Blaine graduate recounts time at Kenyan orphanage

Published on Wed, Jun 10, 2009 by Jack Kintner

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   When Shanelle Freeman got to Kenya, Africa, last February on what was her first trip outside north America to volunteer in a rural orphanage, she didn’t like it.

“The food was bad, and the conditions were so primitive,” she said, “and in fact I got pretty homesick for the first week or so.”

Then she began getting involved and everything changed. “Looking back, it was really a fulfilling experience,” Freeman said, “and I really felt like I helped a lot of people.” She wants to go back in December and stay longer, perhaps as long as a year.

The primary task is to become involved with the people, she said, adding that once you get into a place like that, the needs are quite obvious. “There’s so much to do. If someone asks ‘What do you do when you get there?’ then you know they’ve never been.”

Someone’s clothes need mending, Freeman said, “and that’s where I started. I didn’t sew before I left but it’s not rocket science.” Before long she was transporting sick kids to hospitals in neighboring villages, often carrying them on her back and sometimes paying for the medical care herself.

“For example, Joseph is an eight-year-old kid who mangled his foot on a bicycle,” Freeman said. “We wrapped it but overnight it got infected and was getting pretty bad.” Freeman told about taking him to a hospital in another nearby town that involved her carrying the child on her back for over a mile through the jungle.

“He had worms in the infection,” she said, “but they fixed it. When he was done I was asked to pay for it. I did, and for a few other kids, too. It’s pretty cheap but it’s still way beyond the farmer’s ability to pay.” Within a fairly short time, she said, the child was cavorting around playing soccer with his friends.

Freeman, a 2008 graduate of Blaine high school, is active at North Bay Christ the King Church along with her family. But her involvement in Africa was not to do missionary work for the church but to help a Kikuyu couple, Duncan and Lucy Ndegwa, with their orphanage in Gathiga. The placement was done through a Christian referral agency called Fadhili Helpers that is open to anyone willing to help out, Freeman said.

“Most of the kids were four to six years old, but there were some boys as old as 23 who were still in school. They have a British system that’s longer than ours,” she said.

She said her overwhelming impression when she first arrived was the heat. “It was really hot and dusty.” She and Canadian Mike Duff, another volunteer, were dropped off in Kikuyu “and we were the only white people in the village. People would gather around us and begin saying ‘mzungu,’ Swahili for ‘White Person.’”

“The sky was this deep blue and the clouds seemed whiter than they are here,” Freeman said. “After a couple of days in Kikuyu we went to the children’s home in Gathiga. The people speak English but also Swahili and their village dialect they call Sheng.”

She saw desperate poverty when she participated in taking three children out of a one-room shed to the orphanage. “The mom willingly sent them on their way because she had no way to take care of them.”

Freeman said she has a lot of stories about becoming involved with the children at the orphanage, including Patrick, a young boy who needed a sponsor. “So I did it myself,” she said. “He’s really a neat kid, loves to dance and gets the other kids dancing, too.”

When Freeman came home last month she said Blaine looked a little different to her. “We have it so easy here. I went into my room and said to myself that I’ve got all this stuff. I don’t need it.”

Freeman is available to give talks and a slide show about her time in Africa. For more information, call 393-1069 or e-mail The website for the orphanage where she worked is