Mia Marchetti (left) was one of 14 people who participated in a mission trip to Kenya in March sponsored by the Light of Love Ministry founded by Riverside resident Susan Zidlicky. | Provided

Three Riverside teenagers and their mothers went to Kenya in March on a weeklong mission trip sponsored by the Light of Love Ministry founded by Riverside resident Susan Zidlicky. 

Fourteen people in all, including Zidlicky and her son 15-year-old son Chase, made the journey. Also on the trip were 14-year-old Giada DeCola and her mother Bethany DeCola, and 13-year-old Mia Marchetti and her mom Katie Marchetti.

The teens have been pen pals with children who live in the Kariobangi Children’s Home located in the Mathare slums, one of the poorest and most densely populated parts of Nairobi, Kenya, where approximately 500,000 people are packed in an area of roughly 1.2 square miles.

After a two-day safari at the start of the trip, the group spent most of the rest of their time in Nairobi. It was quite a switch from the glamping of the safari.

“You got to see the best of the best to the worst of the worst,” said Mia Marchetti. 

Although the group stayed in a hotel they saw and experienced the conditions in the Kariobangi Children’s Home, where accommodations are spartan. Nearly 20 boys on bunk beds pack into a single room, each keeping his belongings in duffel bag. Despite their differences the American kids said they bonded with the Kenyan kids during the trip, which included visits to an amusement park and other activities.

“It was special to finally meet them in person and know who you were writing to, and when we met them you could tell how much it meant to them for us to be there and for us to see them in person,” said Giada DeCola. 

The group visited three Christian schools, where classes are mostly held outdoors in three-sided huts. DeCola and Marchetti said they were surprised by the questions they got from Kenyan eighth graders in a class they visited.

“All the girls were asking us, ‘Do you know Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande?’ and they started singing their songs,” DeCola and Marchetti said.

The Kenyan kids were surprised that American kids and their moms would spend so much time and money to come visit them.

“It made really happy to see them happy, that bond that we got with the kids there made me happy and want to help other people,” DeCola said.

The group raised $32,300 for the trip, far exceeding their goal of $10,000. They used the money to buy enough food to give 900 baskets to families who had children in Mathare schools. Each basket contained enough rice, beans and maize to feed a family for about three weeks. Each family also received a large bar of soap.

They also handed out toothbrushes and toothpaste donated by Dr. Dan Strobel, a dentist who lives in Riverside. The money they raised also will fund new mattresses for the Kariobangi Children’s Home, new desks for the schools, sewer pipe repairs at the schools and scholarships for two Kariobangi girls to study at a university. 

The group also prepared a special meal, featuring fried fish, beef stew, chicken, rice, cabbage, for 90 teachers who teach in Mathare schools.

The Americans were impressed by the joy the Kenyans found in their daily life. It was Susan Zidlicky’s fourth trip to Kenya. She says Kenyans have a culture of being as opposed to the American culture of doing.

“They really like sitting down and having a conversation,” she said.  

Zidlicky founded the Light of Love Ministry a couple of years ago. She grew up in Texas and developed a passion for travel as college student while on her junior year abroad in Seville, Spain. She has travelled to 46 countries. 

Ten years ago she went on her first mission trip to the Dominican Republic and was hooked. She’s been on many mission trips since then to Kenya, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, usually with her family and often on spring break. 

Chase Zidlicky, a rising junior at Nazareth Academy, has already been to 17 countries. As a seventh grader he lived for a few months with a family in Paraguay. In July, Susan Zidlicky will lead a Light of Love mission trip to El Salvador. 

Giada DeCola and Mia Marchetti, both of whom just graduated from Hauser Junior High and who will be attending Fenwick next year, will be going along. Zidlicky has two more mission trips planned for Kenya next year.

“I think the everyone should go on a trip or do something somewhere helping people in their lifetime, because I think it’s very beneficial,” said DeCola. “It doesn’t matter how old you are but you will still get something out of it.”

Seeing the tiny, primitive homes in Kenya, without most modern conveniences, such as running water, flush toilets and a steady reliable supply of electricity that Americans take for granted made an impact. Even at their hotel, the Americans brushed their teeth with bottled water.

“It really made me see how much I have and how much I take for granted,” said DeCola.

Near the end of the trip the group took the Kariobangi kids to an overnight stay at resort located in the tea fields about 25 miles from Nairobi. One of the Kariobangi girls thanked them later in a pen pal message, saying how wonderful it was to have a shower and a bar of soap.

“I didn’t realize how much we have and how many opportunities we have in America until I saw people there,” said DeCola, who had never been outside the United States.