BRATTLEBORO -- Michael Gantt not too long ago got back from what he believes was his 30th trip to Kenya. But he said it was as special and meaningful as the first.
Gantt, a pastor with the Agape Christian Fellowship on Canal Street, journeyed to east Africa in February on yet another service-oriented mission for the Immanuel Christian School for the Deaf in Oyugis, Kenya. He focuses on the school's infrastructure and brought along with him a registered nurse, an EMT and a licensed nursing assistant to conduct medical examinations on the children. He, Becky Steele, her husband Bill Steele (who is also a pastor at Green Mountain Chapel) and Deena Forcier left for Kenya on Feb. 9 and returned on Feb. 25.
"It's a very impoverished area. Most children (at the school) do not have parents," Gantt said. "Most have little or no resources and the school is trying to educate them, but there is not much government assistance for anyone with a disability."
He said he gave the go-ahead to start a new 65-bed dormitory for the boys at the school and it is now under construction. Gantt said it will be identical to the one that houses the school's female students. He mentioned there are now efforts to update a classroom building constructed for the children. The other project going on is the development of a macro-lending institution to help the school become more self-sufficient and less dependent on donations.
"That's really my biggest concern, given the state of our global economy," Gantt said.
Gantt began his trips to Africa after striking up a friendship in 1991 with a Kenyan man who was attending the SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro. Along with Agape's deaf ministry, Gantt started visiting to preach in the Nairobi area before discovering the Kenya Christian School for the Deaf, which was rife with corruption, and ultimately closed. He and others then helped found Immanuel in 2010.
Gantt the entire staff was fired, with the exception of a man named Wesley Agengo, who acted as the corruption's whistleblower and is now the headmaster of Immanuel.
"He's doing a great job," Gantt said. "He really is a fantastic young man."
Becky Steele told the Reformer she had a great experience in Kenya, as she and the other medical professionals were able to assess the needs of 83 schoolchildren.
"Most children were healthy. The school is doing an awesome job with their nutrition," she said, adding that dental health was the main issue. She also said several local villagers heard about the Americans' arrival and sought help with a variety of physical ailments. She said it was particularly satisfying to identify two girls who had serious conditions (one had an enlarged heart and another needed surgery) and get them to a proper hospital.
Becky Steele said the cultural difference she experienced were eye-opening -- teachers make an average of $25 a week and even some of the most downtrodden Americans have a higher quality of life than many Kenyans.
"Despite the hardships they face, they were just so welcoming," she said. "I would go back in a heartbeat."
Her husband, Bill Steele, also said he would love to go back anytime.
"This is something we've been hoping for and planning on for quite some time now," he said. "It was, of course, incredible just to experience the culture and get to know the people. The opportunity to stay at the school gave a chance to really get into the culture and see how people live day to day. ... I don't really even have the words to describe it."
Gantt told the Reformer Kenya conducts a national academic exam every year and just two years after not even being ranked, Immanuel placed second in the country in 2013 for schools for special-needs students. This year, Immanuel took the number 1 spot and one of its schoolchildren was named the top student in Kenya.
"I'm very pleased. We have made tremendous strides," he said.
Contributions can always be made to Kenya Development Fund, 30 Canal St., Brattleboro, Vt., 05301. For more information or to donate online, visit www.kenyadevfund.org.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.