It wasn’t easy for Brittani Boortz to leave her Lakewood High School softball teammates last month and miss three games in the middle of a success-filled season.
After all, softball is the only sport she plays and it’s long been a major part of her life.
However, the starting sophomore right fielder felt this trip was her calling.
So for the second consecutive year, Boortz traveled halfway across the globe with members of her church and spent nearly two weeks serving the children of Open Arms Village in the East African nation of Kenya.
The village, part of a Christian non-profit organization called Open Arms International, is home to more than 150 children on 50-plus rural acres outside the city of Eldoret. According to the organization’s website, most of the children have been orphaned, abandoned or removed from homes because of neglect or abuse.
“It was tough to leave my team, … but I felt like this was something that I needed to do,” Boortz said. “I have a heart for that place, and I needed to go and see what I could do to help.”
Boortz made her first trip to Open Arms Village last year after a pastor at her church — LIFEchurch360 in Arlington — asked if she’d be interested. Boortz is a singer, and the mission group was looking to bring a worship team.
As a 14-year-old freshman, Boortz said she initially was nervous about the prospect of traveling nearly 9,000 miles away from home without her parents. But after spending time with the kids in Kenya, she was particularly moved. Her mother, Anna, remembers their first phone conversation during the trip.
“I was waiting for her to be like, ‘I miss you, mom,’ or ‘I can’t wait to come back home,’” Anna said. “(But) she was like, ‘I have to come back next year. This is amazing. I have to come back and see these kids again.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty big.’
“I figured maybe she’d say that after she’s been home again for a while, but she was convinced when she was there (that) she was going to get back there.”
After returning home from last year’s trip, Brittani sometimes got emotional thinking about the kids she’d met, many of whom had heart-wrenching backgrounds.
“There were times when I would just start crying,” she said.
Brittani was so touched by the kids that she not only made a return trip this year, but also convinced her mother to join her.
“When I went last year,” Brittani said, “it opened my eyes so much that I had to bring her with me and I had to come back.”
Brittani and her mother were among the 12 members of their church who made the trip to Kenya last month. After the church’s trip to the village last year, the kids were overjoyed to have them back.
“They chased our bus when we pulled in,” Anna said. “When we walked through the village, they’re waving (like) we’re celebrities. They’re running to us to hang out. They just wanted to hang out and play.”
During their time there, Brittani and the mission group hosted a pair of camps for the kids of Open Arms Village — one for approximately 85 high schoolers and another for about 45 middle schoolers. They held both camps about a 45-minute drive away at Naiberi River Campsite & Resort, which features cabins and a swimming pool. Before and after the camps, the mission group spent time back in the village hanging out and playing with kids of all ages.
Because there’s such a high ratio of kids to adults in the village, Brittani and Anna said the kids really enjoyed receiving individualized attention from the mission group.
“They loved playing and they just loved to build relationships with you, because they feel like they’re a part of your group. They feel valued,” Brittani said. “… They want to feel loved. They want to feel like they have a purpose.”
Many of the kids had never swam before, so Brittani and the mission group spent lots of time in the pool with them. They also played a variety of games together, ranging from soccer to trust fall. The group also brought crayons for kids to color with and beads for them to make necklaces.
“Just little things that kids here take for granted, it was a big deal to them,” Anna said.
Brittani helped lead the worship music sessions and was amazed by the kids’ enthusiasm.
“The kids, they worship like nobody else,” she said. “They dance (and) they’re the happiest kids you’ve ever met. As much as their circumstances are horrible and it’s sad, they overcome and they’re so happy.”
During their interactions, Brittani said the kids weren’t shy to open up about their past. Anna said one child had been found sleeping next to his dead parents, who’d been killed in a war.
“It was completely life-changing,” Anna said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never met kids (who have) been through so much, and yet are so happy and driven.”
Prior to each of her two trips to Kenya, Brittani collected vitamin donations to bring along. Last year, she took more than 300 bottles of vitamins for the kids, Anna said.
“She loves being around people and helping others, whatever the situation may be,” said Brittani’s father, Travis Boortz, who is Lakewood’s softball coach. “I don’t know what her future holds — she’s only a sophomore in high school — or what she’s going to do later in life. But I do know that whatever she decides, it will involve people and helping others. That’s what she loves doing. … She’s got a big heart.”
The day after returning home in mid-April, Brittani was back on the softball field. As one of five Lakewood players batting over .400, she’s been a key contributor for a 17-3 team that finished second in the Northwest Conference and is seeking back-to-back state berths.
Yet even as Brittani continues her day-to-day life back home, she vows never to forget the friends she made half a world away.
“It was really inspiring to see where they came from, how challenging their lives have been and (how) they push through,” she said.
“They’re happy (and) they’re so grateful with what they have. It would be so hard on anyone here. It’s eye-opening. It’s amazing.”