LIBERIA -- Tuesday will be the fifth Christmas Day that Dave and Babs Veneman of Modesto have been thousands of miles from home. They left behind their jobs, family, ranch and comfortable lives in 2008 to pursue God's call to work full time at the Rafiki Training Village in Liberia.
It's a home for abandoned, abused and orphaned children, run by a Christian ministry with headquarters in Florida.
The Venemans signed up for a two-year commitment but have stayed because they believe God still wants them there. Dave runs the operations side of the complex and teaches the boys how to use tools and fix things. Babs oversees the kitchen, dining and laundry at the site, where small groups of children live in cottages with a native "mother." She also is the health manager and child care director.
There are 10 such villages in the poorest countries in Africa. Food, clothing and education are provided for each child, and children living in nearby villages come into the complex on school days to be educated.
It's a big change for most of the resident children.
A girl named Mai is the most recent addition in the Liberian village. She doesn't know her last name or the village where she was born. When she was about 4, a "family friend" took Mai to the city, saying she would send the little girl to school. Instead, Mai worked as a slave.
"Mai got up at 4:30 a.m. every morning to haul water," Babs wrote in an email last week. "Later, she was sent to the market and was not allowed to return home until all her goods had been sold. This meant that often, Mai was in the market and on the streets after dark (a dangerous place and time for a young girl). When Mai would get home, there were other chores to do, and she usually did not get to bed until 9 or 10 p.m. Mai is now 6 years old."
Neighbors told officials about Mai's plight. A social welfare commissioner, after trying to contact the "friend," who had fled, placed the girl at the Rafiki village. Mai was thrilled to get a baby doll, the first toy she had owned.
"We will do everything we can to make sure that no one hurts Mai again," Babs said. "And now Mai is celebrating Christmas. She stood in amazement by the Christmas tree the first morning it appeared in the dining hall. She had never before seen a decorated tree. She will be an angel in the annual Christmas pageant. She is hearing about baby Jesus and she is experiencing the love of God through the hands of a caring Rafiki mother. Life for Mai has gone from slave to princess. It is a Merry Mai Christmas!"
Every child in the village has a similar story.
"The most gratifying part of the job is seeing children thrive and develop their own character and personality," Dave said. "Some of these children would no doubt be dead by now if they had not come here to live."
"Our greatest joy is watching a child who has been hungry too much and unloved too often transform into a healthy, secure, happy child who can laugh and play and actually enjoy a childhood," she said. "Just yesterday, I watched Paul (age 4) munching cookies with his new buddy, Teeweh. Paul looks like a different child than the boy who arrived one month ago. He is still quiet, but now he smiles and plays like the other little boys. He had been severely beaten before he came here (scars on his back tell the story). He was so timid and scared, just like a whipped puppy dog. It is a joy to see Paul smile."
It's the children and their changed lives that keep the Venemans in Liberia, despite the heat, humidity, bugs and snakes. It helps that Babs and Dave have a sense of humor.
Babs has told many stories on the couple's blog (http://daveandbabs.blogspot.com) about her run-ins with green mambas, cobras, fire ants, giant cockroaches, rats and other critters. After one month in Liberia, she said she had learned, "You cannot kill a medium-sized spider with a screwdriver." Last month, she wrote about a particularly large, ugly rat in the kitchen.
But it's not all reptiles and insects. In October, Babs wrote, "Take six boys, three broken fans, six screwdrivers, two pliers, and one rainy afternoon. A recipe for a good time! With Dave supervising, the boys dismantled the fans into piles of screws, cotter pins and various pieces of metal. Dave showed the boys the difference between a Phillips and flathead screwdriver, and he demonstrated the correct technique to use a socket wrench. An interesting, educational afternoon for the boys and a fun time for Dave."
When Dave first arrived, he tried to plant a garden at the complex. Despite his vast experience in Modesto as a farmer and crop expert for a cold-storage business, gardening in Liberia was a bust.
"Growing a garden is difficult here, as we live on a sand hill, so the dirt is not good and the tropic conditions are not conducive to vegetable plants," he said.
Looking for help
The Venemans would love to have some short-term help from folks back home willing to serve at a Rafiki village from two weeks to six months. Volunteers must attend a two-day training program in Florida and pay their way to their selected country, but they will be picked up by Rafiki staff members at the airport and given a guest cottage on site.
Short-term volunteers do everything from teaching and cooking to maintenance work, computer help, sewing and reading to children.
"We can use anyone who can hold a paintbrush, or even speaking standard English, and the fact that one can read! We try to have people read with children every day," Babs said. For more information, visit www.rafikifoundation.org.
In their December blog, the Venemans wrote: "This is our fifth Christmas away from home, and it is no easier this year to be far from those we love most. But we are surrounded by 65 children and 42 employees, so we are certainly not alone! Christmas day itself will be full of activities and special food, and as it will be a skeleton work crew, we will help the kitchen staff that day."
Every year, the children put together a Christmas pageant, which they perform for the surrounding villages.
"Today," Babs said, "we had the dress rehearsal for this year's pageant, and other than a wise man forgetting his gift on a chair, and baby Jesus falling out of the swaddling cloths and onto the floor, it went rather well. (This is why we do not use a real baby!)"
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2012.
"Rafiki" means friend in Swahili. The mission of the Rafiki Foundation is to help Africans know God and raise their standard of living.
Rafiki has 10 training villages in Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia.
The Rafiki villages provide living, medical and educational facilities for orphans and vulnerable children in 10 of Africa's most impoverished nations.
Rafiki overseas staff members, who are long-term missionaries, operate the Rafiki villages with the assistance of national workers and short-term missionaries.
Short-term missionaries typically serve from two weeks to six months. To find out more, visit www.rafikifoundation.org and click on "Get Involved," then "Short-term missions."
The Rafiki Foundation has its headquarters in Eustis, Fla. For more, visit the website or call (352) 483-9131.