Being a volunteer; visiting Kenya; coming to Rafiki Mwema (Play Kenya); Life changing experience. What is that all about?

I think I struggle with the whole concept of volunteering because I don’t really know what it means.I struggle to explain what is expected or hoped for because I can’t really name it. I think it means a million things – Donating your time for the development of others? Experiencing a different culture? Supporting communities and projects? Hanging and building relationships?

For me a good volunteer is someone that leaves a positive footprint in the lives of our children. Someone that puts in what is needed and not what we want to leave – and thats tricky. For this post I have only used pictures of personal friends that have been over to Play Kenya as I know first hand what they have brought – and they may be surprised by my views. (And Sarah is not a volunteer but I just love those pictures!)

A fantastic volunteer models an energy that has no definition. They show our family what being Loving, Kind, Accepting and Empathic feels like on a moment to moment basis. They don’t have to bring huge changes but they are attuned and sensitive to the moment. Some show what family life is like; that it is a great place but that families have challenges to. You can disagree and still be loved. You work and play together. Some of volunteers hang with the kids and play footie and board games, others build tables and smile when the little girls have played with everything you set out so carefully the night before. Others bring a depth of knowledge that mirrors our vision and they support our training programs. They all embrace, but don’t embarrass the families we work with; they have respect for all things around them – and they make mistakes from time to time!

Living in Kenya, at Play Kenya isn’t tough physically,as in we have showers, flushing toilets, leather sofas (depending where you stay – sorry that none of these in the photos have had the luxury of Queens Castle!) and in the Queen’s Castle a beautiful marble floored living area and kitchen with enough space to sit 28 people – so not tough in that way at all (although at the boys project we often have no water or electricity – and we have had teething problems at The castle, and of course power goes from time to time along with water!) but the living space is beautiful and comfortable – but it is tough emotionally.

When you meet our kids they are just like any others. You are naturally drawn to some and not so much to others. Some smile and engage with you, while others you may not even know they are there – maybe for your whole trip. You sing, dance and play together and you fall in love. And then something reminds you of the reason our girls are with us. ALL of them have been aggressively and horrendously abused, and you wonder how they smile – Play Kenya must be an amazing place to make them so ‘happy’. Our boys, funny, charismatic, entertaining – how easy to miss the pain behind their mask. How easy to forget they have all survived the stark, violent lives of living without parents or care, on the very streets you walk when you go to town. They may even have been the same same boys you avoided because they were begging and being a pain – maybe even scaring you, before they were beaten by the police and older men.

Volunteering takes you behind their smiles to the core of who they are, but it’s a gift we have to open carefully. Our children love visitors and we help them to manage the pain of you arriving, and the pain of you leaving. It’s not possible to know our children in weeks or months – they are so complex – but you will know parts of them. Hold that safely in your hearts. It’s a beautiful and unique gift and you are part of their process. Learning that planned goodbyes hurt but they are not a rejection – something so alien for them, as they were often ripped from their homes following a rape or ran away from home, frighten, hurt and desperate.

They give themselves to us. We can’t take a relationship from them. It can take years for them to show a degree of trust. One of the best gift EVER in my whole experience of Kenya was when one of my very shy boys was taking photos of others. I have know this young man for around 5 years. He is invisible in our house – that’s how he survives. On a trip he called me over when he had the camera and with us behind the lens he took about 30 selfies of me and him – and all the time the others thought they were the subject. A funny moment? No. A genuine, heart-stopping moment when I knew he felt safe enough to take a risk that I would want to be with him, and that I wouldn’t tell the others. Nothing if you didn’t know his story. Huge if you really knew him. Another moment, when a boy I have known for 7 years and is so avoidant of relationships – especially a loving one – told me he was scared of the elephants but he would go over if I went with him. Looks like a small moment – it changed both our lives and makes me cry just remembering that poignant life changing moment where he reached out to a relationship, and never looked back.

So please come and meet our children, hang with our staff, visit our houses. Bring your love and your skills but please know that knowing our children is a life journey and you will be a part of that, but in the scale of what has happened in their scary, violent and complex lives, you and I are just a dot. A dot that brings smiles and laughter but may still mask the fears and nightmares they have.

I don’t ‘know’ all our children, but I’ll spend a lifetime learning!