Greetings and welcome back to Holly’s Headlines! I hope that everyone had a well-deserved, fun and relaxing summer. While everyone uses their downtime during the summer season differently, summertime for me is always used to play catch-up with long distance friends. Personally, I enjoy reaching out the “old fashioned way” – by handwriting a letter. While writing these letters this summer to my old friends, I found myself thinking about my African pen pal named Lilian. Throughout my years working in Africa I have met hundreds of children of all ages and backgrounds. I’ve encountered children who were healthy, children who were sickly and starving, children with families, and children who were orphaned. My encounters with all of these children brought me equal amounts of joy. However, there was one little girl in particular that really stuck out in the crowd.
One morning I embarked on a day-trip with a group of Sisters to a slum outside of Nairobi, Kenya. It was a typical mid-week school day for the children of the slum. They would come and be educated by the Sisters, eat their lunch (which for most was their only meal for the day), and then be on their way to whatever form of “home” they had. Often there were children who would not come for the education, but simply show up just for the meal. There was one little girl in particular that came everyday just to eat. I noticed that the Sister’s would allow her to take a small portion of food home with her and later I would come to learn why.
Lilian was her name. At only 10 years old, she was the oldest child in her family. Looking at her it was hard to believe that Lilian was ten. She suffered from malnutrition which left her very underdeveloped. Lilian was responsible for her younger siblings who were too young to attend school. Her mother, a widow, would work all day and most evenings to provide for her family. Thus, Lilian couldn’t attend school because she played the role of a stay-at-home mom. This is where the extra portion of food was going – to her younger siblings in the slum. Since Lillian couldn’t attend school during usual hours, she received “homeschooling” from the Sisters when their regular school hours were over. After taking a curiosity in the small, impoverished girl, I was asked if I would like to accompany the Sister who was homeschooling her. Without hesitation I expressed, with great excitement: “Yes, I would love to!”
When the school day ended I went to Lilian’s “home." There were three younger siblings with her when we arrived. A sister who was 5 years old, a 3-year-old brother, and a baby brother who was only six months of age. The Sister explained that she received this special education because her father was the former groundskeeper for the Sisters at their convent. Sadly, her father had passed away shortly before her baby brother was born. Since the Sisters were close to her father, they made sure to take his widow and children under their care, and provided them with meals and private education. I had attended Lillian’s homeschooling sessions for the rest of my trip. Each school day I would see her come in to eat her lunch and gather the portions set aside for her siblings. Lillian and I became friends, saying “see you later” in school and then chatting in her home when the Sister was finished with her private lessons.
Since there was no set curriculum for homeschooling and I had taken such an interest in Lilian’s story over the weeks I spent attending her homeschooling sessions, the Sisters suggested the idea that Lilian and I become “pen pals.” This would not only help Lilian with her reading, writing, and English language, but also enable me to keep in touch with her when I returned to the United States.
For several months, through the help of the Sisters, I was able to keep in touch with Lilian. I was always looking forward to receiving letters from her. They even had a special place in my house – showcased on my refrigerator! Weeks would go by between each letter, as the postal system in the slums is not quite “first class mail.” That is why it took me a while to realize that I hadn’t heard from Lillian in a while. When weeks turned to months I knew something was seriously wrong, so I wrote to the Sister asking if things were okay. The weeks waiting for a letter back from the Sister felt like years. Then finally it came, the last letter.
The Sister had written back to me and said: “The weather in Kenya can get very cold at night during certain times of the year. One night Lillian and her siblings were sleeping while her mother was still at work. Lillian had started a small campfire to heat their one-room hut and keep them warm while they slept. The fire went out of control and engulfed the hut in which they were sleeping. This was the evening that Lilian and her siblings were called home to our Lord. The news of their death shocked the whole community. One man stated, ‘There was nothing they could do! There was no water to put out the fire! All they could do was scream, cry, pray, and watch the roaring fire as it took the lives of those four sweet children.’”
To this day, sharing this heartbreaking experience with you brings tears back to my eyes and sadness back to my heart. Every summer as I write to my long-distance friends I think about the letters that I used to write to my little pen pal, Lillian. I feel her spirit here with me today as I am sharing this story with each of you.
“Hol(l)y Headlines!” ~ a bit of a play on words ~ is an "Extra! Extra! Read All About It" call to build missionary momentum as part of our ongoing effort to educate and motivate the next generation of the Catholic Church's missionaries.
With "Hol(l)y Headlines!" it's all about the "news from the Missions you can use in your life" and "how you can be a part of it through the Missionary Childhood Association (MCA) and the Pontifical Mission Societies."
The blog's author, Holly Benner, is National Coordinator for the Missionary Childhood Association. She's also the mission education coordinator in her home Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania. She has a passion for the missions and experience in making mission real at the diocesan level. For 10 years, Holly traveled frequently to Africa as president of a faith-based non-profit that she founded, one focused on developing sustainable water resources among poor communities.