When Richard and Janice Skow were given the opportunity to take over a mission to orphans and widows in Kenya, they had to face a difficult question: Why take the hard road if you don’t have to?
By Tonya Stoneman
After officially “retiring” several years ago, Richard and Janice Skow bought a beachfront home in California and drew up a bucket list of all the things they intended to do. “For my entire professional life, I wanted to know my neighbors, and that was finally going to happen,” Richard says wistfully.
He never did get to know the people who reside next to his home on the Pacific coastline. Answering what seemed to be an unavoidable call from God in 2008, the Skows now spend most days co-directing Segera Mission—an organization that serves the poor in Kenya—where their hours are long and the dividends are few.
When I heard Janice was stranded in Paris en route to Africa after collapsing from a mini-stroke, I took the earliest train to see her. Richard had flown in from Kenya, and they were holed up in the Latin Quarter waiting for doctors to grant travel permission back to the United States for tests and treatment. We decided to meet up at one of Hemingway’s old haunts and share an appetizer.
Janice’s smile takes up the whole room. She has this infectious air about her—one that makes you like her right away. Though now in her sixties, she’s still a sunny California girl who loves fine food and fashionable clothes. Richard is a rugged ex-military attaché who knows way too much about how the world really works. Together, they are the iconic storybook couple, but with enough battle scars to bring them squarely down to earth. Our waiter delivers a second cheese course as Richard opens up about their life together.
They met in Africa while he was stationed there with the U.S. Army and Janice was working at a chimp sanctuary in Kenya’s Rift Valley. The daughter of a Baptist minister, she was powerfully influenced by her father’s faith and care for others. She recalls sitting in plenty of church services and listening to him preach, but says that the loudest sermon of them all came through his life.
As a result, generosity became second nature for the family: “I remember if we had anything—if we were given extra or got a gift—we didn’t ask questions, we just shared it with other people.” Those ingrained values led her to found a school for coworkers’ children. Her father, Reverend “Pappy” Gleason, visited often, ministering and preaching in the local church. Each time he visited, he stayed a little longer and grew more attached to the people he served—Turkana, Samburu and Masai. When Janice’s mother died, Pappy sold everything he owned and bought 26 acres of land surrounding the school. He started a medical clinic, a feeding program, and a mission outreach.
Around that time, after hiring a staff to run the school, Janice took a fortuitous trip to Rwanda, where she would work with the Dianne Fossey Gorilla Fund and also help the famed Rosamond Carr start an orphanage. That was where she first laid eyes on Richard. They began seeing each other when their busy schedules permitted and soon were married. But even then, Janice never stayed too long from Pappy and his mission.
Eventually, the couple felt it was time for a change. Richard took a job as chief of staff at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in California. They bought a home on the beach and began to think about life in the United States.
But a year later, Pappy was ailing and died in Kenya at the age of 94, leaving behind a legacy of kindness and love to the poorest of the poor. When Janice and Richard returned to bury him, they found the local tribes had built a great memorial in his honor. The Skows were deeply touched, but with lives now established in California, they made the difficult decision to leave the mission in the hands of a professional organization and vowed to return whenever possible. Two years passed before they made the return trip that changed everything.
Richard and Janice arrived in Kenya unannounced and were disheartened to see Pappy’s beloved Segera Mission in terrible disrepair. “Theft and corruption had taken over,” Richard tells me. “It was filthy. Our vehicle didn’t have wiring, a starter, or brakes, so there was no way to get people to the hospital. There were 13 broken windows, the generator wasn’t working, and the water system was out of commission. And a woman had died in childbirth due to the negligence of a nurse.”
Richard estimated that within six months the entire roof would be gone, but for him, the final straw was the spiritual desolation of the place. “They wouldn’t allow people to come to the clinic unless they went to church. If sick people weren’t ‘saved,’ they were told, ‘Go home and pray about it’ before treatment was administered. Basically, we had to make a decision: Sell the land and take Pappy’s ashes back to California, or save the mission.”
