An IN HER SHOES trailblazer – Women share stories of stepping up and out in Life Part II.
By all accounts 2012 was a big year in Gina Begor Jenning’s life. Her only daughter Natalie graduated with her BA from San Jose State University and the Concord, California native left Full Circle of Choices an organization she founded (providing resources to people with developmental disabilities) in the capable hands of staff and packed a bag and moved to Kenya. Her plan was to complete a year of mission work. Three years later she’s still there, committed to transforming the lives of vulnerable and orphaned children with Springs of Hope Kenya.
Cheryl: That was one big move Gina! What prompted it?
Gina: When I graduated from college years ago I wanted to join the Peace Corp, however that never materialized, I began a career and a family…my life was full. In 2010, I did a trip with my daughter and her friends to Kenya and felt like it was the place where I needed to be. I can’t really put words to the feeling but I just “knew” it was where I should be.
Cheryl: What gave you the courage to take such a big step?
Gina: In 2012 my husband and I had divorced and my daughter had graduated from college giving me in a unique opportunity to do something different. So, I pulled the trigger and moved. It hasn’t always been easy to be so far away in a totally different culture, but it has been full of fun adventure along with challenges.
Cheryl: I think a lot of women may have dreams of stepping out of their comfort zone as you did but get stuck. An inner dialogue starts looping, “dumb idea” “are you crazy???”, the quiet whispers of the heart are trampled by the loud, forceful mind…..or fear latches on in a death grip. Before or after you ‘pulled the trigger’ were you ever afraid?
Gina: Faith not fear is what I kept telling myself and actually I still cling to that today. Faith in the God of the Universe and that small but mighty voice inside my heart leading me and guiding me! I also told myself if it doesn’t work out I could always come home. My life has been full of amazing wonderful moments, but I also have a few regrets. I didn’t want to say, “I wish I had again”. I remember the drive to San Francisco airport on the day I left for the first time (July 2012) it was long and I was silent. I was so afraid, again telling myself don’t worry, you can always come home. Stay a week a month who cares at least you went. Saying good-bye to my daughter was so very tough. I had that emotional lump in my throat that resonated in my gut, hid my tears, felt like I wanted to vomit, but I kept my head up and put one foot in front of the other. By the time I got on the plane, I was grounded, emotional and at the same time excited. Proud of myself for taking a risk!
Cheryl: I can imagine how you felt..totally empowered! What was originally a one year plan is now in its third year….this work is deeply meaningful…. you are involved in every aspect of the organization – have you had to develop new talents and skills?
Gina: The work is meaningful no doubt. I think in many ways the most significant new ‘skill’ I have had to embrace is learning about/ trying to understand the Kenyan culture and set aside any judgments about the different ways of doing things. Especially when it comes to women, empowerment and child rearing. I have also been very mindful about creating ways of helping others that doesn’t set up on-going dependencies, which is difficult to do. Sometimes, it feels impossible. But when it is successful it is so empowering for everyone.
Cheryl: Springs of Hope Kenya endeavors to transform the lives of orphaned, homeless, abandoned and abused children of Kenya – how has it transformed you?
Gina: I think the women and children I come along side have transformed me seeing their resilience. Several of the children and the young women come from such sorted pasts, unspeakable things have happened to them in their very short lives. They embrace the help they receive, embrace the love and don’t seem to take much for granted when it is all said and done.
Cheryl: As well as being a refuge for Kenya’s children Springs of Hope Kenya has a project training program for Men and Women living with HIV/Aids. Tell us about it.
Gina: The sewing training project was born out of our Founder Molly’s vision to endeavor to transform lives of orphaned and homeless children in Kenya. Helping men and women learn a trade and find gainful employment helps them keep their children in their homes-fed and loved by family.
Bagamoyo means “Lay down your heart” in Swahili and we could not think of a better name for this project. Bagamoyo is one of the only training projects in Kenya that pays participates for their work while they are in training. These one of a kind bags are made from local and traditional materials. This is another way we hope we can enable SOHK become more self sustainable in the future.
Cheryl: This is important and sometimes difficult work – What has impacted you the most?
Gina: I think I have experienced poverty on a different level, and I no longer find myself worrying or wanting in the same way. Maybe I shouldn’t say experienced poverty, because really I have only seen it and seen the some of negative outcomes and I am changed by it at a soul level.
Cheryl: I’m sure you develop very special relationships with all the children at Springs of Hope Kenya but there is one little girl, Malaika, who you’ve become very close to…..tell us about her.
Gina: Malaika Faith! She is full of life and love. She came to Springs of Hope after being abandoned on the side of the road in the small town of Rhonda 18 months ago.
We have become close, she is maybe 4 years old, and we have no birth or history on this child, except she where she was found. She was malnourished, wasn’t able to walk and had phenomena. A month after she came to us she had open-heart surgery to repair on area of her heart. What we thought was malnourishment was the failure to thrive due to her failing heart. She has had an incredible recovery; learned how to walk, began to run and then a year post op we found that she has congenital heart defects (several issues with her heart) and pulmonary hypertension both of which are life threatening. She is in need of more intensive heart surgery, which cannot be done in Kenya due to the lack of medical facilities and technology. Malaika has been able to receive fairly good medical care in Kenya because of a few incredible generous faithful donors who hear her story and want to help, which has open doors for her. In early January she will be evaluated at Wolfson Children’s Hospital and hopefully is a surgical candidate.
She will be one of 15 children who will receive medical evaluation and possible treatment who wouldn’t otherwise receive care due to vulnerable circumstances. There is a plan for every child for a hope and a future, I am just so very grateful to be part of Malaika’s present and future. I see myself as a bridge for her to I am not sure where yet. I know all will be reveled as it should be and the timing will be perfect (at least on most days I think that way, on other days my impatience and need to know all rears it ugly head and I find myself demanding answers so I can plan).
Cheryl: You are an amazing mom-‘bridge’ to this little angel!
At this time of life when many of us are asking the question, “what is my purpose?” Have you found yours?
Gina: I don’t think we have just one purpose or passion in life. My philosophy is that we have different purposes and passions based on seasons in life. Being my best self in each season and finding my purpose is what I strive for. I have had very fruitful seasons and I have had growing seasons, I have had seasons of rest, I have had some seasons of mourning. Again, for me the key is being the best I can be in each season, and I can say that hasn’t always been the case. Unfortunately, I have taken seasons for granted and not embraced them in a meaningful way, therefore missed out on the blessings and growth.
Cheryl: Springs of Hope Kenya aims to give hope to the children of Kenya—what has it given you?
Gina: A broader, more purposeful perspective about life. I no longer have a myopic view of life. I am more understanding, empathetic and hopeful that I have ever been. The funny thing is I always thought I had a pretty broad view of the world, thought I was pretty empathetic and hopeful, but living globally in a third World County has in reality broadened my view of the world is a deeper more meaningful way for which I am thankful.
I first met Gina 7 years ago when our daughters were both Spartans, members of San Jose State University’s Women’s Water Polo team. I’ve followed her…following her heart for the last 3 years. She is leaving the world changed through her work, one day at a time and one person at a time. She is my inspiration.