Each morning the children carry the heavy plastic jugs they have filled with water through grassy paths and leaf littered woods to the classroom. Their shoes and boots are spattered with dirt and mud, badges of their toughness. Along the path, they gather sticks and dried vegetation for kindling to start the day’s fire. Once it catches, a metal grate is placed across to hold the pot to heat up the water for washing or tea. They wash their hands from a clay urn (after all it is Covid) in preparation for this exciting phone call.
From under the makeshift tent, the children gather to meet their friends on the other side of the world. The cellular service is spotty though, and it takes several attempts and changing positions to connect. We eagerly pass the phone to show ourselves and our unusual outdoor classroom to our friend, thousands of miles away in…Kibera, Kenya.
For several years now we have involved our students here in Ithaca, NY, with the Crossing Thresholds’ sponsorship program. My husband and I have a small home schooling “school”, The Finnstitute, which offers children ages 8-12, academically enriching and creative curricula three days a week. This year Covid had us getting creative; we decided for the fall to move our classroom outside to our land in rural Danby. For our children, this rustic classroom was a welcome experience, as these are kids who come from homes with alternative lifestyles and appreciation for the outdoors. “Finnstitute in the Fields'' looked very different in many ways than previous years, however our connection with our Kibera students would not be broken.
In preparation for this call, we explore our large map of Africa, finding Nairobi. We have been studying maps in all forms, geographic, topographic, political, geologic etc., so it is not only a way to “place” where in the world our friends are, but also to extend our geography lessons. We meet Derric in his home with his mother, as it is after school hours. We have been studying shelters, through history and across cultures so it is a rare opportunity for us to have a “window” into Derric’s life in their simple, small, sparse dwelling in Kibera. We have discussed in the context of our shelter studies, the material and monetary resources that impact shelter. Now we witness this reality in a very personal way. Usually we “visit” from their school to our classroom in downtown Ithaca. We note interestingly, that both are constructed from cinder blocks. The commonalities of life experiences are limited though.
Through our years of connection with CT, we collect supplies, make cards and decorate pencil boxes, all while exploring with our students the circumstances, conditions and challenges of life for the children in Kibera. We discuss that even though their parents choose to homeschool them, that they are privileged to live in the United States where EVERY child has the right to a free education in contrast to Kenya.
Our children are enjoying their rustic classroom in the fields and woods, but at the end of the day, they go home to their warm, comfortable houses, built structurally safe and solid from the elements. They enjoy home cooked meals made from plentiful organically grown vegetables from their CSA or home garden. They know whenever they are hungry, they can freely open their large, ever humming refrigerator or well stocked kitchen cabinet to find all sorts of nutritious fare. They know that after a day in the woods, they can get in a hot bath and wash away the day’s dirt and shampoo the smokey scent from their hair, from eating and heating around the fire. They can anticipate curling into their cozy and comfy beds, while perhaps being read a bedtime story. They can drift off to sleep with not a worry or care for their physical safety, their next meal, their today or their tomorrow.
Through the years, we have shared much more than school supplies and stickers. We have sung many songs and recited plenty of poems; we have shown our different Kibera friends through our classroom window, the white snow falling and the Canada geese that live on the inlet that runs to our Cayuga Lake. We have learned simple Swahili phrases for and from our Kibera friends. We have asked many questions and we have answered many of theirs.
By giving our children a window into the lives of their Kibera peers, they have been given a mirror to their own. It awakens an appreciation for all that they may take for granted and stir a compassion and caring they may carry with them throughout their lives. We can only hope that for our Kibera friends, the window into our children’s lives has as lasting and meaningful an impact.
My family’s connection with Crossing Thresholds began in 2014 with an offer to join a family friend on a trip to Kenya for a mission. When I asked how she found out about this organization, I laughed as she described how her niece in San Francisco heard from her coworker who heard Carter Via speaking on NPR during her lunch break. I was almost positive I would never join the trip and dismissed the idea as small talk. But that night, I looked into CTs website (then CCT) Grassroots? Human connection? Cultural integration? Intrigued and hopeful, I read on.
I spoke to my husband, Jon, about my growing interest in joining a trip. At that time, we could not afford for the two of us to go (coming from Seattle), but knowing my long time struggle to find “the right organization”, he grabbed my shoulders, looking me square in the eyes: “you’re going”. My friend was not able to join in the end, so I decided to just go, having never met anyone from CT nor having met her niece (and coworker).
Fast forward to July, I shot myself up with every required travel vaccine, over-purchased “necessities” and made a handful of inquiries to CT wondering what I could be useful for.
I felt nervous, intimidated, excited, and eager to essentially prove to myself, that I have something to give. After I arrived in Kenya though, what I wanted, changed.
