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KsikoraThis week’s blog post about volunteering in Africa is written by Withum’s International Services Group member, Kathy Sikora.

Dear Africa,

It’s been a little over a year since I’ve seen you, and I’ve missed you so much that I’ve decided to come back and stay… for an ENTIRE YEAR! Get ready!

So what’s happening?

Nerdy accountant exciting things! I will be joining a team of missionaries at a hospital in Niger. I’m sure there will be several hats that I will wear once I arrive; however, my official duties (for now) will be to work with all of the finances and the accounting/finance team at the hospital. I’m grinning from ear to ear at the fact that I will get to combine volunteering, traveling the world and accounting all in one opportunity – this one!

When am I going?

Exact dates still to be determined, but the plan for now is to be in Africa at the end of June 2016!

But, how?!

So there was that time I found myself at the missions table at our church ministry fair one Sunday afternoon, picked up the missions pamphlet, saw Niger on the list and said to myself, “Totally going there!” Two and a half months later, I was on a plane. I was extremely fortunate to be part of the group from our church that went to Niger in December 2014, which is when I discovered this hospital for the first time. There seems to be this rumor going around that most short-term visitors have a tendency to return…and well, the rest is history.

And more importantly, why?

IMG_1878For starters, I’m really looking forward to how awesome of a professional experience this is going to be. I’m excited to be a part of a multi-lingual team and to learn French! I’m excited to teach others, especially those who have not had the same education opportunities as I’ve had. I’m excited to use my accounting skills to help the hospital. Gosh, I’m even excited to have to reconcile payroll, and I tremble at the thought of reconciling payroll (not joking, I seriously dislike anything payroll related). This will no doubt be a HUGE challenge for me and one that I am really looking forward to!

The hospital I will be at is such an important staple of the surrounding community and region for that matter. It serves many. The latest study showed just one doctor for every 50,000 people in Niger (compared to the U.S. that has 123 doctors for every 50,000 people). The survival of this hospital depends on missionaries to come and serve the needs of the hospital and the people. I am told that there is a huge need for accountants and to be able to fill a role that is so vital in the ongoing of operations of this hospital is giving me all the more motivation and excitement to go. I’m really looking forward to joining the team of missionaries there, and words cannot describe how honored I feel to be chosen to fulfill this need for them.

Above everything, expanding the kingdom of God so that others may know the joy of knowing Jesus and the hope of eternal life is what this is really all about. This hospital is a Christian hospital, and when people go there, they can hear the gospel – a story of which still remains unknown to a mass amount of people to this very day. To have the chance to love people and serve others – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. I consider it such a privilege to get the opportunity to do life with the Nigeriens for a year. I have no doubt I will learn many things from them. Life is not about being comfortable, making money, having a successful career, buying a new car, or even traveling the world (too bad I can’t remember this all the time), nor does my ultimate satisfaction lie in any of those things. And as I continue to do life here, I’m left with a hunger that can only be satisfied by one thing and that’s Jesus. SO… This is me following where He wants me to be. This is a big leap into the unknown. I have no idea what my future in this journey will hold, but I know who holds it!

I am incredibly humbled at this opportunity, a little nervous, and a little “is this really happening and am I really doing this?” – but most of all I am excited. That said, I would love nothing more than to continue to share this journey with all of you! More details coming soon! I will be sharing much more about Niger, this hospital, and this experience in the weeks/months to follow!

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This past January I was fortunate to take part in another amazing volunteer opportunity – this time back to Africa! I was part of a 15-member team from my church that ventured across the pond to serve those in need in Niger. The weeks leading up to this trip were filled with tons of excitement as I prepared for yet another African adventure, nervousness due to timing of visas and yellow fever shots (which apparently are a rare commodity in this country), and laughter (a lot of laughter actually) at the amount of times I was asked if I would return home with Ebola. While it comes as no surprise to me, some of you might be shocked to learn that I did indeed go to and come home from West Africa without Ebola!

