Thursday, December 5, 2002
Last summer, Skyler Casey had a conversion of some kind, though she won''t call it an epiphany. She received a message from God, although she''s not an evangelist. Instead it was a calling. She was given a mission.
Knocked back after losing her dot-com job as well as having a second "devastating personal experience" that she''d rather not discuss, Casey found herself in Kenya volunteering at an orphanage. She found herself in the middle of a disaster zone, a starving nation in slow, rotting apocalypse.
"There are people who have desperate needs," Casey says.
Casey went to Africa with a local church that has a mission in Nairobi. She volunteered in an orphanage. Soon though, the missionary lifestyle began to seem to her incongruent with the missionary purpose; as an American missionary, a person can expect to live relatively comfortably in Africa, while many Kenyans are starving and poor, diseased and dying. She found, too, she says, that the missions were as much about themselves as the mission. She says she found them eager to attach their name to any good work they might be doing.
"I saw too many people, too many organizations wanting credit," she says. "I don''t want someone''s name on the door. It''s not about us anymore."
Casey had been living in Monterey and working as a producer for an online digital photography portal. It went bust in April 2001 after starting up in 1999.
"When the dot-coms went down, we went down with them," she says.
Being laid-off, rocked by a death in the family and dissatisfied with the "waste and greed" in modern American society, she found herself looking for answers. She gave herself, though she is emphatic that this is not about her.
"It was God saying ''You''re done. It''s not about you anymore,''" she says. "When God speaks he could have said, ''Thailand'' or ''Iowa.'' For me, ''Africa'' is what the word was."
After working for a while through a mission attached to a local church, Casey went off on her own, against the strong warnings of others. As a single, solo, white woman, she knew she was in danger of being robbed. She was robbed.
Despite the perils, she says, she lived in a small apartment on her own, ate at the local food stands and traveled with Kenyans, packed 25 to minivan.
"You just get sick everyday," she says. "You get used to it."
In her travels she found herself continually stepping over the "street children" who sprawl out on the sidewalks and under shrubbery. There are reportedly thousands of them in Nairobi. Many are orphans of parents felled by AIDS. With parents sick or dying, neighbors and relatives try to care for children but cannot even feed themselves.
"The people can''t take care of their own, let alone their neighbors'', children," she says. "It''s not like they had trouble with mom and dad. There is no mom and dad."
Casey recorded much of what she saw on Nairobi streets and in ghettos called Mathare Valley, Kariochioggio and Dairogetti. The photos of the street children, taken surreptitiously, are truly desperate.
She says it''s too dangerous for the children to sleep at night so they sleep in the day. Many of them sniff glue to stave off hunger.
Indeed, Kenya is in bad shape. Although it prospered after independence from colonial rule in 1963, its economic health quickly plunged, much of it blamed on bad economic policy.
Widespread corruption, decay and government inertia is blamed on the despotic 24-year rule of President Daniel arap Moi, who leaves office in December.
Worse than the tyrant is the chilling specter of AIDS that looms over sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, at least 13.5 percent of the population, or 2.2 million people, are thought to be infected. The disease has become such a problem, not only in Africa but around the world, that the United States now considers AIDS a threat to national security for its power to destabilize nations and regions. A United Nations report issued last week found that half of AIDS victims are women, further tearing at family. An estimated 29.4 million Africans have HIV/AIDS. By year-end, an estimated 42 million people around the world will be infected. As many as 14 million children have been orphaned by the disease.
Casey has seen the grim results of the pandemic as it''s created a generation of lost children.
"In the next few years, there''s going to be a horror scene," she says. "I want to put a sign on my car and say ''Wake Up America.'' Yes, there was 9-11, but it''s every single day in Africa."
Having seen that suffering, she wants to help. Now back on the Peninsula, Casey has formed a non-profit called angelBONES to help the lost souls of Kenya. (A website, angelbones.com, is under construction.) She has begun a "bare-bones" campaign to secure a shelter for the street children. She hopes to raise $2 million to buy a shuttered, colonial-era boarding school in the countryside outside of Nairobi where abandoned children will not only be fed but educated and cared for.
She also hopes to start a "community based, respite-relief center" in the Mathare Valley slum where she worked on her last trip to Africa. She plans a local and nationwide fundraising campaign this winter-despite what is accepted as a poor economic climate to be asking for money.
"I am going to get the funding. I am not stopping," she says. "I need people to wake up and recognize you can be one person and do something about it."
Casey has put together a PowerPoint slide-show of her campaign to shelter 200 street kids in the former school. And unlike the typical holiday-season charity that gets some food to people once a year, she wants to be able make a permanent difference.
"I''ve got these kids over there who are sleeping on the street, who need beds," she says. "They need food. They need a banana. They don''t need a big turkey showing up at their door once a year."
Skyler Casey will be making a presentation for her campaign in the community room of the Monterey Public Library at 7pm on Wednesday, Dec. 11.