By Kristen Miller
Oftentimes in life, it’s all about who you know, and for Briana Stonelake a 2005 Dassel-Cokato High School graduate who recently received a master’s degree in social work from St. Cloud State University it was by a chance encounter that she was able to embark on a life-changing experience to a place she’s always wanted to go Africa.
Despite their connections with SCSU, Stonelake didn’t meet Dr. Mumbi Mwangi, a professor of women’s studies at SCSU, in class. They actually met at a Kingston church which Stonelake and her mother had been attending; Mwangi happened to just stop in to check it out.
A couple months later, Stonelake met with Mwangi, who told her she could get her to Africa if she was interested.
“I had always dreamed of going to Africa and becoming a part of the culture, so it was an exciting opportunity for me that I could not pass up,” Stonelake said.
In August of 2010, Stonelake visited Africa and NGATHA International Children’s Home in Ngamini Village, Kenya, an orphanage started by the SCSU professor.
Mwangi, who moved to the US in 1998 to attend Iowa State, knows what it’s like to be raised in poverty, having witnessed how her mother sacrificed to pay for her education. It’s because of her mother’s sacrifice and encouragement that Mwangi said she wanted to help others get the education they deserve. She did so by starting the nonprofit organization, National-Global Association for Thrift and Humanitarian Aid (NGATHA).
“Whatever God has blessed me with, I can give back to my country and the less privileged,” Mwangi said during a presentation for the Cokato Dassel Rotary Club recently.
In Kenya alone, there are more than 700,000 orphans who have lost their parents to AIDS, Mwangi told the Rotary club.
In a return visit in 2006, Mwangi wanted to see the condition of children whose parents had died and visited several homesteads.
At one homestead she visited, the grandmother was caring for her nine grandchildren because she lost her three daughters to AIDS within two months.
In addition to the famine and poverty, Mwangi saw how caring for these children was becoming impossible.
She decided to start an orphanage for the most needy and at-risk, and the doors of NGATHA International Children’s Home opened to 60 children in January 2007.
She also formed a school for primary education from kindergarten to sixth grade.
NGATHA is also working to improve the lives of women through micro-loans that help them start their own businesses and get back on their feet.
For Stonelake, the highlights of her trip were getting a chance to meet with women of the Masai tribes in Tanzania, seeing how they live, getting to know the “amazing” children living in NGATHA, and going on a safari.
“NGATHA is doing so much for women and children in Africa . . . they give children opportunities to get an education that provides them the ability to go further than they could have imagined,” Stonelake said. “The children are provided with shelter, food, clothing, a sense of a family, and the ability to grow in their faiths with God.”
Their faith in God, Stonelake said, “is bigger than we can understand because they have had to truly rely on God for everything with all that they have been through.”
Stonelake came back from her trip a different person.
“Upon my return, I experienced culture shock at America’s materialism, and an extreme sense of loss from feeling like I abandoned the children who loved me so easily,” she said.
“The faith that the children have in God, when they literally had nothing, was unbelievable. The amount of poverty and the desperation of people living there was unfathomable and horribly sad, but yet those in Africa pray for America,” she said. “This truly impacted me because we, as Americans, have so much and yet there is still so much selfishness and greed.”
This experience also has made her more grateful for what she has, especially for her family.
“The children did not have family, did not have loved ones checking in on them, or even annoying them,” Stonelake said. “I am so grateful that I do, and am still devastated that I could not do more for the children. They taught me more than I could have ever taught them.”