Your home may be worth more than you think. Call me to find out why.

Janet Hoeft: 631-974-6303  |

Visit my website

Connecting in and out of Kenya: The trip begins when you come home

Opinion / Letters by: Vivienne Cierski, March 28, 2023

In February, members of Northport High School’s Students for 60,000 (SF60K) group traveled to Kenya to complete work on a schoolhouse. High school sophomore Vivienne Cierski shares her story in this piece, and, with her fellow SF60K group members, at a community forum tonight at Northport Public Library. Photo courtesy of SF60K.

Editor’s note: In February, members of Northport High School’s Students for 60,000 (SF60K) group traveled to Kenya to complete work on a schoolhouse in Mtito Andei, a project the organization began in 2020. Below, high school sophomore Vivienne Cierski shares a touching and impactful piece about her time on the trip, the people she met, and what she learned along the way. Vivienne and her fellow SF60K members will share more of their experiences, including a video documentary, at a community forum tonight, Tuesday, March 28 at 7pm at the Northport Public Library.

Ever since I came back from a week-and-a-half long service trip to central Kenya, people have been asking me what I’ve learned. After all, the trip was intended to be a learning experience for all of us; led by two teacher-advisors bringing 24 high school students to a remote, rural African community to help build a school. Leading up to the trip, I promised myself that I would go in with an open mind and heart. I would try to empathize, walk in their shoes, and broaden my mental horizons as much as possible while there. Return proudly. Finally, a citizen of the world.

Our team leader, Tim Gibson, had a saying, “Americans live for tomorrow, while Kenyans can live only for today.” These words stayed with me through the trip, they slipped into the cracks in my mind, like how the red Kenyan sand had collected in the little valleys of our hands and fingers and left their color behind. I would turn that phrase over, and over again. I still do, even when home.

When first heard, perhaps (however unintended) the feeling is pity. After all, these people had been through the unimaginable consequences of extreme poverty. The drought that had plagued the area we visited for over three years had left the land infertile and unforgiving. Crops had failed, livestock slowly died off, children were left hungry. Their only option was to live for today. Today was their only guarantee, the only certainty they could cling to.

As a direct result of our privilege and our American lifestyle, we are constantly looking to the future. For many of us, we look to tomorrow simply because we can afford to. Why worry about today when there is food on the table, a high degree of safety, and a warm bed to sleep in at night? Some could say we live in a constant atmosphere of certainty.

In a way, we were giving them the capacity to look to the future, as we do. A school can represent so much – an acknowledgement of our human evolution, our constant struggle to improve as a whole species. And nothing could better symbolize that vision of tomorrow, and the hope that a new generation will step even closer to an understanding than we ever could.

However, throughout the trip, I wondered about this forethought we so readily offered to them. Who was right, and far more importantly, who lives a happier, more fulfilling life? The people who live for tomorrow, or those who appreciate today? And perhaps the root of our own problems lies in this continuous forethought.

To that end, we often hear professionals talk about us needing to be more present in the now. To live in the moment. Seize the day. Grab ahold of this gift we have been given; the sun will only rise for us so many times. And they advise us on this for good reason. Family members or peers say that living for today changed their lives while countdown apps tick away on their phones, displaying the seconds until their next vacation. Teenager’s formative years are spent first preparing for the challenges of high school, then gathering résumé items for a college application. The idea of today in our society has been whittled down to a stepping stone in the direction of our goals, rather than a rock where we can sit and gaze out at the quiet and beautiful intricacies of our own day-to-day lives.

While we have so much, while we are so aware of our privilege, living in the land of opportunity… the great monster of self-doubt, self-loathing, unhappiness, helplessness, and despair hangs over so many of us. The American suicide rate has increased by 30% since the year 2000. Now more than half of American teenagers say they are unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives. How can a society that constantly strives to make our lives easier and better reach this level of unfulfillment?

A quote by Blaise Pascal can be used to articulate this: “All things can be deadly to us, even the things made to serve us; as in nature walls can kill us, and stairs can kill us, if we do not walk circumspectly.” Therein lies the deceptive cadence of our lives; we have worked so hard to make time for what is important, what is often right in front of us, and yet still we are caught looking to the farthest horizons. It seems even our own progress has in some ways deteriorated our ability to build relationships with others, live in the moment, foster connections and find what is truly important in our lives.

