by Jessica Langdon
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Katherine Meinig thought she knew a lot about Lynn, the seven-year-old girl she sponsors in Kenya.
But even frequent letters and pictures pale in comparison to actually stepping into someone else’s world.
Thanks to a study abroad opportunity, Katherine, a 22-year-old native of Paola, had the chance to meet Lynn this summer in Kenya.
There, she saw just how much of a difference her sponsorship through the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging makes in a child’s life.
Katherine, now starting her final semester at Iowa State University in Ames, first learned Lynn’s story in 2008 while she was still in high school.
The girl’s picture caught her eye at her parish of Holy Trinity in Paola. Lynn’s packet was one of many on the table; each represented a child in need of hope and help in the midst of poverty.
“Why not?” Katherine figured. She could afford $1 a day.
So she made the financial arrangements, and soon began writing to Lynn’s family.
Lynn’s mother Rosemary and older sister Betty send her letters.
“She always draws pictures and labels them in English since she started her English in school,” Katherine said.
Katherine, who is in the U.S. Air Force ROTC program studying meteorology at Iowa State, had grown increasingly interested in visiting Africa.
So she applied last fall for Project GO, a language and culture immersion initiative through the U.S. Department of Defense.
Many seniors relax during their final college summer, but Katherine looked at the chance to travel and again said, “Why not?”
Even before she was accepted, she wrote to Lynn’s family about the opportunity. They were excited she might learn Swahili — their native language — and maybe even visit.
During one whirlwind week this spring, she learned what her job for the Air Force would be, which base she would go to — and that she was chosen for the Kenya trip through James Madison University in Virginia.
“It was at that moment that I just really felt truly blessed for all the opportunities I’ve been given in my life,” she said.
Plans in place
Katherine’s first stop was James Madison University for intensive Swahili training with a teacher from Kenya.
But she soon started wondering whether she could meet the child she sponsors while in Kenya.
When she saw Lynn’s hometown on the trip’s itinerary, she emailed her professor to see if she could fit in an extra stop.
Then, when the plans started coming together, Katherine had only her mother’s worries to allay.
But it wasn’t hard for Katherine to convince Linda Meinig this was meant to be.
“When [Katherine] found out they were going to be in her little girl’s village, she just said, ‘Is this a good enough sign from God?’” said Linda.
Even though Katherine’s trip didn’t coincide with one of the regular CFCA sponsor trips to Kenya, CFCA facilitated the meeting.
It took place the day Katherine’s group visited Lake Nakuru, a national park near Lynn’s home.
Katherine’s visit was so important to Lynn and her family that Lynn and Betty were allowed to stay home from school. Neighbor children peered inside the family’s home to catch a glimpse of the visiting American.
“Her mom asked me how I was enjoying Kenya, and I told her that it was going great and I loved the food,” said Katherine. “She said if I could have stayed longer, she would have cooked me chapati (a kind of flatbread).”
Katherine delivered gifts to Lynn, Betty and Rosemary, including art supplies so Lynn can “spice up” her pencil animal drawings.
At the end of the afternoon, they traveled on piki-pikis — motorcycle taxis — and Lynn, despite her shyness, asked her mom if she could ride with Katherine.
“I don’t know how many times [Rosemary] expressed her appreciation and thanks and how much it meant to her and how much she thought about me and prayed for me,” Katherine said.
The contribution isn’t a tremendous amount for the average American, she said.
For a child in another part of the world, though, “it’s the difference between barely existing and having a decent chance at a great life,” said Linda.
Katherine’s Project GO work involved following up on the construction of sand dams, which enabled community groups to capture water. Their efforts were life-changing for the people of Kenya, since some walk five hours simply to get water, with no guarantee of it being clean.
Visiting with the locals about life before and after the sand dams, Katherine also answered questions about America, dispelling ideas that America is all skyscrapers and Hollywood.
She shared her own experience on her family’s Kansas farm — operated by her dad Jim Meinig and her grandfather — and how they experience many of the same problems, including droughts like this summer’s.
Sitting at a campfire with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background, Katherine even decided on her senior thesis topic — combining her loves of meteorology and Africa to study what caused a horrible drought that plagued East Africa from 2007 to 2009.
She doesn’t know when, but she knows she will one day return to Kenya.
And when she does, she will visit Lynn . . . and Rosemary promises to make chapati.