By LAURA TESTER
Three generations of a Lacombe area family are moving forward in 2016 with greater purpose to give back after experiencing a life-changing trip together to Kenya.
Joe and Linda Skwarchuk, along with daughter Julie Will and son-in-law Doug and their children Kelsey and Kristin, are embracing this year differently following a trip with A Better World Canada. The family was deeply affected by what they experienced in the East African country and now want to contribute in greater ways, both in Kenya and back home.
The Skwarchuks, longtime residents of Lacombe, are sponsoring and raising money for Joe’s Kitchen. The C$10,000 kitchen will be built at an A Better World Canada-sponsored school in rural Central Kenya.
Normally, the entire family take camping trips together, but when the chance came to travel with the renowned Central Alberta-based international development organization, they all went for it. In late October, the group flew to Kenya — where unemployment is at an estimated 40 per cent despite boasting East Africa’s largest economy (CIA World Factbook).
None of the family had travelled to a country for humanitarian purposes. Kelsey, 19, recalled the family going to Mexico but that was “strictly vacation.”
As with any A Better World trip, this family wouldn’t be visiting all the tourist hotspots. Instead, they trekked into some of Kenya’s poorest, remote areas — places where no other humanitarian organizations work in.
The impact on the entire family was huge, right from the start. The A Better World team of about 20 sponsors first ventured into Jerusalem, a small community in North Central Kenya.
Kelsey was startled that people were living in such abject poverty.
“These people are living in lean-tos, they have no shoes, no water,” said Kelsey, now working and living in Red Deer.
Sometimes the family was saddened because of what many impoverished Kenyans have experienced growing up.
On the way to one orphanage, they were told about Alice, whose mother had thrown her into the hole of an outhouse. Someone quickly rescued her after hearing her cries. The baby, who had maggots coming out of her ears and nose, was taken to hospital. She almost didn’t survive.
“Hearing this story had all of us in tears,” said Julie. “When we arrived at the orphanage, it was so moving just to meet her and see what a little girl she has become.”
Alice, eight, is now thriving at the orphanage. The Wills asked to sponsor a child and were later told that Alice was the one they’d be helping, so their initial introduction was all the more special.
The entire clan was also moved to see joy in the midst of extreme poverty — an experience that would change their views of back home.
The family attended the grand opening of a kindergarten school, named in memory of Red Deer toddler Madison Switzer, and while there, some mothers flooded into the office to express their thankfulness.
“They danced and sang like nothing we have ever seen before,” said Julie, who along with others was pulled in to dance and celebrate with them. “They were so happy and excited to celebrate this tiny building that their children would be using.”
It was moments like these where the family would later reflect on and feel they could do more to help the poor at home and abroad.
The hustle and bustle of the Christmas season was erupting when the family returned to Canada in early November.
Julie came back with more gratitude. Celebrating Christmas was different for her, too.
“It was a little less gifts and a lot more family,” said Julie.
Joe and Linda planned to do extensive home renovations, but that didn’t seem so important anymore.
“We decided that we don’t really need to do that so much when the need is so great out there,” said Linda. “It definitely changed our outlook.”
The couple worked with A Better World co-founder Eric Rajah on the Joe’s Kitchen project in the community of Tulwap. A Better World has already sponsored eight classrooms, with another three on their way this year at the school for nursery to high school age.
Joe’s Kitchen will replace the leaky and poorly ventilated, wooden shack where staff cooked for the nursery schoolchildren. The new brick building will have two stoves, a chimney and a concrete floor.
The Skwarchuks invested $5,000 of their own money and raised $1,000 so far.
Rajah said the entire family has close connections with his — the Skwarchuks were neighbours when he and his wife Candi first got married and now the Wills are. Julie used to work at his computer business and the Skwarchuks have been longtime supporters of A Better World.
For Rajah, it was “very special” to finally have them all come on a trip.
“It’s nice when people see the need, they have compassion and decide to act on it,” he added.
Seeing Third World poverty for the first time was eye-opening for Joe, who is in his late 60s.
“The best money I have ever spent (was to go there),” he said. “It changed my life after seeing how people live over there. We live like kings here. The kids have nothing (in Kenya) and yet they’re happy.”
To go with family and especially his grandchildren, Kelsey, and Kristin, now 15, was rewarding, too.
Kelsey praised Rajah and A Better World for all they do towards making Kenyans self-sustainable. Canadians and others sponsor projects, the locals build the schools and health clinics, and the community partners with them on maintenance.
“It was so different to go with my whole family and especially with my grandparents — to see through their reactions and emotions,” she said.
Kelsey is now more committed than ever to contribute through her vocation. She plans to become a veterinary technician and return to Kenya to help.
“The livestock are fairly well looked after because they are people’s income, but the cats and dogs don’t get the attention,” she said.
Julie and Doug, who run Foxwood Homes in Lacombe, are also seeing this year as a way to increase their community work. The Wills live on an acreage between Blackfalds and Lacombe.
“We definitely came back with the hope that our business would be successful in 2016 so that we would be able to do a little more to give back this year,” said Julie.
They also want to stay focused this year on less materialism and more on fostering strong ties with family and friends.
“The Kenyans showed us that happiness doesn’t come from things,” said Julie. “They have so little and yet are so very happy and grateful for what they do have.”
The Wills also plan to sponsor an A Better World project of their own, involve their daughters in the fundraising, and return to Kenya for the opening.