nigerOur team spent two weeks in Niger: one week in Niamey which is the capital of the country and another week in Galmi which is a town about six hours (ten hours in a van) outside of the capital. Our first week was spent serving the needs of a local hospital in Galmi, but before that we took a mini road trip from Niamey to Galmi, and quite frankly I loved every second of it! There is no better way to see a country than a good old-fashioned road trip! This six hour ride quickly escalated into a near ten hour ride, but it was not without excitement. We passed through more than 50 villages, got gas on the side of the road from a man carrying a jerrycan, saw hundreds of wild camels roaming free, witnessed the ever-so-popular means of transportation – a donkey pulling a wagon, almost hit a cow in the middle of the road, and had a real interesting encounter with two elderly African women and a man with a machete when we stopped to use the restroom (not to imply that there was an actual restroom). Not to mention, we were the main attraction in every village that we passed through. I mostly try not to put on my americano costume when I travel abroad, but sometimes the blonde hair and blue eyes make blending in a somewhat difficult task! Did I also mention that we drove on one road for the entire trip?

One of the members of our church, Deb, is a full-time missionary/occupational therapist at the hospital in Galmi (galmi.org) and has single-handedly developed an entire therapy unit and has made strides in advancing the care within the emergency burn unit in the hospital – all in a couple of years’ time might I add! As the hospital is mostly led by a team of international volunteer doctors, our team was there for the week to simply lend a hand with whatever tasks needed completing.

As we arrived on the hospital compound, I was overtaken by the serenity and peacefulness of the sights, the sounds, the gentleness and humility of the local workers, and just the overall ambiance. Simply put, I was overwhelmed at how at home I felt in this tiny little community in the middle of nowhere in Africa. As we were now on Deb’s soil, she made sure we jumped right into the African lifestyle and prepared for us some delicious homemade African cuisine during our stay. Our first night at the hospital compound we discussed the various ways that our team could serve the hospital and also those that keep the hospital running. Our main objectives were a few organizational projects and simple encouragement. Life can be very difficult financially and also emotionally draining at times for missionaries, and organization of records often comes secondary to patient care, especially in a region where sanitation is not always a primary concern. So those were our primary tasks, and with that we concluded our first night at the hospital.

As we headed to our rooms that night I heard, “Hey Kath, hang on a second. We have something for you to do.” Deb called me over and explained that they had a special project for me to help out with. In my head I’m thinking, “I’m probably not anymore organized or organizing ‘capable’ than anyone else on this trip. I wonder what this is about?” To my surprise, the hospital was asking for help with their accounting! I never in a MILLION years imagined this would be an opportunity on this trip, and boy am I ever so grateful that it was! I spent the entire next day helping the finance manager of the hospital reconcile cash, post entries, close out a few months in preparation for year-end close, and also discussing internal controls. I learned about Nigerien payroll, how the Nigerien social security system functions, got hands-on experience with their accounting software, and most importantly was able to fill a vital need for the hospital. My heart was overjoyed by and through this experience, and it was just unexpectedly perfect at the way it all fell in place together. And as a result, this nerdy accountant had the biggest cheesy smile glued to her face for the days following.

There were a lot of mixed emotions at the sight of the hospital. There was happiness as we learned about all of the improvements that they have been making on a continual basis. However, I was heartbroken as we walked through the ICU and learned that there were only so many oxygen masks to go around and if someone needed it more than you, simply put, you could be out of luck. This hospital is one of the best hospitals in the entire country of Niger with incredibly skilled doctors, and the realization that they are limited to the resources around them is a tough pill to swallow, especially knowing that there is a television in probably 95% of the hospital rooms in America. I’ve had a few hospital visits in my day, but this was by far the toughest.

Carl CamelAnother highlight of this trip is the day I got to ride a camel, in the desert, in Africa. I had the pleasure of riding the best camel ever. His name is Carl and he is awesome. This was without fail, one of the coolest things I’ve ever done! Carl is also the most photogenic camel I’ve ever met — #selfiegamestrong.

Stay tuned for part 2!!

By Kathy Sikora, CPA | 609.520.1188 | ksikora@withum.com

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SikoraKathy Sikora

Accountant

WithumSmith+Brown

Princeton, NJ

 

Africa5After just participating in my very first Withum Week of Caring, I am reminded of the wonderful experience that I had in Africa this past July. Some of you might remember reading a previous post by Doris Martinez that shared her first experience volunteering in an orphanage in Mozambique. Well, shortly after hearing of her story (thanks to this blog coincidentally!) I was quickly convinced by her contagious enthusiasm to join forces with her for round two!

