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Modesto-based children's ministry fights poverty, homelessness and now political riots in Kenya

In this undated photo, Felix is one of the street boys at a church service in kisumu pot on by Agape Children's Ministry.  After the biweekly service, the boys are fed a small meal.
In this undated photo, Felix is one of the street boys at a church service in kisumu pot on by Agape Children's Ministry. After the biweekly service, the boys are fed a small meal. Shelly Heida

As Kenyan political protests and ethnic clashes over the past few weeks have killed more than 500 people and left more than 250,000 homeless, folks at the Agape Children's Ministry headquarters in Modesto keep close tabs on the situation. Their center for street children is in Kisumu, the third-largest city in Kenya and at the heart of much of the recent violence. The ministry boards 87 primary school-age children at the center, providing food, shelter and education.

"We're fortunate that most of our boys were off campus (for the December holidays)," said Blake Gibbs, director of the ministry. "We send the boys from Agape back to their village connections when we know it's safe. Those who were left on campus, who didn't have a place to go, went home with our staff."

Although the center itself was not harmed, the destruction of 80 percent of the businesses in Kisumu means it will be hard to find food and supplies.

"We've tried to encourage the boys to stay in their villages longer, but communications are so poor, especially in the rural areas," Gibbs said. "Nine boys have come back, and we've been able to acquire some food. I talked with our national manager last night (Tuesday). He's anticipating that we'll start school back up on Monday.

"We're so grateful that all of our boys and all of our Kenyan staff have been safe throughout this ordeal."

Kenya, one of Africa's most stable democracies and a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, held a national election Dec. 27. Incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was proclaimed the winner in balloting that international observers called flawed.

Supporters of his major opponent, Raila Odinga, staged massive demonstrations that led to tribal clashes. The violence has been so bad that former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was brought in Thursday by the African Union to take over the stalled mediation process.

In Kisumu, four missionary couples from the U.S. work at the center, Gibbs said, and others travel there to help during the year.

"My wife and I go about three times a year and spend about half our time in Kenya," he said. "We were scheduled to leave (for Kenya) on Monday, but have delayed that."

Before the election, three of the missionary couples were evacuated to The Farm, Agape's vocational education center on the shores of Lake Victoria.

"Even the last time when it was a relatively peaceful election process, there were still a number of people killed," Gibbs said. "I asked them to go down to The Farm because it's very rural and therefore safer."

When the violence spread, the couples were evacuated to Tanzania.

One missionary family, Tom and Julie Westfall and their four children, had come home to Modesto for the December holidays. Like Gibbs, they have delayed their return to Kenya until matters are resolved.

"We were there for five months and were supposed to be home for December and January," Tom Westfall, 35, said. "We were supposed to go back Jan. 29. (Agape) will have people back in there, but I'm anticipating being here through March. I'm going to want to wait longer than the others before I take the kids back. We're not willing to put them at risk unless things have calmed back down."

He said he can empathize with Odinga's supporters but not their violence that turned to looting, burning businesses and other destruction in their hometown of Kisumu.

"I can understand their anger over what they see as a stolen election, but destroying their own city -- it's set them back a decade or more. The long-term impact is going to be significant."

The Westfalls' children are Cassie, 13; Zach, 11; Natalie, 6; and Sam, 3. Julie Westfall home-schools them, here and in Kenya.

"The good things about Kenya are that it's a slower-paced life and the Kenyans are very social, so they'll come over to visit," Julie Westfall said. "The hard part is seeing all the poverty. Life is a lot harder there because the water is so dirty. You have to bleach everything, like your eggs and your vegetables. While we were there, one of my kids had E-coli, one had salmonella and one had shigella.

"Here, I'm thankful for nice sidewalks and clean streets and not having to think about drinking out of a faucet. It's just a more relaxing atmosphere."

The Westfalls have kept in touch by phone with friends in Kenya.

"It fluctuates from day to day," Tom Westfall said. "Any political announcement and things flare up. Then you call back the next day and everything seems more normal.

"Most of our contacts have been with Westerners who were there. There's another family who's in the process of leaving. They don't foresee coming back. I think that's one of the sad impacts -- they are losing people who were basically there to provide aid."

Shelly Heida, child sponsorship coordinator for Agape, travels to Kenya two to three times a year for visits ranging from three weeks to more than two months.

The single 25-year-old college graduate has connected with the street boys.

"It breaks my heart every time I go," she said. "It's kind of devastating because these kids are so young. Some are very young, even from age 3. More commonly, they're from age 7 or 8 and up."

Particularly sad is seeing so many of them addicted to cobbler's glue, she said. "The boys say they sniff it because it gives them courage, so they're not afraid of the older boys," Heida said. "If they're hungry, they can't feel the hunger. If they're cold, they can't feel it. And it's very, very addictive. It's very bad for them -- it damages their brain."

Often, Gibbs said, the children end up on the streets due to domestic violence or alcoholism in the home. Nearly all of the street children are boys because girls have more value in the Kenyan culture; for example, they will bring dowries to their families when they are married.

"We've got quite a few boys now who I (initially) met on the streets," Heida said. "One boy's name is Kevin. He's 12 or 13. On the street, he was sniffing glue and looked like a little old man. Now he's in Agape and he's absolutely thriving. There's a radiance about him now. He's in school, which he's so grateful for.

"He had a father who beat the tar out of him. He has scars all over his legs. He's very apologetic of the choices he made just to survive -- he stole just to get food. But now he has friends who lift him up. It sounds cliché, but he's found hope."

One of the goals of the ministry is to reintegrate the children back into their families.

"In Kenya, family is so important," Heida said. "So with Kevin, we're trying to repair that bond, but in a safe way."

If a safe relationship can't be established in the immediate family, Gibbs said, they try to find an aunt or other extended family member who will fill that role.

That work is now on hold until life settles down in Kenya. The strife tugs at Heida.

"I've felt a little like my heart has been ripped out," she said. "Kenya has become another home to me. To hear about this devastation going on in this place that I've seen and lived in and loved is hard.

"I've been worried about our boys and our staff. For the Kenyans, this is their home. And I'm hoping they're making good choices. I think for our (past Agape) boys in their older teenage years or in their 20s, I pray for their choices and hoping they've tried to stop the violence."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or snowicki@modbee.com.

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