Jen (Malm) Diers of The Raining Season prays over a child in the malnourishment unit at a Freetown, Sierra Leone, hospital.
Jen (Malm) Diers of The Raining Season prays over a child in the malnourishment unit at a Freetown, Sierra Leone, hospital.
Thursday, August 9, 2012

In a western Africa nation that is home to “Hell on Earth” and trafficking and abandonment of children is rampant, a group of young adults from Carroll found they could make a difference through some simple gestures: sharing cheerfulness, love and Christian faith.

Tyler Badding, Abby Brincks, Kegan Luczycki, Elly Olson, Leah Ramaekers and Kolby Vetter — all high school graduates this spring or currently college students — recently returned from a nine-day trip to Sierra Leone, where they delivered donations of medical and personal-hygiene supplies and volunteered time in an orphanage in the capital, Freetown.

The orphanage, called The Covering, cares for 95-100 children from just a few months old to 16 years old.

Some of the children had been abused. Some came from homes where parents had died or where parents could not afford to keep them. Some came from other orphanages that are being run corruptly. Some of the children have special needs, in a country where such children are believed to be cursed.

At The Covering — a two-story structure on gated grounds in the middle of Freetown — the children have found a safe, loving environment.

The Covering was opened 2½ years ago by the organization The Raining Season. One of the founders of The Raining Season is Tina (Mayer) Schmidt, of Sartell, Minn., a 1989 Kuemper Catholic High School graduate and daughter of LuAnn Langenfeld and Denny Mayer. A member of the board of directors is Jen (Malm) Diers, a 1989 Kuemper graduate who is an assistant professor of education at Central College in Pella and married to fellow Kuemper grad Doug Diers, who owns and operates Shoot-It Basketball Academy. They have three biological children and are serving as a host family for 5-year-old Lucy, who is in the U.S. on a medical visa from The Covering.

Jen Diers accompanied the mission to Sierra Leone that also included Central students.

When they stepped through the entry gates to The Covering on May 22 for their stay, children welcomed them with songs and then swarmed them, giving hugs.

“The kids love it there,” Vetter says. “They’re all so happy. They’ve had such a hard life, yet they’re so happy.”

In recent interviews about the trip, Badding, Diers, Ramaekers and Vetter described life at The Covering.

The Covering cares for more than 90 children, employing 58 Sierra Leoninan staff.

“The staff is amazing,” says Diers. “They truly love the children.” Children call staff members their aunties and uncles. They  receive 24-hour care, and The Covering has K-6 classrooms as well as a nursery.

Diers says, “We are one of the only centers in the country that also cares for children with disabilities.”

A weekly church service at The Covering is opened to the community.

Diers says a day at The Covering typically begins with breakfast and worship, followed by school lessons, naps, outdoor activities, music or art.

If teams such as the Carroll group or sponsors are visiting, additional activities are planned.

“The staff lead the kids in small-group devotional and therapeutic-type lessons as well,” Diers says. “We want to raise the kids to be Christ-like leaders so we try to include the kids in all outreach activities. The day always ends with prayer and worship.”

As part of their trip, the Iowans took health and personal-hygiene supplies. So they packed their clothes into carry-on bags for the flight, and each filled a couple of big bags with such items as Band-Aids, hydrogen peroxide, toothbrushes.

While in Sierra Leone, they sorted the health and hygiene packs that were given out in the community — hospitals, neighborhoods, other orphanages.

In a visit to a hospital, Badding says, “They were so happy to see stuff like that. They rarely get these.”

Indeed, Badding, Ramaekers and Vetter say, while they envision hospitals like St. Anthony Regional in Carroll, the Freetown hospital was starkly different.

Windows are broken out, and Vetter says, “People have to bring their own supplies, pretty much. They provide them beds.”

It was striking to go from all the top-quality medical care available at home to such a desperate setting.

Team leader Diers says the group delivered 26 suitcases of hygiene and medical supplies that the students collected in the Carroll area such as hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, band-aids and Neosporin cream.

“These are things we can go to Walmart and get, and they (hospital staff) were simply overjoyed to receive them,” Diers says, adding, “The resources we provided are so commonplace, but it just meant the world to them.”

 In the hospital’s unit that treats malnourished children, the visitors were told that only about one out of 30 children there survived.

The visitors were cautioned not to show sad emotion because the mothers don’t realize their children’s grim outlook.

Also at the hospital, patients with an array of diseases — such as measles, tuberculosis and polio — all receive care in a general ward.

“It’s very strange to think these children are dying from very preventable diseases,” Ramaekers says.

In Sierra Leone, life expectancy is just 47 years.

Badding says the visitors did much praying for the children.

“You want to help them as much as you can,” he says. “You pray over them. We believe in Jesus, but they rely on Him every day. We trust in Jesus, they rely on Him. That’s all they really have.

