February 4th, 2009
“If Tomorrow Were My Last Day on Earth…”
By Conrad Person, Director, Corporate Contributions, Johnson & Johnson
It is a pretty place, well off the road with clouds of blue-blossomed jacaranda trees and flowers tucked into every corner. The buildings are concrete and corrugated steel, frugal in design, but built to last. The luckiest dog in Kenya approaches, sniffs and with a wag of his tail pronounces me no threat.
The Nayumbani Children of God Home in Nairobi exists because a Jesuit priest from America felt he was called to ask what Kenya was going to do about its HIV positive orphans. Father Angelo D’Agostino did not like the answer, so he applied his considerable powers of persuasion to any number of politicians, doctors and just plain folks until he was given a tract of land and an enthusiastic Godspeed.
This was in the bad old days when the diagnosis of HIV stripped people of everything. The virus picked away at their resistance, changed parents from protectors and caregivers into reed thin mockeries of themselves. But stigma was the cruelest thief. It took their jobs, their friends, their very place in society.
How much more remarkable was Father D’Ag in that he did not see his orphanage as heaven’s waiting room. He discovered that children, if fed and protected and cuddled even just a little did not wither like flowers in a dried out vase. They survived. And so, he organized the place into families, with children living as brothers and sisters under the iron love of mothers and aunties. He started a school and set his sights on preparing the children for life not death.
I never met the man, but I suspect that if I had, I would have both blessed and cursed the day. Such are encounters with the dedicated. In my mind’s eye he looms like my own mother. She was a working class black woman who, like Father D’Ag, believed, in spite of what was obvious to every last person in America, that only the best education, the best effort, and the best aspirations were fitting for her children. And so, The Nyumbani kids had to have doctors, and lab support, and anti-retrovirals. What was their cost compared to the future of a child?
I ask a little girl in a long pink dress to help me find Sister Mary Owen. She is a tiny little thing with skin the color of strong Kenyan coffee and dark liquid eyes. She grasps my hand “I will take you.” Her hand is as lost and as comfortable in mine as a bird is in a tree.
“My name is Conrad”, I say. “What’s yours?”
“Celestine” she whispers like a dry Rift Valley breeze. She takes two steps for each of mine and I find my arm swinging with odd comfort to her rhythm. Where the pavement is broken or encroached by puddles she steers me cautiously over the best path.
“Where are the geese, Celestine?” I notice quite suddenly the absence of the pointlessly aggressive brown African geese that had laid claim to the grassy square near the new teenager’s homes. During my last visit it took foot stamping and a spirited counterattack to simply walk past them.
“The geese became very naughty and so we decided to eat them. They were very good.” She answers solemnly.
Celestine is nearly eighteen but physically she looks like a slightly built 12-year-old. Her life before Nyumbani has robbed her of her full physical potential. It was a time of neglect and poor nutrition and the stress of insecurity. She also can’t quite cope with girls her own age. When she was with the teenagers, she could not fit in. She became nervous, sickly, and lost weight she could not afford to lose. She returned to her old place among the smaller children and back with her housemother. I am told that she seems happier now, but the sadness on her little face looks as if it will take a lifetime to erase.
Perhaps it will not take a lifetime. Perhaps it will simply take a fresh opportunity to have the childhood that she was denied. Perhaps as her house brothers and sisters grow to her size and beyond she will find herself ready to move to the teenager’s house along with them. Perhaps she needs to fill in the blank spaces in her life at her own pace and in her own time.
So, if tomorrow is my last day on earth, I will write a letter to Celestine to tell her that the foreign man thinks of her often and wishes her well. That I want to see her have everything this world offers in portions sized for her stomach and timed for her appetite.
But if tomorrow is not my last day on earth, let me instead write a check to Nyumbani Children of God Home so that the nest in which this little bird resides will be there as long as she needs to rest her wings before learning to fly.
(Marc’s note: Conrad works in the Corporate Contributions group at Johnson & Johnson, and as such interacts with many of the charitable organizations that the company supports, often seeing first hand their accomplishments. From time to time, Conrad, and others in the Corporate Contributions group of Johnson & Johnson, will provide some thoughts from their travels throughout the world. on JNJBTW.)