Cultivating friendship and community

An IVEP partner reflects on a year of partnership

Jason Schmidt (IVEP Supervisor 2022-23) at his farm, Grazing Plains Farm, in Whitewater, Kansas.

Header photo: Jason Schmidt (IVEP Supervisor 2022-23) at his farm, Grazing Plains Farm, in Whitewater, Kansas. Photo Courtesy of Grazing Plains Farm

Over the previous year, I had the honor to supervise an MCC IVEP participant on my dairy farm and creamery. I was contacted by MCC personnel during the spring of 2022, asking if I would be interested in hosting a young adult on my farm for a year. I had never been a work placement host before. But I was open to the idea since I had participated in the MCC Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program two decades ago and knew firsthand the life-changing experiences of these young adult exchange programs. Furthermore, the applicant MCC was working to place had a university degree in animal science and experience with dairy processing. I couldn’t imagine a better fit for my dairy farm and cheese creamery!

Naomi Kwanza arrived in Kansas in August of 2022, having traveled from her home in Tanzania, and after spending a week of orientation in Akron, Pennsylvania. Immediately, I felt for Naomi as she navigated the cultural adjustments. My own memories of initial cultural shock after arriving in my SALT placement in South Africa came flooding back to me. I was excited but also apprehensive about how we could help Naomi integrate into our life and work. My primary concerns were for Naomi’s isolation in rural Kansas, and whether the community, MCC and I could assist her in developing a supportive network.

My concerns about a rural Kansas placement were real. Naomi’s host parents, an aunt and uncle of mine, were extremely generous. But Naomi had to fully rely on others for transportation. Neighbors are few and far between. So, isolation was real. And it took a bit for Naomi and me to navigate our working relationship. But from the start, it was clear that Naomi had an inner strength that would serve her well during this year. And everyone she interacted with loved her!

On the farm, Naomi and I hit our stride in December after figuring out our communication patterns. Once we learned how to be open and honest with each other, our working relationship flourished. Just like how she became an integral part of our community, I quickly came to rely on her around the farm and in our cheese creamery. She milked the cows and made cheese with enthusiasm and joy. Naomi also has the important skills of attention to detail, persistence, and willingness to see and suggest new and better ways of doing things, which I really appreciated. She adapted to our strict schedules, even though Tanzanian culture is not as punctual. And I loved every time she would push back against me when she saw I was doing something wrong! We made a good team. 

Naomi Kwanza from Tanzania (IVEP 2022-23) packages cheese at Grazing Plains Farm.
Naomi Kwanza from Tanzania (IVEP 2022-23) packages cheese at Grazing Plains Farm. 
Grazing Plains Farm/Jason Schmidt

Naomi became a friend. And I know I was not alone in the sadness of saying goodbye to a good friend at the end of her year. She endeared herself to many people. As the year went on, she became braver in expanding her community. Among her host family and church family, she was revered! On my farm, she left a hole upon her departure. It was quieter, and my world felt smaller without the richness that her IVEP placement brought to us.

Would I do it over again? Absolutely! I felt honored to participate in the IVEP program. Naomi grew my world and enriched our lives. Her time here will undoubtedly be a bright spot in the memory of my life, just like the memory of my SALT experience has been. I relish the opportunity to connect with people who have different lived experiences than my own, to learn the beauty in the diversity of the human experience and to relish in the commonalities we all share. Naomi reinforced this appreciation. To me, the SALT/IVEP programs are two of the best things MCC offers. Giving young people the chance for cultural exchanges like this has ripple effects that go far beyond the individuals participating in the program.