Exciting, nerve-wracking, amazing, enriching

An IVEP participant in Chicago reflects on her experience so far

Charles, third from right, ice skates with the staff and children from Living Works’ after-school program.

As this was my first time traveling outside of my country, it was exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. I wondered whether I would be able to survive the winter and kept on asking about the extreme temperatures we could experience during the winter. I thought that by knowing, I would psychologically prepare and keep encouraging myself to manage. Then I arrived in Chicago when it was about 103°F (39°C) and so humid, different from Kenya. It felt like a reminder of how different things would be during my 11-month stay.

I have had culture shocks; one of them is Halloween celebrations. I heard about Halloween on social media but needed to learn more about how it is celebrated. Decorating begins weeks before Oct. 31. I saw a lot of decorations along the streets, with so many people having skeleton faces on their doorsteps. It then became normal to see the decorations, and it wasn’t an issue anymore.  

There was this one day when a friend from the small group came to pick me up from work to go to the youth group, and I saw an RIP sign that made me feel sad that the family had lost a loved one and buried them next to their doorstep, although it felt a little bit off because I have seen quite a few cemeteries around. I thought maybe he or she was so dear to them and they didn’t want to be away from the deceased. I asked Rebecca about it, and she replied, “Oh, Zilpa! That is a Halloween decoration” with a smile on her face.  

Working in a school environment has been a great experience. I feel it’s given me a whole new experience of teaching and new skills. The first day I joined an eighth grade class at Kilmer Elementary School, I sat in one of the student’s chairs, and I was not introduced because almost half of the class was absent. The following day, one of the kids asked me in a very innocent and sweet voice, “Are you in our class?” I then replied, “Yes, but as an assistant teacher,” and I now get why almost everyone I know keeps encouraging me to eat more. I’m not that tiny anyway, am I?

We have a lot of activities in the after-school program that are so much fun. I am learning more about social and emotional aspects, especially when dealing with kids, something that I did not give so much attention to during my teaching career back in Kenya.  

I also work with ESL students, helping them with their daily classroom assignments. It is a little bit challenging at times because we do not speak a common language, and they are also not fluent in English. I use Google Translate to help, which I think is just 50% accurate. We also use a lot of pictures to communicate. They feel shy speaking in front of the class, but they improve daily, and that is so encouraging. The joy and smiles on their faces brighten my days.  

I have joined two small groups, one with young adults and the other with all ages. It feels good to spend time with different people, sharing our life experiences and thoughts on other things as well.  

Staying in the U.S. has made me appreciate my culture and learn more about different cultures. I enjoy a lot of food. Tacos are my favorite. My host brother Liam makes good chai (spiced tea) that the whole world should definitely know about.

I did not have a good experience with cheese the first time on the plane. One of my coworkers kept telling me that plane foods are not real food, which I fully agree with. I am progressively developing a friendship with cheese, and who knows, perhaps we will soon be the best of friends.

I love the special moments I spend with my host family, the dinners and movie times. They are amazing people.

Zilpa Charles together with her host family.
Zilpa Charles together with her host family. From left, back row: Elijah Jackson, Liam Jackson, Julian Jackson, Zilpa Charles. Front: Kristin Jackson. Photo/Emily Loeks

My faith journey has been making a lot of progress, and I am so glad about it. I’m happy to be involved in a very diverse church with people from different parts of the world. We have different groups leading the choir every Sunday, which feels so fulfilling.  

I love singing, and it is one of the ways that I connect with God. I love listening to and praising God in all those different languages. Unity Choir (which includes people from Africa) has several people from different countries, and most of them speak Kinyarwanda. I have learned a few Kinyarwanda/Kirundi songs that are amazing, as well as Nepali songs. We go to different groups after worshipping together as a group. I have been attending the Swahili/Kinyarwanda group until recently. I thought of regularly visiting different groups and experiencing God differently. 

Zilpa Charles, wearing the red cardigan (second from left, front row), leads Unity Choir during a worship service at Living Water Community Church.
Zilpa Charles, wearing the red cardigan (second from left, front row), leads Unity Choir during a worship service at Living Water Community Church. Photo/Julian Jackson

The sense of community and hospitality I have experienced here is truly heartwarming. It has made me feel like I belong and has deepened my connection with God. I am grateful for the opportunity to immerse myself in different cultures and languages, as it has broadened my perspective and enriched my faith journey. I am looking forward to learning more in the remaining months. 

Editor’s note: Zilpa Charles is a 2023-2024 IVEP participant from Kenya who is serving in Chicago, Illinois. Top photo: Charles, third from right, ice skates with the staff and children from Living Works’ after-school program. Photo courtesy of Living Works