LUMBERTON — Frances Brunson, a benefits advocate who has spent the past 13 years helping families in Robeson County connect with health aid programs, recently became an advocate for children thousands of miles away.
It was her volunteer work with children that took Brunson, an eligibility benefits specialist for Boulder Outreach at Southeastern Regional Medical Center, to the East African country of Kenya. One of her missions was to help kindergarten children who only recently had access to a school close to their small village.
She took plenty of goodwill and contributions from her friends and church family in Lumberton, who themselves were still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Matthew and its flooding but were ready to give back. She took books, school supplies, shoes, socks and other needed items.
Brunson went to Kenya in February after being drawn to helping the village by a friend associated with an organization named A Call to Men, which teaches positive masculinity to young males.
“It tells them about how to respect women more,” Brunson said.
The other two components of the trip were exercise programs for kids in larger schools and supplying a kindergarten built so the small children wouldn’t have to walk two miles to school every day.
“When they talked about that, it was right up my alley,” Brunson said.
She found support from a Robeson County community that lost so much to Hurricane Matthew.
“Even with the turmoil that we went through, they gave so abundantly,” Brunson said.
Wendy Chavis is a friend and director of Parks and Recreation for Robeson County. She was among those on board.
“Helping unfortunate children — maybe they aren’t children here, but they are in unfortunate circumstances — are her reasons for doing it,” Chavis said.
They packed as many school supplies, shoes and socks as Brunson could carry with her, Chavis said. Others helping out included Judy Oxendine, of Campbell Soup; and Tina Canady, of Boulder Outreach.
Brunson’s own program in Cumberland County, called Taking it to the Streets Fitness and Nutrition, dovetailed with another program, the Jump Rope Association of Kenya. Like the Streets program, the Jump Rope Association engages children in exercise.
Streets is a nonprofit that uses physical fitness as an engagement tool for children in low-income neighborhoods.
“The fun activities that I did in Africa were a combination of fine tuning from the activities I use on my kids here in North Carolina,” Brunson said.
When they compete, they don’t seem to notice that it’s healthy exercise; it’s just fun, she said.
The team worked in one of the largest slums in the world — Kibera, which is in the capital city of Nairobi and is home to about 700,000 people.
“The slum area was very humbling, and I say that because they live in like a five-by-seven shack — no bathroom, no running water, no kitchen,” she said. “Sometimes you have eight people sleeping in one of those boxes.”
The boxes are fashioned out of wood and aluminum and sit right next to each other.
“There is a high incidence of rape,” she said. “They are trying to get them to treat women better, which is new for that area.”
But there was happiness, too, she said.
“It was a wonderful experience to see kids in Africa really enjoying themselves and having fun. We did this in the Kibera poverty area, in different schools and also in the more established schools,” Brunson said. “But it was wonderful for me. It was well received, whatever school we went to. But it shows that what we’re doing is working.”
She was humbled by the experience.
“When we arrived at the village they prayed. And when we left they prayed for us,” Brunson said. “It reminded me of here years and years ago. So many people with so little making the best out of what they have and working together for a common goal.”
Reach Terri Ferguson Smith at 910-416-5865.