When most Americans visit Africa, they go to experience the vast wildlife by enjoying an African safari.

But for St. John’s University, Jamaica, soccer alumna Raelynne Lee, it was a safari of service that led her to the vast continent across the Atlantic.

As part of the St. John’s campus ministry, the former Red Storm midfielder volunteered for a three-week service trip to Kenya from Aug. 9 to Sept. 2. She said her first visit to Africa was the experience of a lifetime, and she’s already looking forward to her next visit.

Raelynne Lee (Photo courtesy St. John's Athletic Communications)

Raelynne Lee (Photo courtesy St. John’s Athletic Communications)

The Brooklyn Tablet headlines St. John’s Soccer Star Had a Safari of Service (with audio slideshow)

St. John’s Soccer Star Had a Safari of Service (with audio slideshow)

Volunteering her time is nothing new to Lee, 23. She grew up in Lake Stevens, Wash., as a youth group member at St. Michael’s parish, Snohomish, and Holy Cross parish, Lake Stevens. She participated in book drives, food drives and a variety of other service projects.

“It was always a big part of my life,” Lee said. “It was something that I always felt drawn to. Those experiences stemmed my desire to go to a Catholic institution because I knew that I’d be able to have that youth-group aspect more easily accessible and have those volunteering experiences readily available.”

Sure enough, Lee earned an athletic scholarship to play soccer at St. John’s and joined the team during the fall 2007 semester. She played four seasons for the Johnnies and tallied eight goals and seven assists in 73 games – all while dedicating hundreds of hours to community service.

“Being on a team, you learn so many different values that you can take with you in every aspect of life,” Lee said.

Lee is now in her second year of a master of arts program in global development and social justice at St. John’s. Ever since high school, she wanted to bring her talents overseas to Africa to encourage other youths to take service trips there.

“I really was intrigued by Africa and how different of a continent it is from every other,” Lee said.

Lee was one of two St. John’s graduate students in the campus ministry to be selected in November, 2011 by the Vincentian Lay Missionaries (VLM) – an organization that works with the Daughters of Charity in Ethiopia and Kenya – to make the journey. She said God had answered her prayers of wanting to do volunteer work in Africa.

Though she was sponsored by the St. John’s campus ministry, Lee organized fundraisers to pay for the vast amount of supplies she needed for the various children’s programs she would run. The Red Storm women’s soccer team was very generous in ensuring she had all the necessary goods.

After seven hours on a plane to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and another seven-hour plan ride to Nairobi, Kenya, Lee arrived in the Kenyan city of Chepnyal, which is the most rural of the VLM sites in Kenya. In total, four volunteers visited the VLM site in Ethiopia, while Lee’s group in Kenya was comprised of nine volunteers.

Lee had grown accustomed to the idea of living simplistically through her other service trips as an undergraduate, but it still took some time to adjust to the Daughters’ simple way of life. The volunteers lived in a house powered by solar energy and had to be weary of their usage of electricity.

Raelynne Lee hikes with her group in Kenya (Photo courtesy Raelynne Lee)

Raelynne Lee hikes with her group in Kenya. (Photo courtesy Raelynne Lee)

Chepnyal is located in the northwestern region of Kenya where the base elevation is 6,000-7,000-feet in the mountains. August is the winter season in Kenya, with temperatures in the 60-80 degree range but with much rain.

During her stay, Lee had a busy schedule in organizing children’s camps for the Pokot Tribe in Chepnyal. The kids were off from school, so they had a chance to relax and be kids, since their everyday lives differ greatly from those of American children.

Each day, Lee and the volunteers led a group of 150 grade-school age kids in making arts and crafts projects and enjoying indoor and outdoor activities at St. Mary’s Nursery on the Daughters’ compound. Young local women served as interpreters between the volunteers and the children. Though the Kenyan national language is English, the children communicate in their native dialects of Swahili until they gain a command of English.

Though it took a few days, the children warmed up to Lee once they started feeling comfortable around her. They always were eager to show her their artwork, dance with her or sing worship songs with her.

“I always am going to feel like I am a part of the Pokot Tribe,” Lee said. “I’m going to miss the children there and the helpers who served as translators. The whole Pokot Tribe and the Daughters were so welcoming. They were happy to have us there and happy with anything we did.”

Arts and crafts projects were part of the group's indoor activities. (Photo courtesy Raelynne Lee)

Arts and crafts projects were part of the group’s indoor activities. (Photo courtesy Raelynne Lee)

Lee said that St. John’s allowed her to live out the Vincentian ideal of service, a core value of the university.

“From the start of her career, it was obvious Raelynne was a perfect fit with the vision of our university and the values of our soccer program,” said Ian Stone, St. John’s head women’s soccer coach. “The coaching staff and players have always held a deep respect for Raelynne’s ability to connect with people on a very compassionate level. She’s an inspiration by showing the large impact young adults can make in today’s world.”

Lee said she received a spiritual boost during her trip to Kenya, which transformed her relationship with God. This is likely just the beginning for Lee, as she will continue to spread her talents on a global level.

“I always say with these experiences that you get so much more than you give,” Lee said. “That was definitely true with this experience.”


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