Mackenzie Grutzner was 17 when she witnessed the death of a tiny Kenyan child whose mother broke down in tears.
“It was heartbreaking and it was moving,” said Grutzner, a member of St. Joseph in West St. Paul. “I didn’t understand it for the longest time.”
Now she’s 18, a newly minted graduate of Visitation High School in Mendota Heights with a stronger faith, closer family ties and crystallized career plans.
She attributes all these developments to a Kenyan mission trip she and nine other Visitation students participated in last June, and she’s eager to make a second voyage to Africa from June 13 to 26 — this time to Zambia — joined by nine students and seven chaperones. The group will help Dominican sisters who support three orphanages, a secondary school and a health clinic.
‘Bigger things in life’
Visitation students have worked through the school’s campus ministry department to serve in Guatemala for many years. The idea of an annual African mission trip was conceived last year through parent-faculty collaboration, a new way to turn faith into sweaty, sun-drenched works of mercy.
It worked: Grutzner said Kenya changed her life and broadened her perspective. “A cell phone breaks and usually it’s like a teenager’s whole world. Now it’s like, ‘Oh, well, there are bigger things in life,’ ” she said.
Spiritually, the trip’s impact was profound, she added. “It made me really believe my faith and everything I’ve been taught but not truly realized.”
And professionally, it solidified Grutzner’s dreams of becoming a dentist. Meanwhile, her classmate and fellow traveler Amanda Scheid, 18, a member of St. Peter in Mendota, was inspired to pursue neuroscience. She will major in chemistry and pursue a pre-med track at Notre Dame this fall.
“We joke and say we’re going to open a neck-and-above clinic,” Grutzner said. “I would definitely go back and live there for a year.”
Scheid said the Kenyan trip made her re-examine her faith, especially after participating in Mass there, which was filled with singing and felt more spontaneous. “It was the coolest Mass I’ve ever been to in my entire life,” she said.
All of the girls on the trip witnessed HIV tests and multiple births. They sorted toys, organized hospital files, whitewashed a building, comforted the sick and played soccer with children. A few students taught the Hokey Pokey and tried in turn to learn some Swahili phrases.
Sharing their newfound insights with the Mendota Heights community after the trip tapped into a religion class called Salesian Leadership, based on the vibrant faith of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal, who founded the Visitation order four centuries ago. “It’s about leading in a way that shows your love of God and the love of what you’re doing,” Scheid said.
The Salesian virtue of gentle strength was in clear display in Kenya, said chaperone Elizabeth Arnstein, an English teacher at Visitation. “The girls toughed it out in difficult situations, rolling up their sleeves and doing whatever was needed, whatever was asked of them. It opened their hearts and minds to things they never would have seen before.”
Arnstein, a mother of two who is expecting her third child, said she, too, was profoundly influenced by the Kenyan trip. Her family’s nightly prayers now include a petition for those who do not have abundant clean water.
As a literature teacher, Arnstein addresses the hard realities of poverty during discussion of Frank McCourt’s memoir “Angela’s Ashes.” Matters like health care and hygiene are trumped by the need for water and food, she tells students.
No matter the curriculum at hand, the Kenyans are always close to her heart, Arnstein said. “There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about the people we met.”