a heart for africa

Published 1:24 am Saturday, July 16, 2016

Childhood dream leads to mother, daughter trip

Days after returning to everything that is ‘normal’ in her life, Cooper Gooden can’t find the words.

“I’ll write it, eventually,” the rising AHS senior and frequent blogger said this week. But frankly, she’s not sure anyone who hasn’t experienced what she did in two weeks in Kenya can begin to understand what she’ll say.

Cooper Gooden with Moses, a little boy who was found in a dumpster when he was only a few days old. Below: Cooper Gooden and Shannon Jackson.

Cooper Gooden with Moses, a little boy who was found in a dumpster when he was only a few days old.

“Their definition of poor is different than our definition,” she said. “Ours is, ‘Oh, I only had one or two meals today;’ or ‘I live in a bad part of town.’

“Theirs is, ‘I haven’t eaten in two days; I have no shoes.’ Or, ‘I went to the creek for my shower of week.’ There was no soap, or no towel, but that’s their way of life. For them, there is no bad part of town.”

“It’s like reverse culture shock,” she said. “I’m not over it yet; I don’t know if I’ll ever be over it.”

Cooper, who is the daughter of Shannon Jackson and Stan Gooden, first vocalized a desire to visit Africa when she was 8.

“We saw a group, Ugandan Thunder,” her mom recalled. “Afterward, she said, ‘I think I want to go to Uganda.’ She felt like she wanted to do something ministry-related then.”

But one doesn’t send 8-year-olds to Third World countries, so Shannon made a promise she thought she’d never have to keep.

“We said, ‘If you’re 18 and still want to go, we will take you,’ ” she recalled. “We thought she would get interested in something else. But fast forward, she’s 17, and she still has a heart for Africa.”

Cooper’s step-father, Chris Jackson, read on social media about a trip Red Oak native Randall Bradley was planning. [See related story]. He suggested it might be a safe place for Cooper to go.

Cooper Gooden and Shannon Jackson.

Cooper Gooden and Shannon Jackson.

Shannon wasn’t 100 percent sold, but after speaking with the trip leader, she agreed that they’d try. The pieces fell neatly into place.

“This was a group of mostly ministers and music people and us,” Shannon said, then deadpanned, “We are neither.”

But after they got accustomed to the notion of having a choir rehearsal in the middle of an airport, they soon found their footing.

“It was about breaking barriers,” Shannon said. “We would sing to them, they would sing back to us.”

Loosely translated, they sang – in Swahili – “There’s not other god like Jesus.”

Bubbles-Kenya“To me it was kind of like singing ‘Jesus loves me’ would be here,” she said. “It was a way to establish rapport quickly with a group who had no idea who you were.”

After a period of immersion to recover from the grueling trip and overcome culture shock, the travelers visited a number of schools. Part of their time was spent helping young women understand their worth.

“For me, one of the most difficult parts of our trip was an initial briefing with a school, and a tribe,” Shannon said.

Previous participants in similar groups had observed that girls older than about fifth grade – or those who had matured physically – weren’t in school. Female genital mutilation (FGM), or circumcision, was a reality in this tribe. As a result, they have sponsored a dozen young women in boarding schools where they can continue their educations.

“We spent time talking to young ladies and children, about the value they have in being a person,” Shannon said. “We wanted them to know that their culture values them as well as God values them. One of the most moving times was when we had a very transparent discussion about what that circumcision was.

“I get emotional thinking about a 13-year-old girl going through that,” she said. “There are things about the culture that are fabulous, that you would never want to go in and change.

“But there are things, just like in our culture, antiquated, harmful, need to be changed,” she said.

0716-classroomOne of the people with whom she connected is Viola, who is being sponsored in school by the Americans. Although she is among the poorest students at her school, she has become class president. Shannon met another young woman who has a great desire to do an internship in America. It’s very possible, she said, that she can help her make that dream become an reality.

Cooper, who plans a health-related career like physical or occupational therapy, said she always thought she would complete her education, then use her skills in some type of mission work.

“I didn’t really expect to fall in love with Kenya,” Cooper said. “But I would go back tomorrow.”

Now, instead of heading straight to college after her senior year, she’s giving serious consideration to doing a gap year as a volunteer in Kenya, perhaps in an orphanage.

“I held children who had been thrown in a dumpster. I saw girls who have so much less, but try so much harder than I do in school,” Cooper said. “I saw people walking to school, when people here won’t even take the bus. I met girls who left their villages to go 200 miles to school, and they couldn’t just come home on the weekends to see their family.”

Both mother and daughter agreed that their observations magnified the levels of entitlement to which Americans have become accustomed.

“Kids who were left were not abandoned,” Cooper said. “They’ve never heard of foster care. There is a great sense of community.”

They also were impressed by the industriousness of those they met, and both saw ways that Western influence could help Kenyans, and ways that Americans could learn from Kenyans.

Despite travel advisories, the women said they never felt unsafe, whether they were walking through a slum, or passing through an airport.

The recent trip was Cooper’s third mission trip. In previous summers, she’s been to Belize with her mom and to Peru with her dad.

“Those trips were nothing like Africa,” she said.

Shannon said she previous had felt a call to missions, but used as her crutch, “I can do mission work at home.” She is learning, she said, through her oldest child.

“God has taught me in a lot of ways that she is not really mine, she is His,” Shannon said. “As she has going down this path of wanting to serve, He has taught me, ultimately, ‘If I want her to go she will go.’ ”

Now, she said, she would be very comfortable with Cooper travelling in serving in Kenya in the future.

Both agree that their lives and perspectives have been changed forever.

Cooper raised the $3,000 she needed to make the trip by working, and seeking contributions. To anyone considering missions, she’d say, “Take that leap of faith.”

“There will be people here who will support you,” she said. “Some may go with you. If it is really your calling, you will never feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

“People will finacially help you. They will pray for you,” she said. “Don’t let your fears stop you.”

Others, Shannon said, feel they would never be able to go, so they minister by contributing to others.

“God blessed the trip in ways we couldn’t imagine,” Shannon said. “We met amazing people and saw the good that could come from this.