A Three-Year Journey to Mission Service in Kenya

A school in the U.S. waited three years to serve abroad. It was worth the wait, they say.

Julie Z. Lee, Maranatha Volunteers International
A Three-Year Journey to Mission Service in Kenya
The PUC Preparatory School volunteer team arrives in Kenya after a three-year delay on their mission trip. [Photo: PUC Preparatory School]

The clock was ticking, metaphorically and literally speaking. For nearly a year, Heather Denton, principal of Pacific Union College Preparatory School (Prep) in Angwin, California, United States, and Matthew Lee, her colleague, had been planning a Maranatha Volunteers mission trip to Kenya. They were scheduled to build classrooms for a Samburu tribe in Chumviere.

Approximately 35 volunteers had signed up, including students, parents, and teachers, and all year the group had been preparing for the event — from organizing fundraising events to making hygiene packets for Kenyan girls. It had been years since Prep had gone on a mission trip, and the entire community was invested. But as the departure date drew near, the threat of a pandemic was percolating in the background.

“We were so excited. The students were so excited,” Denton said. “I remember we were having our last meeting with the volunteers on the night that we started to see places shut down. The next morning, Matt came into my classroom and said, ‘What do you want to do? Are we canceling?’ ”

In that moment, Denton had paused, flipping through the information in her head. Finally, she replied somberly, “I see the potential for us getting stuck.”

As the crushing reality stared them in the face, they knew what they had to do. “Matt and I were in tears, just the two of us in that room,” she said.

That evening, the school had a parents meeting to share the news. As parents debated the matter, some asked that they keep pushing forward while others were happy to see it canceled. And then President Trump announced a travel restriction that shut down the conversation altogether.

That was March 11, 2020, just seven days before they were scheduled to leave. As the dejected crowd emptied out of the auditorium that evening, Prep staff members promised they would try again that summer. 

But it wasn’t long before it became clear that a rescheduled project would not be taking place that summer. Nor the next spring. Eventually, the school staff pulled from storage all the outreach supplies they had painstakingly purchased and asked Maranatha to distribute them to a community in need. Students began using up their flight vouchers that were expiring. The months ticked by with students moving through various stages of the pandemic — from online classes to vaccines and tests to masked interactions.

But even throughout the pandemic delay, the staff at Prep had never lost sight of their mission trip. First, the students had raised US$20,000 for their 2020 trip — donations that Denton still wanted to honor. Second, the staff had a goal to show their students the world; it was a crucial learning outcome of their educational experience.

“Prep is located in a small, rural town, and there are a lot of benefits that come from that tight-knit community. But we’ve been very concerned that our students know that our world is bigger than Angwin. We want them to be open to a world that is larger, and a Christian community that is larger, and frankly to experience being the minority somewhere. I feel [that] is really important for our kids,” Denton said.

Bus Ride to Kajiado

Then, in 2022, Kenya appeared on the horizon once more. Prep reopened the discussion with Maranatha Volunteers International, a supporting ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. With the Chumviere classrooms already completed by local crews, Maranatha assigned Prep to build staff housing at the Kajiado Adventist School and Rescue Center. And on a rainy morning in 2023, 35 volunteers loaded up the Prep school vans and headed toward San Francisco International Airport. They were finally on their way to Kenya.

On the bus ride to Kajiado, students noted the activity on the roads, architectural details, the various flora and fauna, and the terrain; already their world was getting bigger by the mile. More revelations came once they arrived on campus, where the Kajiado kids flooded around them — a reaction that initially had the group of Americans bewildered but soon opened their eyes to pure love. It was a love that only continued to grow throughout the week, as volunteers worked on construction and Vacation Bible School programs throughout the community. In between work sessions, the volunteers played games with the kids, sang songs, and read books together.

“The immediate connections our students made with the students at Kajiado and the relationships they formed so quickly — I think it surprised them in a way. You think it’s going to be a lot harder to make connections, and you go and find that it’s really not that difficult,” Denton said. “Connections come quickly, and you have more in common than you think.”

Denton herself found a connection with the principal of Kajiado, Sophia Nyasani.

“I asked to sit with her and kind of just asked, ‘I see all that you’re doing. How are you? Is there any way we can support you?’ ” Denton said, one female principal to another.

The question cracked open a long conversation about the gifts and the challenges of leading a school, the delicate nature of working with young girls who have come from trauma, and the pressure of rescuing them from tradition, family, poverty, and more. Nyasani handed Denton a thick binder labeled “Rescue File.” It was filled with pages and pages of profiles of girls who had needed sponsorship. There were photos, dates of rescue, where the girls came from, who helped them escape — moms, aunts, teachers, police.

“I was trying not to cry as she was talking to me, because I saw girls we had met and their names. You saw all these stories, and I started thinking about the weight this principal carries. I look at my own students, and I think about all their needs. But what she experiences is way more than anything that I face … I reached a whole new level of empathy,” Denton said. “That moment of sitting with a colleague and just being there as support and seeing what she dedicated her life to — that moment changed me. I will not forget that.”

Listening to the unique struggles of Nyasani’s job put Denton’s own challenges into perspective. “I think as a principal or anyone who works at a school, you carry the weight of your students’ needs, and hers is at an extraordinary level,” she said.

Denton also realized the commonalities of their situations. Back at home, Denton and her staff were dealing with students who had depression, food insecurity, instability at home, loneliness, a hunger for unconditional love. Whether in the United States or Kenya, schools are a mission field, and she and Nyasani were both missionaries. It was a revelation that was inspiring.

“I felt rejuvenated and encouraged that I was not alone. I’m in awe of those around the world who are doing such great work, and you feel privileged to partner with them,” Denton said. “And my hope is that we inspired Madame Sophia as well, and we helped her to feel that she wasn’t alone.”

Students Sponsoring Students

Afterwards, Denton shared what she had learned about the need at Kajiado with her students. Immediately, they insisted that they apply Prep’s remaining US$4,000 in funds to be put toward the sponsorship of five girls. Some of the students started planning fundraisers for when they returned home with the goal of helping more girls — one bake sale could equal help for one more girl! As their eyes were opened to the needs, they wanted to do more.

“They were asking, ‘I see this need. Can we ask the principal? Is that something they would like or use?’ ” Denton said. “The fact that they could see ways to partner with the good that was already happening there was great. I think seeing people in Kenya working really hard for their people and providing such a safe space, inspired them for ways to help.”

But it wasn’t until the volunteers returned home that Denton saw the full impact of the experience on her students.

Just a couple weeks after returning from Kenya, a group of Prep students, most of whom were on the Kenya project, helped coordinate a Week of Prayer program at the local Adventist elementary school. Each day, the students provided song service, led activities, and gave a worship talk. On the last day, after the Prep students gave their last worship and started to drive away, some of the elementary kids followed them, waving and shouting. There was such jubilance and love, not unlike the first time they had met the students at Kajiado, and not unlike the moment they had left the rescue center, when the girls also ran after the vans, waving their farewell. They had made a connection at a mission field just minutes from home.

As they peered out the window of the car, watching the children say goodbye, one of the students who had been on the project said, “See, we can serve right here. We don’t have to go to Kenya to make an impact.”

“That was so profound. They saw the reflection of what they had done in Kenya, right here in their home community,” Denton said.

After all these years, that small moment was the big difference she had been waiting and hoping for.

The original version of this story was posted in The Volunteer, Issue 2, 2023, pp. 18–21.

Julie Z. Lee, Maranatha Volunteers International