As many trip participants now know, a week in Kibera can unveil emotions and self reflection that one may not have known existed. My experience left me with admiration for a rich culture and wanting more of the CT trademark human-connection. From my first soul-connection with a student and staff member at FAFU, to the range of expression in evening Reflections (everybody cries at some point) to the Kenyan countryside and discomforts-- ants, baboons, and bad bowels, oh my!-- I got raw and real and left Kenya with many CT participants knowing a depth of me that I had yet to unearth at home. I think it helped that I didn’t have my family there to comfort me. And I learned that the less you expect, rather, want out of the trip, the more you gain.
After returning home and emptying it of excess stuff (it happens), my husband who had mostly experienced other cultures from the view of the USMC, and who had only heard from my experience with CT, decided he NEEDED to go. So... he one-upped me and signed up for CT’s first Kilimanjaro fundraiser and the 2015 summer trip. His experience being on the school construction crew, connecting with the kids and trip participants and completing a feat at over 18,000 feet high- added to our collective perception of what CT and Africa means to us. His experience added more people to our growing “heart family”. For the 2016 Summer trip, after Jon had already joined on the January trip, we finally convinced a good friend to join us and traveled as a family with our seven year old daughter in tow. I knew we loved our CT community and that we’d always be along for the ride, but watching our daughter join in with children (who went nuts over her presence- and long hair) in song, dance and play... listening to her share her child’s point of view with a group of adults cemented our continued efforts with CT. Since that trip, we have joined several more, and occasionally show up at CT fundraisers held every Fall.
This mission of generating thoughtful cultural connections, educating and nurturing children, and providing sustainable opportunities to communities in need is something that one random trip awakened us to. And having seen it first hand, as much as we have now, it is a cause us Cooks choose to stand behind.
CT Trip Participant
Writing about my Kenyan experience should be as easy as breathing, and yet, it’s not. These experiences are deeply personal and can bring out the best and worst in me. To be separated from the comfort of your life in this way is to be broken down and built back up. If your heart was broken you did something right.
The experiences I have had in both Nicaragua and Kenya have shaped my identity and are among my earliest childhood memories. I vaguely remember wandering around a construction site when I was 5 in rural Nicaragua and going on adventures with local kids who I could not understand and who could not understand me. I remember coming home when I was in the 2nd grade and instead of talking about summer camp I had learned to mix cement and lay cinder blocks. At 9 I went to Kenya for the first time. I walked into the Kibera slum blissfully engaged but largely unaware of what I was seeing. I was a child. I lived to explore -- to be in the moment, and play.
I am now 24 years old and I have been to Kenya 12 times. So, why does it matter? Everyone may have a different answer to this question, but for me, these experiences have grown in me an intense gratitude and an enduring sense of responsibility to be a steward in the world. The power of these gifts hinge on my capacity to bring them home and integrate them into my everyday life. It’s easy to make grand claims about how we want to be, but it’s another thing entirely to make choices that break us away from the dominant culture and its idols. Too often we choose routine over conviction and comfort over reform.
We have an obligation to disrupt our own lives when it’s in service to others and we have an obligation to seek out opportunities to do so. As Martin Luther King Jr said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” To live within one's conviction is to live in community with the world.
When I speak I want it to be a reflection of the knowledge I learned and the stories I was told. With my actions I want to be intentional, selfless, and love unconditionally. Some days I fail, but I can stand on the stepping stones paved by all the experiences and friendships that were given to me and I will always be grateful for them.
leg·a·cy: n. anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor
My grandmother's legacy has contributed to many of the accomplishments her grandchildren celebrate today.
I was 12-years-old when I found out my grandmother was illiterate, she had never gone to school and didn't know how to read or write. As I passed her a birthday card someone had sent her she quietly passed it back and told me she couldn't read it. That shocking moment has had a profound impact on my life. It's when it clicked: the act of encouragement is invaluable. The way my grandmother encouraged her children to go to school is the same way my mother has encouraged me to pursue my goals.
It could be intimidating to encourage your child to take an unfamiliar path. I remember telling my mother that I was joining the Peace Corps; leaving for two years to serve in a community in Guatemala. While the respect of my mother is paramount and she could have easily convinced me otherwise, she supported me throughout. Living in a developing country was a constant reminder of the circumstances from which my grandmother persevered. As I pleaded with my students to continue their schooling against all odds, my mere presence was my strongest argument; the granddaughter of a woman who only knew how to sign her name.
In working with Crossing Thresholds, I am excited to be part of the schools, programs, and experiences that will influence the future generations of Kibera. Like many in our Crossing Thresholds community, I eagerly anticipate our next trip. I am beyond excited to hug our school directors, to shake hands with our student leaders, to hear our music team perform, to simply be huddled by endless hope and possibilities.
To our students, I could promise you, you are your ancestors' wildest dreams.
Why We Do What We Do
Does anyone ever do anything from pure motives? I think not. Purity would require a person to know him or herself much better than the average person does, AND then to override the muddled morass of one’s feelings, biases, and ego needs. Perhaps it’s best to say we can only work to be more conscious and aligned with our better selves.
Why did I go to Kenya for the first time? I went because someone invited me to go. I went because my personality craves the adrenaline of the next adventure. I went because I imagined meeting people in “need”, and I am guaranteed to learn more about the world and myself from their mirror. I also went because power and privilege are largely indifferent to the suffering of those without power. That truth impedes the spiritual evolution of the human family.
