Saturday August 24, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- For the past 22 years, Pastor Michael Gantt has been traveling to East Africa on service-oriented missions. Since 2005 he has been focusing his attention on Ringa, Kenya, where a school for deaf children has aspired to care for some of the most vulnerable members of Kenyan society.

"We have a deaf ministry here in our church in Brattleboro," said Gantt, about the Agape Christian Fellowship on Canal Street. "We ran across this little school in Kenya in 2003, but I did not become actively involved as an advocate until 2005."

Gantt began his trips to Africa after starting a friendship in 1991 with a man from Kenya who was attending the SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro.

"I fell in love with his church," said Gantt. "They do a lot of rural development in tribal areas."

Three years after becoming an advocate for the Immanuel Christian School for the Deaf in Ringa, Gantt helped school administrators develop a long-term, multi-stage strategic development plan that included purchasing property, developing agricultural resources for growing food, construction of safe and comfortable housing and classroom environments and various economic self-reliance initiatives.

"Since that time, we have been taking careful, calculated steps forward," said Gantt.

Recently, the school purchased a parcel of property and last year built a new dormitory.

The school's current goal is to raise about $20,000 to build another dorm, buy reliable transportation and purchase more agricultural land.

"There is a working farm there and they are growing most of their own food there," said Gantt. "Five years ago that was not happening and the children's health was really bad."

The school has a poultry farm of about 850 chickens that produces eggs and poultry products, both for consumption and sale.

"Eventually, we would like to establish a bakery that could be very productive and profitable. It would be not just a money-making venture, but also provide vocational training."

In a nation with an unemployment rate as high as Kenya's, said Gantt, "A deaf person has no chance of employment if he or she doesn't have good vocational or technical training."

Other long-range initiatives include building permanent classrooms and a new dining hall and kitchen.

Since developing the long-range plan, enrollment at the school has increased from 30 to 100, said Gantt.

"Last year, the school stood for the national exams for the first time ever and scored second in the nation," he said.

Despite the leaps and bounds the school has taken in the last eight years, Gantt is continuously scraping together donations to finance the master plan.

"I'll go anywhere and speak to anyone," he said. "Funds are hard to come by these days and Americans tend to be emotional givers. The money goes to the most current tragedy and the ongoing day-to-day needs tend to get abandoned. It makes it tough."

Gantt is planning to return to Ringa in January with a medical team to help establish a medical record of all the school's students. Physical examinations will help identify any underlying ailments and serve as the basis for treatments going forward.

Becky Steele, a nurse at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, and her husband Bill, the pastor of Green Mountain Chapel on Western Avenue in Brattleboro who is also an emergency medical technician, will be members of the medical team.

"We have for years wanted to do more overseas missions," said Becky Steele. "As we've both gotten closer to retirement, we've felt this is a good thing to do."

While her husband has participated in service-based missions, this will be her first, and for both of them, their first trip to the heart of Africa.

"We are going to be doing physical assessments and some wound care," she said. "We are hoping to get it all done in a week."

She is currently compiling a list of items she needs to accomplish her tasks and hopes to receive donations, both in materials and cash.

"We'll especially need wound care stuff," she said.

Mike Ingersoll, a registered nurse at Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend and a member of the West Townshend Cavalry Church, will also be a member of the medical team. As a specialist in wound care, he knows his time and energy will be spread thin.

"I've been to Africa twice with Michael. The last time we were in Uganda. When we were there we treated a lot of eye infections. They do their cooking over open flames and many of them have festering wounds that haven't healed for years."

This will be Ingersoll's first trip to Ringa and he is doing it because Gantt asked him to.

"I love Michael Gantt and I love his church. I would go wherever he wants me to go. It's something that God wants us to do."

Like Becky Steele, Ingersoll is also hoping to collect donations of materials and cash.

"We need all the contributions we can get," he said.

Contributions can be sent to Kenya Development Fund, 30 Canal Street, Brattleboro, Vt., 05301. For more information on what type of medical supplies are needed, contact Becky Steele at 802-451-6619. For more information or to donate online, visit www.kenyadevfund.org.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.