On mission trips, why one blogger got it wrong

by ONE member Sharon Runge

Several months ago, I read a blog on ONE’s Facebook page from an author stating that she didn’t believe sending teams on mission trips was worthwhile, and in some cases, might hurt.

It caused me to pause and deeply discern whether my past five trips to Kenya with teams of university students, educators, and medical professionals were worthwhile.

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Me at one of the 55 partner schools Kenya Connect works with in rural Wamunyu.

With an upcoming trip a few months away, I thought deep and hard whether we were making a difference and helping to change lives or was it just a “feel good” trip for the participants. Would it be better to use that money for direct services or were we making a difference?

As I began our journey with a team of seven others, including three college students from William and Mary, Colby, and Georgetown, a librarian, engineer, physical therapist, and teacher trainer, I had the thought of the blog on my mind.

The result: after two productive weeks in Kenya, I decided that in many cases, and at least with our work in Kenya, the blogger got it wrong.

I work with the non-profit/NGO, Kenya Connect (KC). Founded in 2002 by American Tim Gregory and Kenyan James Musyoka, KC strives to connect and ignite youth and educators globally for the purpose of promoting a peaceful world and developing global citizens for the 21st century. We do so by employing local field staff to insure we are meeting the needs of the community.

Over 80% of past volunteers have stayed involved with Kenya Connect and continue to help those who suffer from extreme poverty

Over 80% of past volunteers have stayed involved with Kenya Connect and continue to help those who suffer from extreme poverty

Kenya Connect works in rural Wamunyu with 55 partner schools. Almost all of the schools are without electricity, running water and school supplies. Most of the school children live in extreme poverty and have very limited resources. The community highly values education and each school has a large and active parents’ council, and the local community chiefs are also involved.

On this current trip, we held two professional development workshops for teachers on literacy and how to use books and print materials in their classrooms. Teachers came from miles for this workshop, often on foot – even on a Saturday.

They are eager to learn more effective ways of teaching and to use resources in the Kenya Connect Learning Resource Centers that otherwise would be unavailable to them. We taught composting classes with a demonstration composter that was built by a local craftsman and we taught silk screening as a means of a microbusiness.

Our university students met with secondary students funded through The School Fund to talk to them about careers, college admission and scholarship.

Our physical therapist did assessments with children at the Special School for children with physical and cognitive disabilities and we conducted science experiments with students in several of our partner schools – these experiments had been created by their partner school in Maryland.

Little boys doing  a science experiment

Little boys doing a science experiment

Throughout our two weeks we heard the sentiment over and over, we love partnering with Kenya Connect and thank you for coming to be with us.

Part of our success is that we employ a field staff, local Kenyans, who run our operations in Kenya. They have worked with Kenya Connect since our inception and have worked to learn the needs of the community and have developed action plans to meet these needs.

They work closely with the heads of schools, community leaders and teachers. When we built the LRC and did school renovations we hired local craftsmen which helps the economy. When our teams come over we do work that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to and our goal is to empower and teach, so that they can become self-sufficient.

One of the most important aspects of bringing teams to a well-run NGO is to see, to listen, to smell, and to be in relationship with the community. One team member commented, “I had seen pictures of the past trips and heard presentations; nothing could capture being here.” Over 80% of our past team members have stayed involved with Kenya Connect and have helped raise money to continue to help educate those living in extreme poverty. They have shared their stories and they have become global citizens with a greater understanding of the term “extreme poverty.”

I understand some “mission and philanthropy” trips miss the mark. But I contend that there are many that truly make a difference for the developing world and in helping communities to grow.

ONE member Sharon Runge has been volunteering with Kenya Connect since 2006 and has traveled to rural Wamunyu six times. She recently was named Executive Director of Kenya Connect and is passionate about education and helping children open their worlds to knowledge. She also loves to hike, read, travel and run, especially with her husband and two daughters.