Every Tuesday morning, Melissa Willingham leaves her Phoenix home for a 70-mile trip to deliver meals to those in need in North County.

She brings hot and cold food prepared by Meals on Wheels to about eight men and women. And, just as importantly, Willingham brings a bright smile, a quick hug or a few minutes of conversation.

Linda Wilson travels a bit farther afield to help others. Every four months, she leaves her Monkton home for a 7,000-mile trip to Kenya to deliver clothing, shoes and books to an orphanage.

She knows most of the 160 children by name, and they smile broadly as she snaps their pictures. She hopes the photos will tug at someone's heart and wallet back home.


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Willingham and Wilson have never met, but they share a common bond. They have found a way to share their blessings.

But they are not alone, especially in North County, where volunteering and giving are woven into the fabric of a tight-knit community.

'They deserve our help'

As an independent travel agent who specializes in African adventures, Linda Wilson prowled for places in and around Nairobi where her clients could interact with local people.

When she visited orphanages, Wilson found more than a stop for clients. She found her calling.

"Orphans are looked down upon in Africa," Wilson said. "So many Kenyans have told me, 'They're just orphans, so why would we do anything special for them?' My answer is — they're human beings and they deserve our help."

In 2008, Wilson founded Caring for Kids of Kenya, a nonprofit organization that accepts donations through PayPal.

While some donations help pay orphanages' operating expenses, Wilson has zeroed in on making sure the children go to school.

"When you see a desperate situation like this, you realize the only way out is through education," she said. "But Kenyans don't have free education."

She said children can attend elementary school, provided they have money for uniforms and books. High school and college are only available to those who can pay tuition.

While Caring for Kids of Kenya will take any donation amount, Wilson has been successful in getting individuals, families, churches or businesses sponsor a child for $350 a year. They receive personal letters from the child and get updates during the year.

She also has 40 sponsors who pay $1,200 a year for a child's education. Those sponsors receive report cards, letters and a phone call.

This summer, Wilson's nonprofit brought its first student to the United States from Kenya to attend college.

Justin Mwaniki, 17, is now a freshman at Towson University. Barbara and Chuck Slusher, of Kingsville, agreed to pay for his tuition and other expenses.

"We went to Kenya a few times to meet other children we've sponsored and met Justin a few years ago," said Barbara Slusher, an associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "We all fell in love with him and when we found out he wanted to go to college, we decided to sponsor him. It's a big commitment, but Justin is a great kid and he's doing well."

Mwaniki was raised by his grandmother who never learned to read or write. His very early years were spent sleeping on a dirt floor until he was sent to an orphanage.