April 13, 2010
NIU Media Relations
Monique Bernoudy never saw the importance of all the pens lying around her Convocation Center office until she traveled to Mombasa, Kenya to volunteer with the Mombasa Relief Initiative (MRI).
"To see the things we take for granted is astounding," Bernoudy, Northern Illinois' Associate Athletic Director for CHAMPS/Life Skills, said. "Pens and pencils are a like a luxury item in Mombasa, and you know here we've got them laying around everywhere. Rulers were also a big hit with the kids. They were lining up, they couldn't wait to get a ruler. I'm like, I have a couple of those laying around the office."
Bernoudy, along with other MRI members, worked hard over her spring break to help the city of Mombasa with education, health, and economic developmental aid. For example, this year the MRI raised money for supplies ranging from pencils and wheelchairs to a chicken coop with over 100 chickens. Their primary goal is to help Mombasa's residents stabilize their city amidst heartbreaking poverty.
She has been volunteering for the Mombasa Relief Initiative for eight years, getting into it by what she calls an accident. A friend asked her to help load containers one weekend, and she had the free time. The containers, she recalled, were filled with school, medical, and other daily living supplies. When she learned where the items were headed, she immediately found a passion for the program.
"We ask the student-athletes here to volunteer all the time, so how can I ask them to volunteer if I'm not going to?" Bernoudy said. "I guess it's like leading by example. Everyone really just needs to understand that a really small investment can have a big impact."
Though she's actively volunteered for years, Bernoudy's spring trip across the Atlantic was a first. Usually, Bernoudy cannot find the time to travel during the school year, but she was finally lucky enough to find both the time and the money. Since volunteers must provide their own travel expenses, including air-fare and hotel stays, Bernoudy not only had to free her schedule, but she had to do some saving as well.
"It's funny because [MRI members] tell you to stay in a nice hotel the first time you go because the adjustment can be difficult," she said. "Some people have asked how I can justify staying in a nice hotel, but we do not use any of the donations for ourselves. I tell them I paid for it myself. Even if we raised $1 million, we would still send ourselves."
It is a good thing she listened to the hotel advice, as both the time and culture adjustments were hard to make. Bernoudy said she never felt so tired in her life.
"I was ok when we were walking around, meeting the kids at the schools, but as soon as we sat down for meetings I'd be like `please God don't let me fall asleep,'" she said.
Still, some parts of the trip were easy, especially the moments where Bernoudy was able to meet with the city's residents and explore the town's ocean-side beauty.
"Going to Mombasa was like gaining a breadth of knowledge, everything there is so beautiful," Bernoudy said. "The level of opportunity is much lower, but the people are proud beyond words. They have such a strong sense of pride, and they have the urgency to help. Every day I was reminded of what I have, and what they didn't. It made me feel so privileged."
To bring her trip full-circle, Bernoudy communicated often with NIU track runner Nancy Maritim, a Kenyan native. While Bernoudy physically met the city's students and residents, Maritim touched their lives with a letter sent with a powerful message - don't give up. The letter detailed Nancy's hard work and dedication to running track at an American university, and even contained sentences written in Swahili, Kenya's native language.
"Nancy just wrote this beautiful letter, and everybody loved it, they were fascinated by it," Bernoudy said. "They were so excited. It's funny because it was not planned, but we were both trying to give this message of not giving up. They may not have much in terms of material items, but they have this hard work ethic, where if they are going to make it, they are going to work hard for it."
Back in DeKalb, Bernoudy still works hard to promote Mombasa relief efforts. The Mombasa Relief Initiative continues to gather money for school and medical supplies to bring much-needed help to the city. Bernoudy hopes to make it back to Mombasa as soon as she can, saying the city, which is doing better, still has a high-level of need.
"There is no experience that can mirror what it's like to see things from another point of view," she said.