A place to call homeMay 1, 2014
"It seemed like every patient was that way, unlike anything I'd see in the states," says Mendonsa, recalling his first stint as an interim orthopedic surgeon at the Kijabe, Kenya, mission station in 2003. As the only orthopedic surgeon at the station during his four-week stay, Mendonsa basically "took all calls" from the benign to the bizarre, most often, the bizarre: "Giant tumors or major trauma that had gone untreated for weeks, horrible auto accidents where 20 people show up seriously injured," Mendonsa says. "That four weeks was the hardest thing I've ever done."
On the journey home, looking through the airplane window at the sprawling savannah below, Mendonsa took out his journal and wrote the words he clearly heard God speaking to him that day:
"My creation is way more vast and beautiful than you ever imagined. Much of it is suffering greatly, and I care most that you do something about that and convince other people to do the same."
Bob and Julie (Harris) Mendonsa, BS '89, met while students at Baylor. "The most formative years of my life were the years I spent at Baylor," recalls Bob, a biology/pre-med major from Tyler, Texas. "Something happened during that three years that changed me. Something about the family, something about the training I received… and the relationships I had, the incredible academics… I wouldn't trade that period in my life for anything."
"I loved everything about Baylor," adds Julie, an education major and Tri-Delt from McKinney, Texas. "I can easily say that the Lord developed in me, through my relationships here, a heart of compassion and a love for other people," she says.
The Mendonsas were married in 1991, while Bob was in medical school in Galveston. Bob remembers that his Baylor degree paid big dividends as he pursued his medical degree, smoothing the transition to medical school, residency and private practice. "When I came to Flower Mound, two of the seven partners were also Baylor grads."
As Bob's practice began to thrive, the young family settled into "life as usual," and plugged into a small church in Arlington, where God began to speak to them in significant, life-altering ways.
"I realized I was empty, basically," Bob recalls. "I had been spending all of those years chasing after the American dream—to achieve status as a surgeon, thinking that money and materialism were the things I was supposed to chase after." It was then that he and Julie say they were both truly and radically saved. "Everything about our lives changed. Everything," Bob says.
A short-term medical mission trip to the Philippines, followed by another to the Amazon basin, would give Bob a glimpse into how radically their lives might actually change. "I realized that the way I had been living my life was centered on safety and structure," Bob says. "God was wooing me out of that comfort zone, asking me to do more with my life."
Julie wasn't so easily swayed. "She didn't want anything to do with that," the couple recalls. "You go ahead, and I'll pray. It's not my calling," she would say. "I don't want to end up in some tent in Africa."
It would take some more wooing and a gentle "prophetic" word from a pastor for Julie to finally agree to join Bob on his first trip to the Kijabe Mission Station and to bring the whole family.
"Emily was 5 and Will was 4, so they were very young," says Julie. This was still in the shadow of 9/11 and terrorist activity was being seen on the coast of east Africa.
"So I was not really thrilled, honestly, about going," Julie recalls. "I was a bit Jonah-like in my behavior, I think. But we went, and we were there for four weeks. It was unlike anything either of us had ever done, even Bob in his previous mission trips." The first trip was so meaningful that it didn't take a storm at sea or a withering vine and scorching wind for Julie to agree to return the following year, this time for a two-month stay.
On the second trip, Julie and the kids were able to "go off station" and get out in the community.
"We encountered—well, not just encountered, I mean we sat with—people. We got to know the people. We were in their homes—meaning one-room structures made out of mud, sticks and manure," Julie says.
"They would tell us these Job-like stories, just one tragedy after another. I'd think surely this one can't be true," Julie recalls. "It was a far different experience than watching it on TV or reading a story in a magazine where you could simply change the channel or turn the page.
"I came face-to-face with people there; people with names and heartbeats and tears and laughter, and incredible faith in Jesus, so many of them," Julie adds.
She describes the impact of seeing God work in her own children on this trip as they played with and cared for the suffering children in the pediatric orthopedic hospital.
