Priest Fulfills His Vision of Special African Orphanage

"When you arrive at Nyumbani, (Kenya) what strikes you are the joy and happiness of the laughing, playing children. The youngsters, from infants to teenagers, are like those one would find in any other playground of the world. But they are different; this is Nyumbani (the Swaihali word for home). They are HIV positive and abandoned by their families," said Joseph D’Agostino, volunteer treasurer for the orphanage’s Children of God Relief Fund, Inc. He and his wife, Mary Ellen, are long-time members of St. Mark Parish in Vienna. A nun at the orphanage in Kenya helps a young girl lace her shoes. D’Agostino’s brother, Father Angelo D’Agostino, S.J., 71, is founder and medical director of the orphanage/hospice in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. It is the first of its type in all of Africa. "Most of the children do well, with care, love and good nutrition," said Father D’Agostino. "Some of them do die, that is unavoidable, but many survive. These abandoned kids in Africa are more likely to die of neglect and communicable diseases than AIDS." The children are administered a simple antibiotic to help their systems resist infection, but are not given additional AIDS medications because it is extremely expensive and not readily available. "In order to better access the medical needs of the children, we are also setting up a lab," said Father D’Agostino. The oldest orphans were two 14-year-old twin boys. One of them died recently and was buried on the property. According to African tradition, his brother did not attend the funeral. Such sad occurrences happen occasionally at the orphanage, but the remaining children are told that their brothers and sisters have "gone to God." A native of Providence, R. I., Father D’Agostino graduated from St. Michael College in Winooski, Vt., in 1945 and became a surgeon. Ten years later he answered the call to the priesthood and joined the Jesuit order, where he became a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He was an assistant professor at Georgetown University for three years, and then went to George Washington University, where he was an associate professor and chief of the inpatient psychiatric division. He instituted the university’s Center for Religion and Psychiatry at and guided it until 1980. He then went to Thailand and established a camp for refugees, and then to Africa in 1981, where he coordinated Jesuit priests’ refugee work in several countries and set up an institute on psychiatry and religion in Kenya. He became aware of the abandoned AIDS babies plight while at another orphanage, serving on the board of directors. They were unable respond to the problem, so he took it upon himself to begin Nyumbani in 1992 with six children. Subsequently, the Kenyan government has told him that they have no resources to assist him, and the Agency for International Development would not get involved because they said the children "are going to die anyway." This is not necessarily the case. Shortly after opening Nyumbani five years ago, a delightful discovery was made. Even though a baby tests positive at birth because of the mother’s blood’s antibodies, it can clear out of the child’s system within the first year. They are then free of the virus. At this point, three out of four of these children are considered healthy and can be offered for adoption or transferred to a more suitable site. Some of them are now living around Nairobi, and also in Dubai, Alberta, Canada, America and Ireland. They were abandoned earlier because of destitute or dying parents who were unable to care for them and others who are fearful of the disease. "Baby dumping" is a serious problem in Africa and other parts of the Third World, where 93 percent of those infected with the virus reside. The orphanage’s success is "just a drop in the bucket," Father D’Agostino said. "A residential facility is not enough. The answer is to develop an outreach and foster care program, wherein people who are generous enough will take a HIV positive child into their home." The World Health Organization predicts that at least 1,000 orphans in Nairobi will be HIV positive by the year 2000. The orphanage’s mission is to help the babies thrive and be adopted or to be cared for as long as they live. Joseph D’Agostino and his other his two brothers, accompanied by two nephews, traveled earlier this year to visit their brother in Africa. Father Lorenzo D’Agostino, S.S.E., is on Nyumbani’s volunteer board of directors, and Anthony D’Agostino is with them in spirit, though he has not been as involved due to living farther away in Kansas and raising 11 children. The orphanage home is in the suburb of Nairobi called Karen, the location made famous by Out of Africa’s Karen Blixen. Father D’Agostino’s office is downtown. The complex runs on propane gas, and outside is a cistern, an underground holding tank for the water that comes in only six hours a week from the city. There are currently 50 children in residence, and they expect to grow to 60-70. The houses are built of locally-quarried stone, as wood is rare and costly. The one or two volunteers that they usually have residing with them come from other countries, as volunteerism "does not exist" in Africa, said Father D’Agostino. Most of their on-site help comes from Denmark, France, Ireland and the U.S., for as long as four to five months at a time. They now have 10 duplex family-style living units, with each half having a house mother. Five Adoration Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in southern India have come to stay there as nurses, teachers and social workers. Next month, the "Make a Mark" organization, which sponsors humanitarian tours, will be visiting the orphanage and leaving a donation to help in the building and operating costs/their work there. Father D’Agostino returns to the U.S. each year for a few months to attend the Nyumbani annual benefit in September, for fundraising, parish presentations and to visit his family. He has organized two boards to help support the home. In Kenya, the Children of God Relief Institute is comprised of businessmen who help in the orphanage’s operation, and in the United States, the Children of God Relief Fund, Inc. is a group of his friends who hold annual fundraising benefits. Nyumbani has several groups that have assisted them and has been profiled on CBS & CNN. However, it has no major donor for the $10,000-per-month operating cost. Those that have contributed are ProVictimis, a Swiss foundation; Caritas Italia, an Italian organization similar to the Catholic Relief Service which funded 50 percent of the houses; and the Embassy of Japan, which covered all costs to build and furnish the schoolhouse. British Airways crew and family members have also "adopted’ the home. They have brought clothes, funds, medical equipment and supplies and toys. On their layover days, they devote time and energy there, to the delight of the kids. These organizations and people have "lightened the burden that we have assumed in caring for these children," said Father D’Agostino. To make donations or get more information contact: Nyumbani, Attn: Joseph D’Agostino, 2529 Bull Run Ct., Vienna, Va. 22180, 703/573-8707, or e-mail: DagFam@aol.com. Father Angelo D’Agostino can be reached at P.O. Box 21399, Nairobi Kenya AFRICA, or e-mail: NYUMBA@ARCC.OR.KE Copyright ?1997 Arlington Catholic Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016