We were there to learn from them. Perhaps it was us who needed the hope, us who needed the insight of these people who lived so differently than us. It was easier before to see Africa in black and white – an overall underdeveloped, impoverished country, filled only with the cries of hungry children and the sighs of their parents. We tend to trivialize and categorize things we do not fully understand. This view is not incorrect, but it also only shows one side of an incredibly complex place. On the other side, the people dance and sing, they smile and wave, the women and men wear loud, beautiful colors, and they are filled with life. This is not to understate the situation they are in, or downplay the help they need and have asked for. However, since they cannot live for tomorrow, they make today as irreplaceable as they can, put all of themselves into the making of a masterpiece before the sun sets, and I hope that I can bring a piece of their art home with me.

In this way, I believe I learned on this trip the importance of connection. Real, human connection that needs only to be built with a smile, a handshake, a few brief words. At home we often tiptoe around the truth, afraid of forgetting ourselves, overstepping a boundary, looking like a fool. But there it became clear that the necessity of spoken word melts before an acknowledgement of respect and the action of working toward a common goal.

I often wonder about the children we left behind there, the ones we made connections with without needing to speak the same language. I hope that in some small way we improved their lives as they improved ours. Most will likely not make it through their secondary schooling years for a myriad of reasons – many need to provide for their own families at a very early age. A small number could make it to a university and pursue highly skilled careers, and we hoped that the connections we made with them would inspire them to continue their education as best as they could. Already at their age they had experienced hardships that we could not even imagine. Most only can afford to have one meal a day, if that, and the teachers had told us that children would come to school crying because they were so hungry. Yet still, they greeted us with warm, unassuming smiles, they took our hands in theirs, and they showed us their pride and their beauty.

On one of the days of our work in the village, we broke into groups, and several of the schoolchildren led us from the school to one of their homes. When we were walking the red dirt road from the worksite, a little girl took my hand and walked with me the two miles to the home we were visiting. In the community we traveled to, Mtito Andei, the people speak some Swahili but mostly a dialect of Kikamba, which is a Bantu language. The children are learning English in school, and while we could tell they were nervous at first to speak to us, by the end of the trip, they spoke amazing English to us, including the girl I was walking with.

Aspiring journalist and high school sophomore Vivienne Cierski with a child she bonded with in Kenya. Photo courtesy of SF60K.

As we traveled down the road, she would point at things we would pass. A goat here, a church hidden behind dry, spiky brush. I would ask her questions about her life and she would answer, slow at first, then less hesitant as the walk went on. She asked me about myself, my life back home, and she would smile when I answered. She told me what the red sand was called in her language, she told me about her family, which was now just her brother and her mother in “a house with no top.”

When we came back the next day, she found me through the crowd and gave me a big hug. We played together and talked for hours through the trip, and I can still picture her perfect smile in my mind. In her face I saw all the little kids I knew back home, my younger cousins, the toddlers who I see every morning going to school, slowly stepping their way onto the schoolbus in the early morning hours. I saw all the opportunities they would get and she wouldn’t, the innocence they possessed that had been taken from her too early when she first had to face the world of great despair she was living in.

Leaving her was incredibly difficult. Her little voice saying, “I wish I could come with you,” had left me speechless. I told her that I would see her soon. I would come back next year, hopefully knowing more of her language.

She had said, “I will watch for you, I will pray for you.”

It did break my heart. My spirit felt heavier on the bus ride back. But I knew now she had something to look forward to, a sort of future, however small, that gave her hope. Since coming back from the trip, I’ve noticed my new appreciation for the simple things of my life, the quiet little blessings that line my house, my school, my community. I realized that it would be a disservice to her and to all the children there not to grab any opportunity that comes my way.

I hope to continue learning from this experience and from the Kenyan people who were so kind to us. As our leaders said after many years of service trips under their belts, the trip only really begins when you come home.

Until next year – thank you, Kenya!

Schoolchildren from the rural African community of Mtito Andei. Photo courtesy of SF60K.