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Woodbury residents Rob and Mary Sicoli will be traveling to Zambia this summer as part of a Visitation School mission trip. The mission was initially planned for Kenya, but safety concerns prompted the school to change last minute.

Mission trip changes nations

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For nearly a year Woodbury resident Rob Sicoli and his daughter Mary have been excitedly planning a summer mission trip to Kenya with Visitation School, where Mary is a junior. But last month the school received some unexpected news - it was unsafe to travel to Kenya.

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"There was a profound sense of disappointment," Sicoli said, "almost a loss, really."

Visitation School received news that the United States Embassy had issued a travel warning for Kenya based on information regarding potential threats.

"They believed there was high likelihood of an attack on Kenyan government buildings," said Elizabeth Arnstein, Visitation English teacher and mission trip coordinator.

Arnstein said the school quickly decided to seek out more information and consult with colleagues to determine whether or not the threat was serious.

"We always have to keep the students' safety as our biggest concerns," she said. "So we had to be smart and safe."

However, Visitation, through school connections, was able to secure an alternate site in Zambia through the Dominican Sisters.

Woodbury resident Abbey Casagrande will also be participating in the trip this summer.

The Zambia trip will be June 13-27.

From Kenya to Zambia

When news first broke of the safety concerns, the mission trip volunteers were immediately disappointed.

"The kids feared that there would be no trip," Arnstein said. "They feel so emotionally attached to this trip, so they were worried that all their work might not come to fruition."

But once Visitation was able secure an alternate location, Arnstein said the students and chaperones immediately rose to the occasion.

"The kids and parents have been so supportive," she said. "They understand that student safety is our first concern."

Arnstein said there were not any participants who backed out because of the change.

Sicoli said he and Mary were initially disappointed in the change of trip because it wasn't what they had been working toward.

"At first we had some trepidation," he said. "When it switched gears, it just didn't feel right at first.

"But, we were able to get past our disappointment and redirect it - there's a reason for our trip."

Initially "Team Mutomo," as it was previously called, was going to send 10 students and five chaperones to Kenya where they would have worked with children who have HIV and AIDS at the Sisters of Mercy orphanage in addition to helping out at the hospital and at various HIV clinics.

However, with the change of location, the group also had to adjust to a change in projects.

In Zambia, the group will be helping out at three orphanages, assisting at the health and dental clinic, volunteering at a secondary school and performing various outreach activities.

"There'll be plenty for us to do," Sicoli said. "We'll take each day as it comes and see what comes our way.

"Personally, I am looking forward to the work in the orphanage because that's going to be truly eye opening - and probably a bit heartbreaking."

Two projects that the group knows for sure that they will be helping with are white washing the hospital and building a volleyball court.

Zambia will be different than Kenya in its surroundings since it is much more industry-centric.

"By African standards it may be relatively speaking a little bit more affluent," Sicoli said.

Regardless of the change in location, Both Arnstein and Sicoli said this summer's trip will still meet all of the goals of being immersed African culture, providing service to those that are in need, providing an experience that participants can eternalize and opening their eyes to what is going on the world.

"I think the students are really looking forward to having this immerseful experience," Arnstein said. "The girls are very excited about the possibility of doing the good work they were going to do, just in a different location."

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Amber Kispert-Smith
Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.
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