"To watch the Lord build in Emily and Will this heart of compassion and to begin to develop the gifts that He'd already given them at that age, it was priceless. … It's interesting how much you can learn from and be encouraged and inspired by your own kids."
During that second trip, a once-reluctant Julie went to Bob and said—in light of all that the Lord was pressing on her heart—"[God] has taken our family, now, two times halfway around the world, and let us know people and visit with people and enter into their sufferings in a way few people have the opportunity. You know, the Lord is asking us what our response is going to be, and it's that we've got to do something to be of help here, particularly to the children, to these orphans."
As she spoke, she realized it was no longer a burdensome thing, no longer "an unhappy obedience. This was a joyful surrender, following God to Kenya."
It would take a few more years for that following to be fully realized, but the annual trips to Africa would continue and in August 2008, Bob left his surgical practice in North Texas and moved their family permanently to Kijabe. Within three years they would open Naomi's Village on a five-acre plot of land at the base of a mountainous landscape in an area known as Maai Mahiu.
The first child arrived at Naomi's Village in January 2011. Joshua was orphaned by a brutal act of violence that left his pregnant mother, 7-year-old and 1-year-old siblings dead by his father's hand. Only 3 years old at the time, Joshua had escaped through a hole in the wall of his family's hut. He returned that night to sleep next to his mother's body, his father now hanging lifelessly from the rafters above. His story made national news.
While shocking and tragic, Joshua's story is not an isolated example of the heart-wrenching experiences endured by the children who now call Naomi's Village home. Muthui watched Somali terrorists kill his mother, sister and 15 others at a village church service. Paul was found playing in a garbage heap with his brothers, neglected by their alcoholic, prostitute mother. Moses was discovered on a coal dump when he was only a few hours old, still covered in placenta.
Today, Naomi's Village is home to more than 50 orphans, all under age 13, with similar backgrounds of extreme poverty, most whose parents have both died, often from AIDS, tragic accidents or brutal violence.
Statistically speaking, some 700 children are orphaned in Kenya each day, and Bob points out that the average children's home in Africa is all about rescue. "They are able to provide a roof, clothes, food—basic care," Bob says. "Those efforts are obviously protecting a lot of children from dying, but when they age out of the system at 18, about 70 percent of the boys turn to crime and 60 percent of the girls become prostitutes. They are not equipped or prepared to provide for themselves, so they leave an overrun, underfunded system with no prospects for the future and nowhere to turn but the street."
The vision and focus of Naomi's Village is to provide more. "We feel what God has called us to do is to equip our children to grow up to be leaders themselves, not just to survive… we want to equip them to be part of the solution to the orphan crisis," Bob explains.
That equipping includes spiritual care and counseling, healthcare, nutrition and education. The Mendonsas also founded Cornerstone Preparatory Academy to provide excellent education, training, empowerment and encouragement to the children in their care, imparting to them a vision of service and leadership that the children have come to fully embrace.
Weekend service projects take the kids into city slums or refugee camps where they distribute goods and offer support and assistance to widows and orphans. Before one trip to a Nairobi neighborhood, some of their older kids came to the staff saying, "We want to take some clothing and shoes and toys from our storeroom." As they entered the storeroom they were asked what they wanted to take. "Everything," they said.
God continues to draw others—churches and individuals—to participate in the work at Naomi's Village, many of them with Baylor ties. Rachel Lewis, BBA '05, left her job as a sporting events planner to spend a year with the Mendonsas, after volunteering on two short term mission trips with The Village Church in Flower Mound. She now serves stateside as director of development for Naomi's Village and Cornerstone Prep, and helps the Mendonsas continue to tell their story through a robust website and social media presence.
She and others have seen God's vast creation, and that much of it is suffering. She is going to do something about it and will strive to convince others to do the same.
To learn more about Naomi's Village and Cornerstone Preparatory Academy, visit their website at www.naomisvillage.org.