During the two weeks she volunteered at three orphanages in Africa, Lauren Vukovich visited with zebras and giraffes in a protected sanctuary, learned how to say hello (hujambo) in Swahili and couldn’t wait for the sunrise each morning.
“When the sun hits your face, it’s like the Kenyan people are warming you with their loving nature,” says Vukovich. “I had been searching for an experience like this since I was 16.”
The opportunity to visit Kenya was presented to Vukovich by Rochelle Zaranek, Macomb social work professor, whose class also led the undecided student to consider a certain career path.
“I’ve been trying to listen to my passion. I knew I really wanted to make social change,” says Vukovich, 20. “But nothing really called to me before my first social work class at Macomb.”
Although this was the off year for Macomb’s study abroad trip to Kenya, Zaranek arranged for Vukovich to meet up with other U.S. students who were volunteering at the orphanages. For her first trip abroad, Vukovich flew 16 hours to Nairobi and then travelled by bus between the three orphanages. In this eastern African nation where the landscape and culture are dramatic, Vukovich experienced multiple climates and terrains, and met people of all ages who were intensely curious about the Americans in their midst.
“When you get there, they are so excited to have you,” says Vukovich. “The children are fascinated and love you. The teenagers want to learn your language. The 20-year-olds want to know about your government and how you live, and the older people love the American fashions. They are all extremely intelligent and friendly.”
Kenya is marked by economic extremes, with nearly half of its population living below the poverty line. At the orphanages, Vukovich tutored and played with children whose parents had died from disease or violence, or did not have the means to care for and educate them. But despite the difficulties they face, Vukovich found the Kenyan people in and around the orphanages to be some of the happiest she had ever encountered.
“They literally love everything about life and just radiate pure joy,” relates Vukovich, whose wrist bears a copper bracelet that signifies her “marriage” to the orphanages’ children. “When I was there, I woke up every day feeling so satisfied and fulfilled. If you are looking for a trip that completely fills your heart so much that you never want to leave, then this is it.”