“You could see it in their eyes, that was such a huge deal that we prayed for them. They were so grateful.”

“Just being there providing some comfort, a smile and prayer was just awesome,” Diers says.

Also during their visit, the Iowans viewed the Kroo Bay portion of Freetown, which Ramaekers says the United Nations has labeled “Hell on Earth.” Vetter says it’s “the most poverty-ridden place in the world.”

Kroo Bay is shockingly filthy, Badding, Ramaekers and Vetter say. Their description: A river runs through this settlement where as many as 10 people are living in 10-by-5-foot shacks. The area is filled with trash, with pigs and dogs picking through it and children swimming in the river. The mortality rate for children of Kroo Bay is extremely high, with one in four dying before reaching age 5.

“You look at it and say, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” Ramaekers says.

Badding, Ramaekers and Vetter say this gave them new understanding of the world-hunger-relief projects undertaken at Kuemper Catholic High School.

“We have much more perspective of what things like that mean to those people,” Ramaekers says.

In an upbeat final day of their visit to Sierra Leone, the Iowans helped treat the orphanage children to a visit to an Atlantic Ocean beach.  

“The kids loved it,” Badding says. “The beaches in Sierra Leone are absolutely beautiful, not even like you’re in a Third World country.”

Ramaekers adds, “They’re pristine. It’s crazy in a country with so much poverty.”

Badding says it was difficult to leave such loving children who are living in such desperate lives. They wish they could do so much more.

“It’s a harsh reality,” Badding says. “You see all the help that they need, and you have to realize you can’t fix everything. That’s one of the hardest things, coming back and knowing there are still kids on the streets who don’t have food, who don’t have parents, who are going to be out at night wandering around, that there are children who are going to be abused every day.”

Back home, when they tell people they took a mission trip to Sierra Leone, Badding says, “I think they expect us to say we helped build buildings. But I think what we did is more important than that because what these kids need in life is love, somebody to give them love. They need someone to say, ‘I’m here for you, and I love you.’ And that’s what we did.”

The Iowans say they all left a part of their hearts in Sierra Leone.

That’s why they plan to continue to work for children there. They will be organizing fundraising events both here and at their college communities. Ideas include a 5K run, football camp, dinner, garage sale and golf outing. They recently began a T-shirt sale. The navy shirts an outline of Africa and white lettering inside the continent’s borders with the verse of John 14:18: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” Cost is $13 a shirt, and advance payment is required.

The students also are promoting the opportunity for local residents to sponsor children at the orphanage through a monthly fee, and a number of their families are now doing that. A $40 monthly fee provides food, clothing and education. Sponsorship information is available on The Raining Season website.

The Raining Season is working with Just Hope International to extend its care to more children. Plans call for purchasing 100 acres and building children’s homes, school buildings and access roads.

 “It makes you want to help as much as you can,” Vetter says of his experience.

 “Their (The Raining Season) and our mission is to save one child at a time by trying to make a difference in their lives,” Badding comments.

 Badding, Ramaekers and Vetter say they’d all like to return to Sierra Leone next year and help any way they can.

Their next destinations, however, will be to college, including:

Tyler Badding, son of Nick and Diane Badding, Kuemper Catholic High School graduate, freshman at Creighton University; Abby Brincks, daughter of Rick and Jodi Brincks, Kuemper grad, freshman at the University of Iowa; Kegan Luczyski, daughter of Cindy Luczyski, Carroll High graduate, senior at Iowa State University; Elly Olson, daughter of Terry Olson and Cathy Olson, CHS grad, senior at Iowa State; Leah Ramaekers, daughter of Matt and Gina Ramaekers, Kuemper grad, freshman at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind.; and Kolby Vetter, son of Denny and Terri Vetter, Kuemper grad, freshman at Des Moines Area Community College in Boone.

For Diers, this was her fourth trip to Sierra Leone and her first with a group from this area.

As team leader, she organized the travel and led the activities in Sierra Leone.

She notes that the students raised funds on their own to pay the travel costs. The students were first inspired to take the trip after hearing Raining Season founder Tina Schmidt visited Kuemper and gave presentations on the organization.  

“I just thoroughly enjoyed these kids. What a great group of kids from Carroll,” Diers comments.

Diers says the Carroll group’s mission and similar visits by others are vital in helping the orphans.

“The primary mission is the kids,” she says. “It helps them experience the love of Christ, the love of people. They often don’t have that in the lives they’ve led so far.”

Many of the children were fending for themselves before they were taken in at The Covering.

Diers says she trip broadened the local students’ world view and she heard many comments such as “Wow! I had no idea,” “I’ve lived in such a bubble” or “I’m so blessed with what I have back home.”