In July we traveled to Maputo, Mozambique to volunteer at the Zimpeto Children’s Centre. The centre is home to more than 300 children ranging from newborns to late teens. The centre also employs many from the local community and provides schooling for the children who live at the centre as well as children from the surrounding community. Lastly, the centre is home to a group of 30+ individuals from all over the world that have committed to dedicating their lives to the well-being of these children and the orphanage.

Africa2

While at the orphanage we spent most of our time helping out at the dorm for the boys ages 4-8. The 30 or so little darlings that live in this dorm are full of energy and playfulness. Laura, a full-time missionary at the centre, is responsible for caring after these boys and likes to give the boys some extra schooling after their school day is finished. We helped give some of these afternoon lessons to the boys, which included helping them learn to write their names, draw pictures, learn shapes and colors, etc. Despite the language barrier (the official language in Mozambique is Portuguese), I feel as though we were able to make a positive impact through these lessons. When we weren’t helping with daily lessons, we spent time playing outside with the kids. Some of my favorite memories come from playing with the boys during this time! It is amazing some of the contraptions these children come up with using the random assortment of toys they have.

When we weren’t assisting with the children in the orphanage, we were out in the local community as part of the outreach program by the centre. We brought food to the homeless, we visited the sick in the local hospital, and we also visited the local garbage dump which to my surprise, was home to an entire community. Despite the very poor living conditions, I was blown away by everyone’s strength, kindness, courage and overall positive outlook on life.

Africa1Those that know me would say I have a bad case of the “travel bug”. I’ve been fortunate to visit many countries around the world, but this trip to Africa was special in its own way. In just two weeks in Africa I became accustomed to sleeping in a mosquito net, not having a hot shower, not knowing what I was eating and not having access to internet or television. Despite all of that, it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken. And to echo the sentiment of my colleague Doris, I too am planning on returning next year!

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WithumSmith+Brown just completed our second annual “Withum Week of Caring,” with over 400 individuals donating time to over 40 local organizations.  Giving Back at Withum, however, occurs around the year and around the world.  This is a story of Doris Martinez from our Red Bank office, who traveled to Africa this past summer to serve those in need, but gained so much more in return.

 

Doris writes:

 

In August, I travelled 8,089 miles to Maputo, Mozambique, a country located in the south eastern part of Africa to work in an orphanage for three weeks.  I chose this particular orphanage – Zimpeto Children’s Centre (http://www.irismin.org/zimpeto) after a happenchance meeting in 2011 with Laura, a mission worker who resides at the orphanage and was in New Jersey visiting with her mom who is a member of the same church I attend.  Laura had so much enthusiasm for the work she does with the centre and children she cares for, that I decided to visit her to share in her excitement.

 

Zimpeto Children’s Centre houses about 300 children ages newborn to 20. While most of the children are orphans who have lost their parents, some parents choose to have their children live there because they cannot provide for their kids.  The orphanage has several dorms for the kids, a church (which is also the dining room), school rooms and a medical unit.  The orphanage feeds and educates the local community, as well.

 

A typical day for me included waking up to a siren at 6 am, followed by the breakfast siren at 7 am.  The kids would be in school until the lunch siren at 12:30 pm.  After lunch I would help Laura in her dorm give extra schooling to her boys (she is dorm mom to 30 boys ages 4-8).  This would include helping them learn to write their names, learning the alphabet and doing a craft project.  A siren would sound at 4:30 pm for showers, followed by the dinner siren at 5:30 pm.  Most nights you could find me in the toddler house (kids 1-3 years old) helping with dinner, baths and putting the kids to bed at 6:30.  If I was not in the toddler house, I would be in the nursery feeding and holding the infants.

 

In addition to helping with the kids, I would help with ministry work.  We would go to the local jail and minister to the prisoners, the local hospital and pray for the sick, sing on the street corners with the kids and minister to those less fortunate who lived on the garbage dump seeking food scraps from the drop offs.

 

Despite the living conditions in Mozambique, the children at the orphanage get three meals a day (bread and rice are the staples of most meals), an education and are well loved by the missionary workers.  Most children have very few possessions, but they are always smiling and ready for hugs from those who will give them.

 

Thank you all for the gifts you have given me to take to the kids.  I know I came away with much more than I left behind.  Would I go back to sleeping in a mosquito net, cold showers, hand washing of my clothes, no TV or internet access and minimal food……yes, I am planning on returning in July 2013.

 

 

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