Why do I keep going back to Kenya, and remain committed to taking others on the journey? Well, I go because I have a love affair going with our school directors and the children in our schools. I go because too many white-faced people arrived in Africa as takers, not givers. I go because every year too many tourists come without any real exposure to the plight of the average person. I go because talent requires opportunity, and opportunity requires each one of us to do our part.
How would I summarize my motivation for traveling to another part of the world, and offering myself to the needed work? I don’t know. It’s hard to summarize. It’s not really guilt. It’s not any illusion that I can save another person. It’s more a conviction – that every human being is responsible for creating a future that pulls hard for the underdog. If we ALL gave our mixed motives to that project, can you imagine how much joy and hope would be unleashed?
Not everyone believes in Christmas. More accurately, not everyone believes God showed up in human form a few thousand years ago in the Middle East. No problem.
But the Christmas story, and its message, is worth believing. Underneath the trappings, the story is about how universal and far reaching LOVE needs to be. It’s simple. Love doesn’t leave out children born to poor parents. Love doesn’t ignore those without a voice, or those without opportunity. In fact, love is a proactive force seeking out those in forgotten places like Bethlehem, Bridgeport and Kibera. In some real way, love favors those places.
The Christmas story is equally about the resilient and generative quality of love. When love goes missing in a home or community, it is always lurking – waiting to be reborn. Love is infinite. Love does not give up. Love sees ‘what is possible’. Love waits for ambassadors to realize its dream. The dream belongs to all of us.
Crossing Thresholds believes in this story. In other words, we believe in the power of love which keeps finding a way. To all of our donors and sponsors, thank you for being part of the way. To all of our trip participants, thank you for being part of the way. To all of our school directors, teachers and students, thank you for being part of the way. The way is love – the greatest proactive force in the world. In whatever form makes sense to you, choose to believe.
“If you aren’t grateful for what you already have, what makes you think you would be happy with more.”
The presence of gratitude in a person’s life is a curious thing. In the United States where “luxury” items are enjoyed by a huge percentage of the population, anxiety and depression plague countless lives. At almost every level of society, people enjoy an abundance of stuff – shoes, clothes, computers, phones, and apps for nearly everything the imagination can conjure. Thus the obvious question: why do people who have so much seem so anxious and dissatisfied?
The answer is surely complex. But one thing is sure. We have been conditioned to believe that the acquisition of stuff and material abundance are essential to happiness. If this were actually true, most Americans would be brimming with joy. They would see their relative good fortune, and wake up each day to count their blessings. Yet this kind of perspective is fleeting at best.
A trip to Kibera (Kenya) with Crossing Thresholds is one possible corrective. The experience promises to disrupt the average person’s assumptions. How can people without decent shoes, nothing but second hand clothing, no big screen TV or laptop … be as positive as they are? How do they wake up and wear a smile on their face? How are they able to express any gratitude given their circumstances? The reasons are many. However at the core, these good folks seem to understand that lifestyle does not generate joy or gratitude. Those gifts come from a deeper source.
I like to think there are many good reasons to travel with Crossing Thresholds. Near the top of my list is the invitation to shift one’s perspective. To bear witness to the gratitude of those who don’t have easy access to clean water, decent shelter or the most basic opportunities IS the chance to recalibrate one’s personal gratitude meter. It is also the chance to glimpse a deeper source.
Reflections on Purpose
I am always intrigued when a person comes on a Crossing Thresholds trip saying “I want to make a difference”. I get it. In a culture that doesn’t reflect very deeply on the issue of life’s purpose, individuals are searching. They want their day to day existence to amount to more than a random and endless string of experiences. Making a difference suggests a shift away from the self-referential to a larger world. It also implicitly begs for an answer to the question “who needs to be helped”.
So I would like to make a case for a particular mindset to guide the impulse to make a difference. It goes like this: everyone in every situation, materially wealthy and materially poor, is lacking. While opportunity is not equally distributed and some stand in dire need of getting their basic needs met, many of those in such situations are imbued with extraordinary character and spiritual wealth. At the same time, many who have had every need covered have lost the golden thread of meaning and spiritual well-being. As David Brooks has written, “We move through our excessively stimulated lives – frantic but resigned, blessed but cynical.”
Why do I go to Africa? Why should you? I like to think of it as a two-sided coin. The moral argument is straightforward – go and work for equal opportunity. By accident of birth, precious children are deprived and now await a helping hand. The world is infinitely safer and better when opportunity spreads. The spiritual argument is a bit more veiled, but no less real. We stand in acute need of inspiration and spiritual enrichment. We need to draft on the emotional honesty, the courageous resilience, the dogged faith, and the surprising hope of those who live in the world’s shadows. They will give you what you cannot find anywhere else.
Come and make a difference. The difference is of course for someone else. It is equally for you.
Crossing Thresholds, Executive Director