Panua ministry expands to Winter Park VBS

WINTER PARK – For youngsters clustered around a projection screen, the image of a garden-in-a-sack beamed from a far corner of Africa was pretty cool.

The crop? Not so much. 

Dorcas Martinez to 1st Winter Park via Skype
Dorcas Martinez, a First UMC Winter Park missionary, and Panua beneficiary Stephen, behind her on the screen, use Skype technology to tell VBS students what it's like to live in Naivasha, Kenya.

“It grows spinach, kale and onions,” Winter Park missionary Dorcas Martinez told the young crowd via Skype from Naivasha, Kenya. Her description met with a chorus of “ewww.”

Though not the sustenance of choice for grade-school Americans, the yield provided by the multistory garden feeds a family of eight for a week, takes up little space and costs only a few American dollars, Martinez said.

Ultra-efficient gardens are among ways First UMC, Winter Park, has been helping impoverished orphans on the other side of the world become self-supporting through its mission called Panua Partners in Hope.

The church started sending missionaries and funding to Naivasha after its pastor, Dr. Bob Bushong, had a chance meeting with Rev. Paul Matheri of Trinity UMC, Naivasha, in a Pittsburgh sandwich shop during the 2004 General Conference. The two struck up a friendship and a few years later began the Panua ministry, later named Panua Partners in Hope.

About 10,000 of the 2.5 million young people left orphaned by disease or hunger in Kenya live in Naivasha, according to a Panua video at ttp:// The goal of Panua Partners in Hope is to help those young people live independently, as well as find their way to discipleship.

This summer, as part of First UMC's VBS program, the ministry expanded to include hundreds of children from the Winter Park community who met Martinez and a Naivasha teenager, Stephen, through Skype in the church gymnasium. Stephen said through an interpreter that he heads a household of seven siblings.

The children in VBS raised about $3,500 for the mission work, which was matched by a congregation member for a total of $7,000. The youngsters also tried their hands at growing their own multistory gardens.

Bushong said in a phone interview that the Panua ministry was patterned largely after a similar effort called ZOE, a mission supported by the North Carolina Conference in several parts of Africa and intended to empower orphans to support themselves and go to school without living in orphanages.

He said he explored the possibility of expanding ZOE to Naivasha with that ministry’s founder, Rev. Greg Jenks, but logistically it proved impossible. So the Winter Park congregation stepped up to start the Panua program.

Since 2010, about 400 young Naivasha residents have received help in starting businesses, getting to school, growing food and finding shelter. 

Kathy Bradshaw, children's ministry director, and Parker Franks, 10, of First UMC Winter Park converse with a missionary in Naivasha, Kenya, via Skype at the church VBS this summer.

“I still marvel at it,” Bushong said. “It feels like God’s hand is in this ministry.”

Bushong said he has visited Naivasha several times to lead pastor training sessions.

“It’s a whole different atmosphere from what we’re used to,” he said. “Folks are living much more day to day than we are.”

The pastor said it’s not at all unusual for children of 6 or 7 to supervise toddlers and walk a half-mile or more each day to find food or water.

“There’s a greater sense of the importance of community,” Bushong said. “People watch out for each other.”

Like ZOE, the Panua Partners program provides funding and advice to young entrepreneurs to help them get a business going to support the family. Once successful, the business owner often hires other orphans in the Panua program. The goal is for Panua beneficiaries to become self-supporting in three years.

Allison Palmer, who owns her own nursery business in Orlando, was on a mission team of nine from First UMC who made the 18-hour trip to Naivasha this summer. She said she shared advice about running a small business, such as how to find ways to stand out from competitors and the importance of putting profits back into building the business.

Palmer said she was struck by the friendly attitude of everyone she met. People waved and said hello to strangers.

“Everybody there was so gracious and kind,” