By Leslie Perales of Herndon Patch
After doing a Google search for missionary trips to Africa, Shaun Shugart, who lives in Oklahoma, came across Heart4Kids.
Shugart said after reading about the organization he was convinced it was where he wanted to go.
The Herndon organization, founded by local resident Sandra Denenga, collects toys and other items for children in Zimbabwe. With the help of volunteers and donors, each year a Heart4Kids group travels to the country to visit villages and help take care of children in need.
Volunteers with Heart4Kids travel to Zimbabwe shortly after Christmas, staying for about 10 days. In addition to bringing toys to the children around the holiday season, Heart4Kids also gathers funds to help provide food, clothing and other necessities.
This was Shugart’s first trip with the organization, and his first trip to Africa. He said being a Christian, he felt it was something God wanted him to do. “He has commanded us [Christians] through his word that we are to care for his people who are in need regardless of where they are from,” he said.
Shugart said one of the highlights of the trip was seeing how happy the children and those in need in Zimbabwe were. “They were extremely grateful for what little we gave them and they immediately praised God for what they had received,” he said.
“One of the specific things that really touched our hearts was when we returned to the orphanage the following days,” Shugart said. “When we rolled up in the van the kids would come running out to the parking lot jumping up and down in excitement to see us.”
Shugart said it wasn’t because the volunteers were great and amazing people, but because they were thankful that God would provide them the joy of playing and spending some time with a few caring strangers. “The small amount of time and money invested in these children was very well spent and appreciated,” he said.
Denenga said for this past trip they were able to bring quite a few toys and goods with them. She said they brought five large suitcases full of items, and the volunteers brought two additional suitcases.
One of the highlights of the trip for Denenga was committing to do more. “We took over the sponsorship of an orphanage home,” she said. The orphanage houses 10 children who will get food, medical care, an education and the things they need because of Heart4Kids. “It’s a huge commitment,” she said.
Denenga said the cost of living in Zimbabwe is high and things like fuel, food, medicine and home repairs can be very costly. She said anything brought in from outside the country is expensive because of government sanctions. She said she feels the need to continue on though, “because otherwise these kids are going to be stranded.”
“The kids were very happy,” Denenga said. She said they recognized the Heart4Kids group and were happy to see them back. She said they spent a lot of time playing with the children and had brought soccer balls and musical instruments. She said they held a party for the children with pizza and cake and the children loved it.
Denenga said she spent time listening to the concerns of the children’s caregivers. She said many grandmothers are taking care of young children because their parents have died of diseases such as AIDS. They are becoming near homeless because they don’t have enough support, she said.
On one of Heart4Kids’ next trips Denenga hopes to bring volunteers with home repair skills that can help these caregivers who don’t have the means to do the repairs themselves, she said. She said otherwise, if they can raise enough money, they can hire local workers to make the repairs needed.
Meeting with the children that Heart4Kids helps makes a huge impact on Denenga and the volunteers, she said. “They just want to go to school,” she said. “They still have so much faith and trust in God in spite of their hardships.
Denenga left for Zimbabwe about a week before the volunteers joined her. While she was there she was able to reconnect with her 10-year-old niece, whose parents had died and was living with a family member in another village.
The family member who was caring for her niece was caring for other children as well and was having a difficult time taking care of all the children, Denenga said. She said they would often go nights without food.
Denenga said children like her own niece are the very children whose lives she wants to make better, and now that she has found her niece she can help her. She also brought her niece to her father’s grave to help provide her with closure. “It was difficult,” she said.
The next step for Denenga is to be able to increase the number of children Heart4Kids is providing care for, she said. She said people can help make a difference with the organization with very little effort and sacrifice, just by helping spread the word. To learn how to help, visit Heart4Kids.org.