Kansas to Kenya: a different kind of ‘retirement’

by Caitlin Thornbrugh
Special to The Leaven

TONGANOXIE — For most people, retirement is a time to kick back, relax, and putter their way into the “golden years.”

Not John and Cindy Korb of Sacred Heart Parish in Tonganoxie. For them, “retirement” is an opportunity to take on a lifestyle change that would challenge anyone at any age.

After 32 years of teaching in Tonganoxie, John and Cindy were looking forward to retirement in August 2009. But instead of a traditional retirement plan and “puttering,” they signed a three-and-a-half year contract, sold all their possessions, and travelled more than 8,000 miles to Kitale, Kenya, East Africa, to be Maryknoll Lay Missioners.

Getting Started

The Korbs began searching for Catholic mission options online and, on a summer day in 2008, Cindy discovered the deadline for a Maryknoll Lay Ministers discernment weekend was that day. John was mowing the lawn, and Cindy went out to ask, “How serious are we about this?”

They registered that day.

After being accepted, they began getting rid of most of their possessions, selling their house, and preparing for an early retirement from teaching.

“We sold the house that we’d raised our family in. It was difficult, but we knew this was something we wanted to pursue,” said Cindy.

They originally thought they would be stationed in East Timor in Southeast Asia but, several weeks into orientation, found out this location was being closed due to economic reasons. From their remaining options, the Korbs chose Kenya. As John said, they are continually learning to be flexible and “go with the flow.”

Back to School

At an all-boys school called St. Anthony’s, John teaches math and geography to classes of around 90 students. Cindy teaches English at an all-girls school, St. Monica’s, to classes of around 50 students. The Kenyan school year runs 11 months.

However, beyond teaching, they also are involved in after-school activities. Cindy runs a literature club; John is teaching a catechumenate class.

“I think we have been really careful not to be the ‘know-it-all Americans,’ who come in and tell people how to do things. We’re trying to show by example good teaching practices,” said Cindy.

After over 30 years of teaching in the United States, one of the biggest differences they have noticed is the lack of interaction between teachers and students.

“Here in the States, we are constantly checking for understanding. . . . There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of that there. We call on students. You could tell at first they just weren’t used to that,” said Cindy.

Along with different practices, John and Cindy are the only non-Kenyan, white teachers. The Korbs have found, however, that race is not a large issue.

“You don’t think of skin color. Yeah, we’re a minority, but that doesn’t even enter in my mind. And I don’t think [it enters] the [minds of the] kids anymore,” said John.

The Korbs have become a part of their school communities: They have been to a wake service, a baby shower, and have been invited to a wedding.

With all the differences, they found similarities as well.

“Kids are the same around the world,” said John.

When talking to his students about stressors, they had similar responses to American schoolchildren: getting up early, what they’re having for lunch, and homework.

Marriage and Family

As they are adapting their teaching style, a change in location has also changed their marriage. The Korbs will celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary in June.

“The culture is just so different, and there are some things we don’t understand yet, so we rely on each other more,” said John.

This change has been a positive one.

“Our marriage has changed, because our lifestyle has changed so drastically. [When] we lived in Tonganoxie, you can go shopping anytime you wanted to, you could go to a movie, you could go to Kansas City, you could go to concerts. Those things just aren’t available [in Kitale], so you spend more quiet time together as a couple,” said Cindy.

The Korbs have two daughters: Andrea Korb, who lives in New York, and Katrina Korb, who lives in Nigeria. Although they sometimes feel bad for being so spread out, the Korbs try to speak with both daughters on a regular basis.

“We’re farther away in distance, but thank heavens for the Internet, Skyping, and e-mail,” said Cindy. “Thanks to modern technology, we’re able to stay in really close contact still.”

Andrea sees her parents as role models.

“Just seeing the work that they’re doing really inspires me to live my life in a good way,” she said, “and to help the people in my community.”

Growing in Faith

In having more time to spend with each other, they also have more time to spend with God.

“Because life is slower, we have more time for Scripture reading, for prayer, for meditation,” said Cindy.

They have been learning about their own faith from the people around them.

“Kenyans’ faith seems so much stronger than ours in a way. They see everything as a gift of God: waking up in the morning, the day, rain, a paycheck,” she said.

Although they celebrated, in some ways, a nontraditional Christmas — using a cypress tree branch for a Christmas tree — they also found that it enriched their faith by being focused on the religious aspect of the holiday.

“We in the American culture are so busy and so consumer-oriented. It was so nice to be there at Christmastime. There wasn’t the push to buy-buy-buy, want-want-want,” said Cindy.

A World Apart

The Korbs have been inspired by their students and the Kenyan culture. Now, they hope to inspire other Americans to volunteer and reach out to their own communities.

While visiting the United States, they gave nine presentations to schools and churches.

“Even volunteering at a food kitchen or a thrift shop, getting out of your comfort zone and trying to experience the world through somebody else’s eyes is so enriching,” said Cindy.

Right now, the Korbs plan to continue their work and then sign on for another three-year contract in 2013.

“The more you can see of the world, the more you learn, the more it increases your faith,” said Cindy.

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