Like many young adults, Jessica Cochol rang in her 21 birthday surrounded by dozens of people joyfully dancing and singing. Unlike many other young adults, however, Cochol was standing in a Catholic church in Nairobi, Kenya, at the time rather than in a local bar or club.
“It was a Sunday, so we went to a two-hour-long Mass. It’s a huge celebration, so it’s awesome. You didn’t mind staying there that long,” she said.
Cochol’s birthday fell during the three weeks she spent in Kenya on a service trip with 10 fellow students from LeMoyne College in Syracuse and one student from Boston College. The students and several faculty members left for Kenya May 22 and returned June 12. While they were overseas, they volunteered with several organizations and agencies that help people with HIV and AIDS.
Cochol, who belongs to St. Mary Parish in Canandaigua, and the other volunteers spent much of their time at the Nyumbani Children’s Home, an orphanage for children who’ve been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. There they learned about measures the orphanage was taking to help the children, and they also spent hours playing and developing relationships with the youths.
Those moments spent playing with the orphans were particularly memorable for Cochol, who said she had never interacted with someone with HIV or AIDS before embarking on the trip to Kenya.
“It was really hard seeing the children in the orphanage,” Cochol said. “You play with them and you totally forget that they’re all HIV-positive.”
The orphans were as loving and active as any children Cochol had ever encountered, and she said sometimes she only remembered they were infected with the virus when she glimpsed several of the children sitting indoors by themselves because they were too sick to play with the volunteers.
The volunteers were only in Kenya for three weeks, but that was long enough for them to form strong bonds with the children, Cochol said. Most other volunteer groups usually spend three months working at the orphanage, because it’s hard on the children when volunteers must break the bonds when they leave, she added.
“We all had really great connections with the children there, so it was pretty hard to leave at the end,” she said.
When Cochol, who is a communications major going into her senior year at LeMoyne, and the other volunteers weren’t at the orphanage, they could often be found in the slums of Nairobi. Working with Leatoto, a community-based outreach program for people with HIV and AIDS, they visited and distributed medicine to HIV-positive clients in their homes.
Although the students usually only saw each client once during their visit, Cochol said she was touched by their situations and felt just as connected to the clients as she had to the orphans. During one home visit, she met a frail woman who couldn’t even rise from her chair without assistance because the virus had taken such a toll on her body.
“That was really hard and moving to see,” she recalled.
Despite their hardships, most of the people she met impressed Cochol with their kindness and friendliness, she added.
“I actually was surprised. I felt right at home the first day we were there. Everyone’s just so welcoming there, and so nice. The city’s really nice,” Cochol said.
Cochol and the other volunteers also spent time volunteering with the Nyumbani Village Program. Volunteers there are starting a village near the town of Kitui for people touched by HIV and AIDS, and Cochol and the other students planted trees and watered plants. When Cochol returned home to Canandaigua, she learned Kitui is the hometown of Father Dominic Nyamai, an extern priest who is serving the new cluster formed by St. Mary Parish and St. Bridget/St. Joseph Parish in East Bloomfield.
She said she was surprised to see how many people in Kenya are infected with HIV and AIDS. The virus is a huge problem there, and many people didn’t seem to be as educated about it as they could be, Cochol said. In fact, some people she encountered even thought the virus had been caused by demons.
Cochol hadn’t known much more about HIV and AIDS than what she learned in her high-school health class, so she went into her service trip with an open mind. Keeping an open mind and having no specific expectations helped her understand the situation more clearly than would have been possible if she went to Kenya with preconceived notions of the AIDS crisis and how to fix it, she said.
“We go in with an open mind, (thinking) let’s learn about it and hear what they have to say, then we’ll take what we’ve learned home and share it,” she said.
The trip to Kenya had a profound experience on Cochol, and she said it was hard for her to adjust to life back in American culture when she returned to Canandaigua last month.
“The first few days I didn’t even want to see anyone,” she said.
Cochol was unable to drive from her mind the images of the HIV-positive people she’d met, and the trip sparked a strong desire to do something more to help them out. She hopes to one day return to Kenya to help more people. She and the other LeMoyne students who traveled to Nairobi might try to start a fundraising or awareness-raising project once they return to school next month, she added.
“There’s so much we should be doing to help them over there,” she said.