By Herm Card
In 2007, Gabrielle Romano's brother, Shawn, was living in Orlando Florida, planning to go to Africa as part of a church mission. When he told her this in a Christmas-time phone call, she wondered if there was any way she could go along.
"I e-mailed the pastor and he invited me to join them," she said, "In March 2008 I moved to Orlando and worked as an intern graphic designer for my brother. In July we were off to Africa."
For Romano, then recently graduated from Onondaga Community College, the experience was life changing.
"I was blown away by the poverty. We spent two weeks visiting orphanages and working with feeding programs in villages in Malawi. We did an AIDS awareness program -- they knew that people were sick and dying, but a lot of them didn't know why."
It was a totally hands-on experience, affiliated with a Seattle based program known as Children of the Nations (COTN) that works with orphanages in the Dominican Republic, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Malawi. The experience affected Romano physically as well as spiritually. The well conditioned former OCC basketball player found herself hospitalized in Orlando for two weeks after she returned. To her the illness was irrelevant -- more important, "I had been bitten by the Africa bug -- I knew I had to go back. My eyes had been opened. I was awake to serving people and making a difference."
Back to Africa
"I learned that COTN has internships -- I started thinking about going back. Around Thanksgiving in 2008 I went back to Orlando. I spent November to June working 2 to 3 jobs and saving money to go back to Africa.
"In June, 2009, I went back for a two month internship in Malawi. I worked in the same villages as before. It was great to go back. The two weeks had just been a glimpse. Two months was a real eye opener. Being in the culture you can really make connections. You begin to understand the relationships and realize that there are no simple answers."