Lutherans in Minnesota

Kenyan orphans finding U.S. friends

New Twin Cities nonprofit helps upper Midwest Lutherans “adopt” children whose parents have died

Paula Meyer likes the old story about the starfish thrower. A man walked
along the ocean shore, picking up starfish stranded on the beach and hurling
them back into the surf, so they could survive. An onlooker chided him
saying, “You’ll never save all the dying starfish.” He replied, “Perhaps not. But
I’ll save the ones I save.”

Meyer didn’t set out to rescue children living in the economically
disadvantaged areas of Nairobi, Kenya. But, while vacationing with her family
in the land of Barack Obama’s paternal ancestors, she came in contact with a
Lutheran pastor who was a starfish thrower of sorts. Meyer’s friend, the Rev.
Susan Tjornehoj, then serving Christ Church on Capitol Hill (ELCA) in St. Paul,
Minnesota, had encouraged her to connect with the Rev. Peter Ndungu.

Himself a child of the Nairobi slums, Ndungu had wandered into a Lutheran
congregation in his home city. It started him on the path to ordination in the
Kenya Lutheran Church, and eventually to graduate study at Luther Seminary.
While in Minnesota, he worshiped in Tjornehoj’s congregation.

When Meyer linked up with Ndungu, he led her on a journey into an alternate
universe, one where children struggle and scrap to survive. He explained that
most of the HIV orphans were doomed to a life of desperation. That got the
Luther College graduate thinking, “Why couldn’t Minnesotans help throw a
few starfish from their side of the globe?”

Now, two years later, there are two organizations working in tandem, one in
Minnesota, the other in Kenya. Together, Friends of Ngong Road and its
African counterpart, Ngong Road Children Association, provide pathways out
of poverty for hundreds of orphan children. Ngong Road is the name of a
thoroughfare that runs through one of the most desperate urban areas in
Kenya.

Says Meyer, “We now have a program serving 200 children, 125 of whom have
lost both parents. The program is run by Kenyans. They have a staff of 11. In
Minnesota, we don’t pay a to salary anyone. All the funds we collect go
directly to help the orphans.”

What sort of help is provided? Meyer says, “An $800 annual sponsorship for
an orphan child provides three things. First, they receive schooling, including
tuition, tutoring, a uniform, books, supplies, and a daily lunch. Second, they
get to participate in a Saturday program, which consists of activities, games,
and one good meal. Third, they receive family support, which includes case
worker support, food assistance, and access to basic medical care.”

One of Meyer’s first “converts” in Minnesota was a fellow church member at
Normandale Lutheran Church in Edina, Minnesota. Karen Bohn told Metro
Lutheran, “Paula and I worked together professionally. We live near each
other. We’re both in the same Lutheran congregation. I was one of the first
people to volunteer to sponsor an orphan in Kenya.”

The story of the young woman Bohn ended up sponsoring is poignant. She’s
the same age as one of Bohn’s sons, but, at age 18, Susan Wanjiru had not
moved beyond a second-grade education. Her sponsorship enabled her to
re-enroll at the grade three level, but that meant attending school with
children years younger than herself. Still, she was determined and stayed with
the program.

Bohn also thinks and talks like a starfish thrower. “When you think about the
problems of the world, it can seem hopeless. Friends of Ngong Road offers a
way to tackle some of the most difficult problems and circumstances in the
world. It does this by making a huge difference in the life of one child [at a
time].”

Both Bohn and Meyer see a special opportunity for small to mid-size
Lutheran congregations. Meyer says, “An individual might not have $800 to
invest each year, but a smaller congregation could easily do it as a project.
This could turn out to be a good fit for them.” And, obviously, a large
congregation could do even more.

For more information about Friends of Ngong Road, visit
www.ngongroad.org. The site includes a downloadable file with an
application form for individuals or groups interested in getting involved.
Contributions are tax deductible.