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Helmets for Kenya

Bigelow uses local ties to bring Lakeridge football helmets to orphanage
by: SUBMITTED PHOTO, Orphans at the Mission in Action Orphanage located on the outskirts of Nakuru, Kenya, try out Lakeridge High School football helmets that are being used by night guards at the facility for protection against thieves. There is no indication that the ethnic violence that has killed more than 300 people in Kenya since last Thursday's disputed presidential election has affected life at the orphanage.

Four gold Lakeridge High School football helmets have a new home outside of the locker room.

Night guards at a rural orphanage in Kenya are wearing the helmets to protect themselves from intruders after an incident jeopardized the security of the children and staff.

Kara Bigelow, a Lake Oswego resident, recently returned from a four-month stay in Kenya where she volunteered at the Mission in Action Orphanage, also known as Nakuru Baby Orphanage, located on the outskirts of Nakuru, Rift Valley Province, Kenya in East Africa.

During her first week in the village, four men captured and beat the orphanage night guard, which caused severe injuries to the back of his head.

Bigelow, 27, was surprised by the crime in the area.

'The amount of crime really shocked me from the very beginning,' she said. 'I would have to walk around with guards because I stood out like a sore thumb over there.'

Since she had a friend from home coming to visit her in Africa, Bigelow asked the owners of the orphanage if there was anything her friend could bring from the U.S. to help with their security problem.

'They asked me if I could get a hold of 'gridlock helmets,'' she said. 'I had no idea what they were talking about. Once I decoded it, I found out that it meant football helmets.'

Bigelow said that helmets and safety equipment are hard-to-find items in rural Kenya.

'You cannot get helmets anywhere,' she said. 'You can't import them because they're tagged as a dangerous item used for battle.'

After writing an e-mail to family and friends back home, Bigelow felt the support of her hometown community. Her mother, Sue Bigelow, received donations from family, friends and from some unfamiliar names hoping to increase the safety of the children and workers in the Kenyan village.

'My mom contacted some family friends that play football in the community,' she said. 'I thought they were going to run out to (GI) Joe's and get them (helmets), but the team just donated them.'

A Lakeridge player's mom had contacted the football coach and the football program contributed several previously used football helmets for the guards.

Rob Kool, Lakeridge's head football coach, said the request gave him a new perspective.

'A lot of the time, we take for granted all of the things we have,' he said. 'And it just put everything in perspective when they asked for any kind of helmet for protection.'

Bigelow's friend packed the four football helmets in his suitcase for Kenya.

The children at the orphanage gazed at the sight of the gold helmets, unsure of what to do with them.

'I had to tell them what we use the helmets for,' Bigelow said. 'We don't use them for protection, except for on the field.'

The community played a game of American football, after Bigelow explained the rules. But with no footballs lying around, the children got creative and gathered four shirts and wrapped them in twine to create a makeshift ball.

'We got some of the smaller kids and people from the village to play with us,' Bigelow said. 'They were all trying on the helmets and everyone wanted to touch it and take pictures with it. It was a really big deal.'

From across the world, Lakeridge received a thank you from the community in Kenya.

'We got an e-mail picture back of the kids wearing the helmets over there,' Kool said. 'It was a really neat thing.'

In addition to the football helmets, Lake Oswego residents collected enough money to help implement other security measures onto the orphanage's 10-acre property.

The Mission in Action Orphanage is home to 31 children ranging from newborn babies to six year olds and functions as a little village in Kenya. But because of a theft problem, it is necessary to close off the land to deter people from stealing from the organization and farmland. The donations were used to help replace the small wire fence with sturdy fence posts.

'We also added four alarms, repaired the lighting, which wasn't working,' Bigelow said. 'The biggest thing we got were two German shepherd guard dogs, and they're really expensive - they're imported from India. They alert us if there's anyone out there.'

Bigelow said that they were able to hire three Masai warriors for an entire year. The guards, who are part of a well-known tribe in Kenya, are protected each night thanks to the helmets.

Although the helmets may seem like a small item, Bigelow realizes their value to the Kenyan community.

'One thing they didn't really have is security,' she said. 'And now I feel like they do have it. Every child should feel safe in their own home.'

As a former Lakeridge graduate, Bigelow is grateful for the generosity of the Lake Oswego community. And giving back has now become a priority for the Lakeridge football program.

'It doesn't take a whole lot of effort to make a big difference sometimes,' Kool said. 'It makes me think on a different vein of thought, like what can we do to make a difference and what would be a good lesson for our kids in the program to learn and to give back to not just our community but also to our community in the world?'

'I'm hoping to think of some things that we can do that are feasible and that will make a difference,' Kool said.

Kara Bigelow is the daughter of former Lake Oswego Review and West Linn Tidings publisher Bob Bigelow, who died in 2000. Her mother Sue continues to live in Lake Oswego.