By Shiella Fodchuk
The applicant who stood before us one night after I and our Kenyan helpers Anne and Violet were finishing the day interviewing prospective students was a young girl, only 15. She was in poor clothes, and she carried a battered brown suitcase.
She was alone, an orphan who had been turned out of the orphanage at age 10, the age that children have to leave to make room for younger ones. Since then Gladys had bounced around from one temporary home to another, always trying to stay nearby the orphanage, the only safe home she ever knew. From time to time, she could visit the nuns who she grown to love.
During our interview, Gladys told me that man who had taken her into his home now planned to marry her off to his son. She did not want to marry. She sought refuge in the orphanage, but was turned away and told to come to us, that we were interviewing girls for secondary school. Gladys wanted to go to school, but her grades were below what we normally required for candidates. We thought about turning this solitary young girl out into the Kenyan night to fend for herself. But how could we? I tried to sense what would be the right course to take.
Gladys had such a troubled history that sponsoring her would be challenging. She had a long history of abuse, had much missed schooling, and would need lots of extra support.
I realized that I would have to sponsor her myself. Gladys would never be in the top 5% of students. But she could have a better life.
Still another question arose. If we accepted her as one of our students, with whom would she stay until school started over two and a half weeks from now? We called Fr. Timon, the priest who was hosting us in his home to discuss the problem. “You must bring her home with you; we know she will be safe with us,” he said.
I felt a flood of gratitude for his gracious care for this young girl’s safety.
We took Gladys home with us, where she lived with us until school started. She had no pyjamas and slept in her clothes until we could shop for her. Gladys was like a limp rag doll, but happy, grateful and loving.
When she suffered malaria and was bedridden for days with high fever and chills, we took Gladys to two hospitals an hour away to get a diagnosis and the medicine she needed. Her fevers continued for days. We took her back to the hospital and she was diagnosed with typhoid fever—which necessitated another trip to the chemist for more medication.
As she was finally recovering, I bought her a peach coloured towel and a bar of soap. She had never had anything so beautiful. When her fever abated, she washed and came out smiling, wrapped in her peach towel.
“Smell me,” she said shyly to Violet.
On the first day of school, Gladys was just well enough to go. She could not stop smiling as she carefully dressed for school. She understood that her life was changing and she would not be alone anymore.
Since the first day of school, we have bought eyeglasses for Gladys, sleepwear, mattress, sanitary napkins, a required sickle for cutting the school grass, as well as all of the other school supplies, and personal supplies needed for school.
On her Spring break, we gathered Gladys and six other students together for tutoring in math and sciences, so that they would feel supported and be able to learn in a small group. Gladys has bonded with the others. She has a best friend and favourite teacher at school.
She has a better life now. I do not know what happened to the battered suitcase, but she no longer needs it. She has traded it for textbooks.