They share their blessings near and far

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.

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.

Wilson met him in 2006, when she took his picture.

"I think everything was God's plan," Mwaniki said during a recent visit to Wilson's home in Monkton. "My dream was always to become somebody who can be helpful to society. If it wasn't for Linda's organization, I don't know where I'd be."

'Food is a blessing'

Life is pretty good for Melissa Willingham. She and her husband, Robert, have lived in Phoenix 17 years and have a grown daughter. They own Tortilleria Sinaloa, a small but successful Mexican eatery in Baltimore.

She is a former massage therapist who works at the restaurant part time, serving homemade tacos, tamales and tortillas.

But a few months ago, she started looking for a volunteer opportunity and found Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland.

"I needed something that would fit into my schedule," she said. "This was a perfect fit. I love driving the roads out here, and I have time to be introspective when I'm in the car by myself. But I also love seeing the people on my route."

She delivers meals to northern Baltimore County folks every Tuesday. Her eight or so clients are among 2,967 who received meals from Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland last year.

Willingham started her 70-mile round trip by driving to Faith Lutheran Church, in Cockeysville, to pick up the food. Her first stop on the route is a delivery to Pauline Lewis, who lives with her daughter, Lolita Washington, and her family in Sparks.

"I love seeing her," Willingham said. "She always gives me a hug and calls me 'Baby Doll'. She's always happy to see me."

Lewis, 64, said shopping for food has gotten difficult. She goes to dialysis three times a week and is having thyroid troubles and diabetes problems. "This food is a blessing," she said.

Lewis peeked out the window on the kitchen door when she heard a car pull up. Willingham arrived right on time, a little before 11 a.m.

"Hey, you're looking good today," Willingham said as the two women hugged like old friends. "Here's some good food for you. I hope you enjoy it."

Lewis eagerly began eating her hot meal — chicken, rice and string beans. Another tray contained cold food — roast beef, whole wheat bread, broccoli salad, apricots and juice — that she will eat later in the day.

All meals prepared by Meals on Wheels are low in sodium and are appropriate for diabetics.

Since she had more stops and knew other clients were waiting, Willingham didn't stay to chat.

"We are so happy and pleased to have people like Melissa," said Ellen Falk, coordinator of volunteer recruitment and retention for Meals on Wheels. "We wouldn't be able to do our jobs without our volunteers. We use 250 volunteers a day and there would be many, many hungry people if we didn't have them."

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