MODESTO -- On Dec. 9, 2011, Kate and Steven Kjelgaard embarked on a journey that would change their lives.
They and their family 10 in all set off for a year in Kisumu, Kenya, working with Modesto-based Christian nonprofit Agape Children's Ministry.
"My parents have always wanted to move us out of the country for a year," said Kate, 17. "When they found Agape, they were the first ministry that actually wanted a family of 10 to come live and work with them."
Agape Children's Ministry works with some the world's poorest: Kenya's street children. They're orphans or victims of domestic abuse or homeless because of dire poverty.
Operating costs are higher for Agape than some other international child assistance programs. But while others provide educational services and a single meal, Agape's Kenyan facilities include a campus where food, a safe bed, remedial education and a loving environment are provided to rescued children. The ultimate goal of Agape, however, is healthy reintegration into the children's families.
Steven, 15, worked with an outreach worker to find children and introduce them to Agape.
"I worked on the streets a lot," Steven said. "In the city we were in, there are over 1,000 kids that live on the street, sleep on the street.
They don't really have families, they don't really know where their next meal is coming from."
Readjusting to life
Kate found herself acting as a teacher.
"In Kenya, the school system is really messed up.
All of our kids sniffed glue on the streets, so we're dealing with special-needs kids who are thrown into a regular school system.
If they can't read or speak English, they're rarely going to be able to get a job. Their chances of doing big things in the world are minimal. That was kind of my thing I privately tutored kids in English and did a lot of research in remedial math and different ways to teach."
Adjusting to life in Kenya wasn't easy for the Kjelgaards, who are home-schooled and continued their studies during their time abroad. Kate broke her collarbone while playing a game with the boys at Agape.
"It broke in July, and we came home in November and it wasn't healed.
For five months, it was a big damper on everything I could do."
The language was an obstacle. Although English is one of Kenya's two official languages along with Swahili it is not widely spoken with fluency. For Kate, the linguistic differences became one of her hardest transitions.
"The worst was when there was a kid crying or something, and you couldn't help.
He couldn't communicate with us, and we just couldn't do anything about it. It was such a feeling of helplessness."
Said Steven, "We went there to share Jesus, and when you can ask how someone is, and you can ask someone's name, but you can't really share who Jesus is, it really puts a damper on everything."
Near the end of their trip, Kate began to pick up Swahili, while Steven learned more of a local street language called Shang, a mixture of tribal dialect, Swahili and English.
Steven found it hard to leave his friends and the swim team.
"Kate jumped right into the school, but I didn't start going out into the street until after the first month or two after we arrived," he said. "I spent a lot of time during the first month kind of floundering around, just trying to figure out what was going on
and what my purpose was in being here."
Because Agape's focus is reintegration, many boys are disheartened by the prospect of returning to their families, so they run away from the campus. Dealing with runaways was emotionally difficult as the Kjelgaards developed bonds with the children.
Making a difference
But there were many positives as well, Kate said. "One of the best moments was when a boy handed me his glue bottle.
It's when they surrender that lifestyle it's a really big, significant thing, where they're saying that they want a new life," she said.
"The hardest thing for me about coming back is just seeing the affluence of the American people, and the lack of knowledge, or even wanting to know more, the desire just isn't there.
But I can't make a broad statement, because there are a lot of people that do care, and do want to listen."
Kate hopes to one day live full time as a teacher in Kenya.
Steven also returned with a new appreciation. "Kids don't feel the need to try and go help other people. They're focusing on their freshman year, and their sophomore year, and they're not focusing on what's going on in the world."
Said Kate, "You just can't live life without a purpose."
Zachary Senn is a home-schooled junior and a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom Program.