In country: Brad and Stephanie Lanken say they want to make the mission to Kenya an annual trip. (Photo courtesy of Brad Lanken)

As soon as North Riverside resident Brad Lanken got off the airplane and started taking photos, he found out quickly that things were going to be different. He could tell by the AK-47-toting security guards, who quickly pulled him aside and wanted to know just what he was doing.

It was Sept. 6. Lanken and his wife, Stephanie, a physician at Cook County Hospital, had just arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. Just a month earlier, the main terminal of the airport had been destroyed by a fire.

And on Sept. 21, the day after the Lankens visited the city’s upscale Westgate Mall and then left to return home, it came under attack by a terrorist group that gunned down more than 60 people.

“We were fortunate,” said Lanken. “Going into it, I knew there was a risk. But the greater good outweighs the risk.”

In between those two dates, Brad and Stephanie Lanken were part of a medical/construction mission sponsored by the Archdiocese of Joliet in Naivasha, Kenya, a poverty-stricken city of about 170,000 about an hour-and-a-half’s drive northwest of Nairobi, whose main industry is growing the cut flowers that end up in vases throughout Europe.

Stephanie Lanken spent her teens in Ethiopia and Mombasa, Kenya, where her father was dean of a law school.

“She always wanted to go back,” said Brad, who also serves on the North Riverside Public Library Board of Trustees.

The Lankens spent two weeks in Naivasha — Stephanie at the Upendo Village health center, which is adjacent to the city’s hospital, and Brad in the community helping build homes for four impoverished families.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” said Brad Lanken of the living conditions he encountered there.

Upendo Village was founded by Sister Florence Muia and was the result, according to the organization’s website, of a “partnership between the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi and the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters.” The center provides medical care and support for those living with HIV/AIDS, an epidemic in the country.

Unemployment is also epidemic. Many families in Naivasha live in mud huts with dirt floors and no lighting, overrun by vermin.

The medical mission included 27 medical professionals from the Chicago area and a four-person construction team. During the days, the construction crews would work from the early morning until 5 p.m. or so, erecting concrete and aluminum homes in place of the mud huts.

The medical team often worked well into the night, until 9:30 or 10 p.m. With word out that a medical team from the U.S. was in for a two-week visit, there was a “huge influx of patients,” according to Lanken.

Through Upendo Village, the Lankens also pledged to sponsor two children affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic — Mercy, a 6-year-old girl, and Bernard, a 10-year-old boy who wants to be a chef someday. Their sponsorship pays for the children’s clothing, school tuition (all schools after elementary school are private, Lanken says) and medical care.

“The children are so victimized,” said Lanken.

Despite the violence that bracketed their trip, Lanken said the couple plans to return to Naivasha annually to continue the work they began last month.

Brad Lanken, who operates a recycling equipment manufacturing business in Chicago, is working with two other men to create the Upendo Construction Company, a Habitat for Humanity-type outfit, whose goal would be to construct a home a month, employing local residents and improving the lives of people who live there.

“We’re hoping through our contacts to get companies on board to support the effort,” Lanken said. “We hope to get the construction team going and make a difference.”