeheartedly continue our efforts for peace through partnership with Crossroads Springs.