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Going the distance

Richard Nyambura traveled from Kenya to study his senior year at West Valley

It’s a spectacular fall afternoon at Plantes Ferry Park. The air is warm, but you can set your watch by when it will turn crisp. The trees are in the midst of their magical transformation from green into the full fall palette while the manicured lawn remains lush and thick.

West Valley High School cross country coach Bob Barbero dubs it “a perfect Spokane fall day – feels like summer now, but when 5:30 p.m. gets here, it will get chilly.”

Richard Nyambura sits among a group of West Valley teammates awaiting the start of a Great Northern League meet with East Valley and Deer Park. He munches happily on an apple, savoring its sweetness the way trick-or-treaters soon will savor their candy haul.

As his peers begin to stretch and prepare themselves for the upcoming 3-mile course, Nyambura takes his cue and joins the ritual and gets ready to run.

He’s at home in these surroundings.

But it’s a very new home.

“It’s hard for me to believe that Richard has only been running since the middle of August,” said Brenda Day, who, along with her husband Steve, hosts Nyambura. “I think it’s a miracle that he’s here and that he’s able to be part of this team.”

How Nyambura came to be at West Valley, where the 18-year-old leads the Eagles harriers, is a testament to something, Brenda Day insists. Call it divine intervention, call it destiny – call it whatever you will – she believes he was meant to be here, living with the Spokane Valley couple.

“This whole adventure started because my husband felt that he needed to go somewhere and volunteer,” Brenda Day explained. “He wanted to go somewhere in the Third World and do something that made a difference. He didn’t have anything specific, no specific place in the world where he wanted to go. He just wanted to go somewhere and help people.”

In January, Steve Day found himself in Kenya, helping out in an orphanage in the outskirts of Nairobi.

An orphanage in Kenya is unlike anything found in the United States. In this case, the home is run by a husband and wife and is financed by the husband’s day job: as a school teacher. The couple’s three children are joined by 37 orphans, and all 42 people live on the husband’s monthly salary, which comes out to roughly $400.

It’s the kind of place that could easily foment despair, yet Day found a place filled with hope. From the start, he was taken with one of the oldest children: Richard.

“Steve has been my best friend since the first day he arrived at my home,” Nyambura explained. “He was there for three weeks, and we talked a great deal.

“Because we are not from a rural area, we speak English, so I was able to talk with Steve. We talked about the United States and what it was like in this country. After a while he asked me if I would like to come to the United States to go to school. Since I was very small, I’ve wanted to come to the United States.”

Life in a Kenyan orphanage is hard. There is no state subsidy. Occasionally some company will donate a bag of food, but those occasions are rare.

School, too, is vastly different. Unlike this country, Kenyans pay to attend school and, Brenda Day said, that schooling is nothing like what we take for granted in this country.

“Students sit three to a bench with a desk that’s often made from an old palette board,” she explained. “If there are books, the kids can’t take them home because they are so valuable and there are so few of them. There is no school lunch program so the kids don’t eat during the day – they get by on gruel for breakfast and something like cabbage soup for supper. Meat is too expensive so they eat mostly vegetables.

“What impressed my husband was just how appreciative Richard was for everything. He was always asking, ‘What can I do to help?’

“He’s the oldest of four children. He has two sisters. I don’t think any of them ever really knew their father and their mother died giving birth to Richard’s little brother, Samuel. He couldn’t have been more than 10 years old when she died, and since then he’s raised his brother and sisters.”

The couple talked at length and an idea began to form. Was there a way to help Nyambura?

“I got involved and started looking into what it would take for Richard to become an exchange student,” Brenda Day said. “That’s when everything just seemed to fall into place, and I began to think that this was all meant to be.”

Nyambura was almost too old to be an exchange student, but in Kenya, passports and visas are not routinely given out to youngsters. And in Third World countries, they are not given out without lining a few pockets along the way. At 18, he was just old enough to qualify.

“Corruption is an everyday thing there,” Brenda Day said. “It’s just something you have to deal with.”

The window of eligibility was tiny, but it was a window nevertheless.

In most cases, parents foot the bill for their children to spend a year abroad. That meant that the Days would need to pick up the entire tab – something they were willing to do.

“We’re happy to do that,” Brenda Day said. “I don’t have children of my own. I have a stepson that I love and have a great relationship with, but he’s been moved out and on his own for more than 10 years.

“But I do have a great capacity to love.”

And she gets as much, if not more, out of the experience than does Nyambura. Seeing the world through his eyes is a wonderful thing, she insists.

“You stop taking things for granted,” she said. “Take fruit, for example. I don’t think he’s ever had fruit in abundance. I was afraid that he would take to the typical teenager’s junk food diet, but he’s not interested. He’s much more apt to eat two or three bananas for breakfast and a couple apples for dinner. He discovered avocados and he loves them. Salads are a treat to him.”

Once Nyambura arrived in Spokane on Aug. 12, the Days began thinking about how best to make the young man comfortable and allow him to make friends.

“We thought having him turn out for a sport would be a good way for him to begin making friends,” she said. “Coach Barbero and the cross country team made him feel welcome right from the beginning.”

Mention Kenya in the same sentence with running and area fans immediately think about the great Washington State University distance runner Henry Rono and the dominance his countrymen have in the sport.

“I did not run (competitively) until I came here,” Nyambura explained. “I and my friends played soccer, so I am used to running, but I had never run over great distances.”

That he already is the Eagles No. 1 runner is a testament to his natural athleticism. His silky smooth gait, too, is born from his natural gifts.

On this October day, Nyambura leads through the first mile and into the second before a pair of East Valley runners and a third from Deer Park pass him. He finishes sixth this day.

“We told him a week or so ago that if he were to place in a race, he’d get a ribbon,” Brenda Day said. “We could then send the ribbon to his little brother. Nyambura liked that idea very much. He placed in his next race, and the ribbon is now on its way to Kenya.”

“I am very happy to be a part of my team,” Nyambura said. “I enjoy my teammates, and I look forward to playing soccer.

“We play soccer all the time in my country. I am the captain of my team.”

The plan now, Brenda Day says, is to find a way for Nyambura to continue his education in the United States.

“Richard’s student visa expires after a year, and we’re looking to see what we need to do to extend it,” she said. “From what we can tell so far is that we pretty much have to have everything lined up before that deadline.”

“We’re hoping that Richard can earn a scholarship,” Barbero said. “I’m not sure if that can happen in cross country. If he did earn one, it would be for a junior college or a community college and they, at best, pay for just a couple of quarters. It’s difficult to stay in this country on just a few hundred dollars.”

There is always hope.

“I miss my family in Kenya very much, but I am not homesick,” Nyambura insists. “I communicate with them through e-mails. They know that I am in this country and that I am learning. They know that this is what is best for me so that I can go back and help them.”