Kirsten Carpentier finds her niche at a Kenyan orphanage, helping to stem the tide of the AIDS epidemic
'In Kenya there's a saying, 'slowly by slowly, things get done,'' Kirsten Carpentier says. It's a phrase she has taken to heart in her own efforts to confront the deadly HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa.
Carpentier, the program assistant at the Pacific Institute for Ethics and Social Policy at Pacific University, had followed the HIV/AIDS crisis since the 1980s, becoming more and more concerned as it grew. But it was on a trip to Kenya last year where the 50-year-old Hillsboro resident would find her own niche in helping Africans cope with the deadly disease.
Four years ago she helped start an advocacy group, the United Unitarian Global AIDS Coalition with members of her church, and then became involved in the Portland Area Global AIDS Coalition.
Finally, last summer, she traveled to Kenya herself, spending five weeks with a group of volunteers, living in mud huts and working on HIV/AIDS-related projects.
Carpentier had already been in Kenya for several weeks when she came to the Happy Children's Centre orphanage in the coastal town of Malindi.
In Kenya, like much of sub-Saharan region, the spread of HIV/AIDS has reached seemingly overwhelming proportions and had a devastating effect on children.
More than 1.2 million Kenyans are infected with HIV, according to the United Nations, and more than 650,000 children have been orphaned by AIDS deaths.
At the Happy Children's Centre, more than 350 orphans slept on mats on the floor of a bare-walled, stone-and-mortar building, and squeezed into a tiny, two-room school for their education.
The children's parents -and sometimes, entire families - had died from AIDS, and they had nowhere else to turn. Some of the children are infected with HIV themselves.
To make matters worse, the orphanage's director, the Rev. Zablon Assa Konde, had received notice from the Kenyan Ministry of Education that unless a new building could be built, the school would be shut down in January.
The center had begun work on the new building, but did not have enough money to complete it.
Focusing on the immediate need, Carpentier's group brought 49 mosquito nets for the children - badly needed in the malaria-plagued region. But she also brought something else that most of the children had never seen before: art supplies.
It was then that Carpentier's personal relationship with the Happy Children's Centre began to unfold.
Carpentier enlisted the children, few of whom had ever drawn before, to help decorate the bare walls of their school. She asked them to paint what they imagined their new orphanage would look like to.
She was captivated by how much the children enjoyed making art. 'Once they started painting it was so magical,' Carpentier said.
Back at home in Hillsboro, 9,000 miles from Malindi, Carpentier turned photographs of the children's paintings into greeting cards and began selling them to raise money for the orphanage. She held raffles at her church, and began calling friends and family to ask them to donate money.
'I've contacted everyone I know,' she said. 'They all heard about the Happy Children's Centre whether they wanted to or not.'
Carpentier said she was amazed at people's generosity. So far she has raised more than $7,000 for the orphanage - an amount that will go a long way in Malindi.
A mosquito net that costs $40 in the United States costs a just $5 in Kenya, for example. In addition to more nets, the funds will go toward finishing construction on the new school and buying desks.
Carpentier will bring the money when she returns to Malindi to check up on the orphanage next month.
'I realize that these are just a few hundred children in the big scheme of the pandemic,' Carpentier said. 'But I felt like I could make some kind of difference in these kids' lives.'
She is holding one last fundraising event for the orphanage before she leaves, an 'upscale rummage sale' on Saturday, July 22, at a Portland home. A quilt, inspired by the orphans' paintings of their new school, will be raffled off at the sale. Carpentier said it was made by Anne Papworth, a Portland woman she had never met before, who heard about the fund-raising effort.
Carpentier will be bringing more than just money for the children on her next voyage to Kenya. In addition to soccer balls donated by Nike and valuable medicines, she has a handmade card for each child. Made by Carpentier's friends and friends of friends, each card is addressed to an orphan by name and includes a personal message of inspiration, signed by the card's maker.
Children at the orphanage have practically no personal possessions. Carpentier created the cards to that they could have something they could think of as their own.
'These kids don't get anything. There's nothing personal that says 'that child is special,'' she said. 'I thought, wouldn't be nice if they had a message from somebody letting them know that they are thinking of them?'
Carpentier also plans to continue her work interviewing the children at the orphanage, recording their lives and struggles with HIV/AIDS.
'Right now, we don't really know what their stories are,' Carpentier said. 'We want to get the message out there and get their voices out there.'