Sally Gacheru is wearing a black t-shirt with the Kenyan flag embroidered on it: red, black and green, with a shield in the middle.
“My pride being a Kenyan is so high,” she said, "so I try to wear a lot of clothes and represent myself.”
She also wears two bracelets: one with the colors of her native country; the other red, white and blue from her adopted home in the U.S.
Gacheru, 17, moved to north St. Louis County four years ago. This month, she’ll join a group of six fellow Kenyan immigrants on a two-week trip home focused on community service. It’s part of the youth-leadership program of Vitendo4Africa, an organization founded by a Kenyan immigrant that helps African newcomers adjust and connect after moving to St. Louis. Vitendo is Swahili for “action.”
“The idea of them going to Kenya came from them,” said Geoffrey Soyiantet, founder of Vitendo4Africa. “I’m so proud of them.”
The teens have been fundraising and collecting supplies for months. Each will use half their luggage allotment to carry pens, notebooks and sanitary pads. They’ll spend two days of the trip helping to build a classroom addition to a school in western Kenya.
For Gacheru, who will be a senior at Hazelwood West High School this fall, it’s her first time returning to Kenya since emigrating.
“We’ll feel like we’ll leave a mark,” she said. “The school supplies, if we provide them, they’ll run out. But if we build a classroom, that will be a big impact that will still be there for times to come.”
The group will also visit an orphanage in Nairobi for which they’ve previously raised funds.
Gracemary Nganga moved to St. Louis when she was nine. Now 17, she’s been back twice since. Nganga knows Kenyans see her differently when she returns.
“People always have this mentality of you that you’re from America so you have all the money in the world, and you’re so well off and things like that,” said Nganga, who is involved in numerous clubs and student groups at Hazelwood West, where she’ll be a senior.
Nganga said they don’t have the “savior mentality” some foreigners can have on mission trips, where they think they’re solving every ill.
“They think they’re a hero. And I don’t want to have that, I just want to go and help,” she said.
Having grown up in Kenya, Nganga knows what may look like a hard life to outsiders is not always the case.
“Since I’ve lived that, I understand that,” she said.
“There, you see the people, their motivation they have every single day. Every single day, they try to change their lives,” added Gacheru. “So from there, we’ll also learn, we’ll get some lessons there, we’ll get their motivation, the resilience to keep on going.”
The teens will fit in two day trips to national parks, and Nganga and Gacheru said they’ll also see relatives.
“You can’t go to Kenya without visiting your family,” said Gacheru with a laugh.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney