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Sonoma County teens head to Kenya for study, service project

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MacKenzi Pembroke has never traveled outside the country. The farthest she’s trekked was Washington, D.C., which she visited on an eighth-grade school trip.

That’ll change Tuesday when she boards a plane with eight other high schoolers from Sonoma County. They’re headed to Kenya, where they’ll be spending five weeks studying and volunteering at a school outside Nairobi run by Children’s Humanitarian International, a nonprofit founded six years ago by Santa Rosa Junior College board trustee Jordan Burns.

The students will spend their mornings in guest lectures about Kenya’s economy, history, agriculture and the humanitarian efforts underway there, said Burns, who, along with three chaperones, will travel with the teens. In the afternoons, the students will be assigned to classrooms where they’ll work with the children and help teach, Burns said.

About 130 children are enrolled at the school for preschoolers to sixth graders. Many are orphans or come from single-parent households and extreme poverty, Burns said.

All the teens received partial or full scholarships for the trip, and attend Sonoma Academy and Analy, El Molino, Santa Rosa and Windsor high schools. They’ll also visit a camp for people displaced in the aftermath of the 2007 disputed presidential elections, as well as Kibera, one of the world’s biggest slums.

“We don’t see it very often here,” said Pembroke, 16, a senior this fall at El Molino High School who wants to go into the Peace Corps, preferably in Africa.

While seeing the poverty and experiencing the daily difficulties may be hard, she said, they’ll serve as a reminder of how lucky she is to live in this country.

That’s the impact Burns hopes to have on the students.

“We want them to realize the benefits of education,” he said. “So many students in the U.S. take education for granted.”

Before their departure, the group spent a day at the Four Winds ropes course in Occidental working on a team-building exercise, taking part in low-course cable walks, tree climbing and zip lining.

Although her parents initially had reservations about the trip, Emma Guerrero, 16, said they recognized it was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that would change my life forever.”

Guerrero, who spent the past few days worried about packing and being away from her family for so long, was excited about volunteering in the classrooms, and installing a school playground.

“We’re not only traveling to this country, exploring a new culture. We’re going to be helping people there,” she said.

“I hope to gain more perspective how the world is just outside of Santa Rosa,” said Guerrero, who will be a senior at Santa Rosa High School. “I just want to learn about their culture and their conditions.”

She’s also looking forward to the daily lessons on Swahili, a language she’s never heard.

Ashley Trejo, 16, went online to learn Swahili as soon as she learned she was accepted into the program with a full scholarship.

“I learned basic introductions and how to ask questions, like how to ask if someone has a brother,” said Trejo, a rising junior at Sonoma Academy, who thought she’d be spending her summer working at a burger joint. While she expects to wrestle with culture shock, she can’t wait to step out of her comfort zone.

“It’s a huge gift that I would have never (dreamed of),” said Trejo, who hopes to become a doctor and join Doctors without Borders.

Thanks to private and business donations, and a grant from the Community Foundation Sonoma County, Burns said the nonprofit awarded students scholarships ranging from $500 to the full cost of the program at $5,400.

He hopes to inspire the students to not only solve problems overseas but also at home.

“These students are still being molded,” he said. “We want to inspire them while they’re still learning, when they’re fresh and their minds are open.”

Burns was a UC Berkeley undergraduate student when he went to Kenya on a similar program in 2010. He spent six weeks learning about the nation’s politics and peace-building efforts, and working with children there.

“One of the biggest things I realized when I was in Kenya was how much appreciation the students had for school,” Burns said.

The children wanted books and uniforms to go to school, not toys or video games, he said. That inspired him to launch the nonprofit later that year.

He initially raised money to sponsor children for school. Last year, his nonprofit purchased an existing private school and opened it up to underprivileged children.

He said the trip won’t be all work. The high schoolers will spend their weekends exploring the Nairobi National Museum, Lake Naivasha, Mount Kenya and the Great Rift Valley. The students also will take a safari in the Masai Mara National Reserve.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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