The African odyssey of Daryl and Mary Jo Oft began three years ago. The couple, who own Diversified Solutions in Payson and Globe, participated in a global evangelism effort in 2005. Their participation took them to Kaswanga, Kenya on the island of Rusinga in Lake Victoria.
What they saw made them think and look into their hearts to see if they might be able to make a practical difference in the lives of the people they met.
"We came back and decided we could do something for these people," Daryl said.
"I had never done fund-raising for a project of more than $1,000 and certainly never dreamed of becoming a parent to 60 orphan children overnight. ... I started out with a small idea that God was directing me to go back to Kaswanga and try and do something. I had no idea that He would lead me to ‘exploit my potential' (the term used in Kaswanga by Kenyans for what God was doing in us).
"I look back over the past couple of years and marvel at how God has provided in so many ways. He has impressed so many people to sacrifice their resources to advance this project. The astonishing results of this project are not about what we have done, but how God used two ordinary people to accomplish the extraordinary," he said.
Initially the plan was to improve the drinking water of the village, using the specialized water treatment system of Payson's Randy Roberson's Humanitarian Emergency Logistic Preparedness program.
The system works by means of breaking down salt molecules, and in the process, produces three byproducts -- chlorine gas, which purifies the water as the gas is introduced into the flow of water; bleach, which is used to disinfect the water containers used by the villagers; and lye, which is used to disinfect the primitive latrines.
"It was my understanding that they had not had fresh water for more than three years because the water system they had in place was no longer functional, due to all of the water technicians dying of AIDS," Oft said in a 2006 interview.
The Ofts' work in Kaswanga expanded over the years. The mission, called Living Waters International, has since updated and reopened a feeding center and helped the residents put in gardens. The mission was also able to help get supplies and equipment to the area's medical clinic.
It was during the Ofts' most recent visit to Kaswanga that the feeding center was finally opened. They were accompanied by their daughter Autumn (a recently licensed registered nurse from California), Adel Torres, a registered nurse also from California, and Shirley Feather from Payson.
Living Waters assumed full responsibility for purchasing and preparing food for more than 60 orphaned children at the newly completed center on July 14.
It was during the Ofts' last full week at Kaswanga.
"There seemed to be more excitement on the part of our team and the staff than from the children who were coming," Daryl said.
"Initially, there seemed to be a wall of trepidation and anxiety for this new experience. They went from sitting on either rocks or thorny bushes in the sun to sitting in a building made of brick and mortar. They were introduced to new responsibilities: washing their hands before eating; standing, waiting in a line for their food; expressing polite appreciation to those who were serving the food; giving thanks to God who provided the food; having a Bible story read to them each day while they were eating; and then washing their dishes and sweeping the floor area of the feeding center.
He said as wonderful an experience as this was for them, they were struck with the awesome responsibility of becoming parents to 60-plus children overnight.
"That evening we both became overwhelmed with what it was going to take to sustain the needs of these children. For the first time we experienced the reality of how different it was to raise money to buy food for the children and to pass the money on for the food purchase while someone else actually took the responsibility of the feeding.
"Now we were not only buying the food, but we were staffing a feeding center and fully responsible for all aspects of the feeding program. With the cost of food increasing two-fold since starting this project, we were justifiably concerned. Mary Jo pointed out how we just needed to trust God, since He had made it clear to this point that He would provide.
"Armed with that promise, we started our second day of feeding the children with peace that this was our mission and that our faith would carry us through. It gave new meaning to ‘faith-based' ministry," Oft said.
The feeding center provides one meal a day, which includes protein, fresh vegetables, rice and occasionally fruit. The feeding area can accommodate more than 300.
Installing a solar oven at the feeding center was also part of the work done during the 2008 mission trip.
A large solar oven was purchased and shipped from Chicago in January 2008, arriving three months behind schedule.
The oven can cook up to 1,200 meals a day, bake 250 loaves of bread a day, sterilize medical equipment and boil water. There is also a propane backup system for the rare cloudy day. It is mounted on a trailer, which can be rolled into a large corridor in the feeding center and secured.
In addition to the solar oven, the feeding center has three grain silos that can hold six tons of grain, 30 feet of counter top for food preparation, two preparation and serving tables, an office, a grain room, a farm storeroom and a Living Waters storeroom. The inside has been bird-, bat- and rat-proofed and the windows have metal security covers.
"All of the major components for a successful program have been implemented: a new feeding center, a water system complete with water purification, a bountiful garden ... all is there; but now the need to sustain this great potential with ongoing support for food and essentials for living are needed," Oft said.
The children still have incredible needs, he said.
"What came to our attention (after the first day at the center) was that 25 percent of the kids had only one pair of clothing, that being their school uniform. For the most part, they were tattered and torn. Then came the shock of how sick these kids were due to many diseases and malnutrition," he said.
"The kids were coming for food while suffering from malaria, skin lesions and open wound infections. We started buying antibiotics and topical medications to treat what we could. We took one young girl to the nearby medical clinic to treat a leg infection that had been ongoing for 10 years.
"She was 16 and could barely walk. Then, there was a young boy with 20-plus skin lesions on his head that we treated. We realized that not only was food needed, but also the very basics of clothing and health care were needed just as much. We will now be adding a line budget item for clothing and minimal health care. It does not cost much for treatment, yet when you have nothing as an orphan, not much might as well be a fortune. Two dollars can cure malaria, 74 cents can provide de-worming for three months and $5 provides antibiotics to help cure infections."
Oft said when they left Kaswanga, they left with heavy hearts, knowing so much could be done.
"By faith we will keep moving forward, knowing God will provide. Through it all God was leading -- and teaching," he said.
Daryl and Mary Jo Oft will be sharing the stories of their Living Waters International work at a number of public programs in the coming weeks.
Free public presentations, "The Forgotten Children of Kaswanga," will be held at 7 p.m., Friday, Aug. 22 at The Meeting Place, 1107 S. Beeline Highway, Suite 2, Payson and at 11 a.m., Saturday, Aug. 30 at the Payson Seventh-day Adventist Church, 700 Wade St., Payson.
The Ofts are also available to speak to church or business groups or organizations such as Rotary or Lions clubs. Please contact Daryl Oft at (928) 978-3899 for scheduling. Schedules tend to fill quickly. Go online at www.LivingWatersIntl.org to see current updates and pictures of the Ofts' work.