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Volunteers' Stories




Care for Orphanage Children Project, volunteering in Mombasa, Kenya

This interview is taken from the in-house magazine of the company that Steve works for.

When Steve Chilingirian’s wife, Jennifer, persuaded him to take time out to do voluntary work in a Kenyan orphanage, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Or whether it was even something he should be considering at all. But Jennifer persisted, and in August 2009, Steve found himself flying to Nairobi for a two-week voluntary stint in Mombasa. In this interview with Internal Communications, Steve tells us about his experiences in Kenya, why he can’t wait to go back, and what other colleagues can do to make a difference.

Can you tell us what lay behind the decision to go to Kenya? My wife! Twelve months ago, I left my job at Sky and, after 35 years solid working, I suddenly found I had time to think. Jennifer had always wanted to do something like this and she persuaded me, really. It took a year for us to sort out the best way to do it. In the meantime, I’d got my new job at Ofcom. When I joined, I told Jill Ainscough what we were planning to do. She was - and has been - incredibly supportive and I was able to take two weeks’ unpaid leave for the trip.

So you’d never done anything like this before? Not at all. This was my first visit to Africa so I had no idea what to expect.

Did you go through some sort of NGO or voluntary organisation? Yes. We chose an organisation called Travellers Worldwide, one of the leading providers of voluntary placements overseas. There are lots of organisations doing similar things but we chose Travellers because of the level of support they offer their volunteers and the huge range of projects they’re involved with. Plus, they’re very flexible about the amount of work you’re required to do. You have the freedom to do as much, or as little, as you want. They turned out to be brilliant and I’d really recommend them to anyone considering voluntary work overseas.

And you paid for your own flights and accommodation? Yes. The work was voluntary so we didn’t get paid, obviously. And we paid for our flights and accommodation with a host family in Mombasa.

First impressions when you arrived? Total culture shock. When we got to Mombasa, we discovered our luggage had been left at Nairobi airport so we started our visit, literally, with only the shirts on our backs. And our accommodation wasn’t quite what we’d been expecting. Like all Kenyans we met, the family were wonderful but their home was next to an industrial site and, as a result, was incredibly noisy. And there was no hot water, which was a bit of a shock! To get from the accommodation to the orphanage each day was an hour’s journey on two local buses (called Matatus), which was quite an experience, bearing in mind that the temperature during the day was normally around 29c (and never below 25c, even at night) and we were crammed in with 14 other passengers. The bustle and noise of Mombasa was very exciting and a totally new culture for us. Along the route we saw many interesting sights, including mothers with babies strapped to their backs, all manner of small shops selling items like sugar cane, local produce and fruit, and we passed many rubbish tips with cattle feeding from them. The people were fascinating and very friendly even though you still had to have your wits about you.

What about the orphanage - what was that like? That was the worst shock of all. On our first day, we walked in and there was a little baby (Issac) – about one year old – lying asleep on a settee, cotton wool in his ears. When we asked about him we were told he’d been found in a cupboard….

In total, the orphanage has 39 children who are looked after by only 3 adults. It seemed, at first, like there was no structure to how the kids were looked after. They were just scattered about the place, sleeping or watching TV in the small lounge. At night, children slept two or three to a bed. They were also barefoot. There were no toys. Nothing. My wife’s first reaction was anger. It seemed so poorly resourced. To get a better idea of the environment, we asked to visit the slums where some of these children may have ended up had they not been taken into the orphanage. We thought this would give us something to compare the orphanage to. It certainly gave us a different perspective on conditions there and we though how fortunate the children were at our orphanage. Jimmy, from the local social services, took us to the slums. Before we arrived, we went to the supermarket, at Jimmy’s advice, to buy 200 bread rolls and plastic bottles of soda. On arrival, we were greeted by gangs of glue-sniffing kids. They were obviously high but still very welcoming and not at all threatening. One of the first things they did was bring out bricks for us to sit on.

Jimmy helped us distribute the food and then took us on a tour around the dwellings. It was awful. In one shack, we found a baby – about 6 weeks old – who had been abandoned. No one knew where his mother was. He’d just been left alone in this shack. In another, we found a mother and baby who’d been locked into their ‘corrugated shed’ for failing to pay monthly rent of approximately £4. It was shocking to learn people actually had to pay to live somewhere like this. With Jimmy’s help, we managed to arrange for the woman’s rent to be paid and the lock taken off her door. Basically, the visit made us realise that conditions at the orphanage, in comparison, weren’t half as bad as we’d first imagined.

Saying that, they are in the process of building a new orphanage which will be a great improvement. We were also lucky enough to visit another orphanage, run by an amazing English woman called Joan Smith. This orphanage, specifically for HIV/Aids affected children, shows what can be achieved. It also made us realise how much work there is to improve our orphanage.

What sort of work did you have to do every day? Well, I went out with a vague idea that I could do some sports coaching with the kids – football, stuff like that. In fact, the first job I got was emptying three big cesspits! After that, I did everything and anything that needed doing, really – sweeping floors, washing up, filling the water tanks and general maintenance. For Jennifer and myself, the most rewarding – and probably most important – thing was our interaction with the kids. Chatting with them, reading to them, playing games, giving them cuddles and making them feel special. The team of 3 staff are so stretched and really need all the help they can get. A lot of the volunteer work at our orphanage and other places is being done by gap year students – the most fantastic bunch of people who deserve so much praise for what they’re doing.

And your overall impressions of Kenya? Wonderful people – so warm and friendly. And a beautiful country. We were very sad to leave. Travellers advised us to take a break and see some of Kenya and we managed a two-day safari to Tsavo East National Park which was an amazing experience.

Jennifer recorded her thoughts and feelings in a day-to-day journal, which certainly makes for a very interesting read.

Do you plan to go back? Absolutely. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it has changed my perspective on so many things. Beforehand, I wasn’t sure how I’d react – neither of us were. Of course, it’s made me appreciate how lucky we are and how much we’ve got. Most importantly, though, it’s made me realise that even if I can’t change the world, I can make a small positive difference. And not just to other people but to myself as well. We have made friends for life and there are people I can’t wait to see when we go back.

When will that happen? A new orphanage is being built to replace the current one. This will be so much better. It will have four units, with eight children in each unit. There’ll be at least one mother per unit. And best of all, there’ll be a single bed for every child. This is scheduled for completion by the end of May 2010 and we’ll be back to see very soon after that.

If people in Ofcom want to know more about volunteering abroad or helping the orphanage where you were, what can they do? If you’re considering doing volunteer work abroad, I’d be happy to talk to you about our experiences and I’d definitely recommend Travellers Worldwide. It’s a wonderful experience and something you’ll never regret doing. Jen and I are hoping to raise money towards the building work and everything else. If you’d like to make a donation, you can certainly contact me to make a direct donation. Alternatively, I have an England football shirt – signed by the England team (and kindly donated by the Football Association)– which I’d like to raffle to raise money. I hope to do this over the next few weeks so look out on the Loop for more details! 

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