Living at Segera would spell years of struggle and hard work. The mission is situated in a very poor area, about 40 kilometers outside of Nanyuki, where the only jobs involve working with cattle. People live in mud huts and come from miles around to get clean water. The challenges before them seemed insurmountable, yet with Pappy gone, who would care for the people who had come to depend on him?
By this time, there were six orphans living on-site. The woman who’d died in childbirth left behind three children (the youngest, now eleven years old, is still at the mission). Then, there were two girls—one with spina bifida, who had moved into a dormitory to get medical attention, and one whose mother had AIDS. The sixth was a three-year-old whose elderly great-grandmother had trekked six miles with him on her back to reach the clinic (he’d never walked due to malnutrition, but today he plays in the schoolyard, and she visits him every day).
At this point, the mission lacked key staff members, who had abandoned their posts. “We went for a three-week visit and stayed six and a half months,” recalls Richard. “Janice and I would sit there in the dark, asking ourselves what in the world we should do. Under Pappy, the mission did so much for the community. It saved so many lives. To let it die wasn’t an option.”
The choice to stay was not easy, but the Skows resolved to save Segera Mission. When I ask Richard why, he pauses for a very long time, then simply says, “Because it was the right thing to do.”
He could not imagine turning his back on all the people who had known the light of Pappy’s love and now needed it in order to live. And Janice sees the decision as something that was imparted to her in a spiritual way by her father, and ultimately by God. So the couple took up residence in the only room with a sink and a toilet, and live there alongside the orphans and staff families.
On the Segera compound, there are living quarters for eight families in accommodations with no running water, and electricity comes from an external generator that works intermittently. There is a communal kitchen staffed by one woman who cooks in a pot big enough to hide a missionary within it. What the baboons don’t steal from the arid garden, hungry people take even before food has a chance to ripen.
Around 200 children arrive every morning for assembly, worship songs, and the raising of the Kenyan and American flags. This is Richard’s favorite part of the day. “When I’m overwhelmed with problems, I spend time with the orphans,” he says. “The school kids are phenomenal—they speak English in kindergarten. I take joy in the fact that the kids are learning in a disciplined environment. We’re trying to give them a chance for a transformed life.”
At morning break, they are fed a nutritious but simple porridge that, according to one volunteer, “goes down well if you’re hungry.” Lunch is beans and rice—the same thing every day. For most, it is the only food they get, and when they go home for the weekend, they won’t eat again until the ten o’clock porridge on Monday morning.
Aside from the orphanage, the clinic is Janice’s favorite part of Segera, and it’s operating at capacity. Encouraging people to birth their children in the sanitary conditions of the clinic rather than the bush is a major initiative. But she is proud to say that 98 babies were born there last year. Aside from delivering children, staff nurses provide neonatal care, give immunizations, and treat malnourishment, malaria, and typhus. They also run the only ambulances within 600 square miles.
Richard and Janice aren’t as young as they once were, and though things have improved exponentially since their return to Segera, they are always trying to stay one step ahead of the next crisis—elephants have once again torn down the fences; the classrooms and clinic are overflowing with a steady stream of people in need; and the mission’s vehicles require constant maintenance and repairs.
The Skows could walk away anytime they choose from the challenges of running Segera Mission—they could finally get to know their neighbors, dust off forgotten hobbies, and send a check once in a while to “people in need.” They could drive along coastal highways instead of rambling through black cotton mud in perilously rusty jeeps. They could fuss over household pests instead of worrying about spitting cobras and green mambas.
But they don’t, and the results testify to their commitment. Richard estimates that over 10,000 people were impacted by Segera’s initiatives last year. “We’ve saved a lot of lives,” Richard says thoughtfully. And their plan is to continue doing that very thing, following Pappy’s example of imitating Christ’s sacrificial love.
When it comes time to say goodbye to the Skows, I support Janice’s weakened frame as we walk up the cobblestone streets. Their life together reminds me of the Macedonian churches Paul wrote of so long ago.
Second Corinthians 8:2-5 (NIV) could have been written about them: “In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity . . . They gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability . . . They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to [others].”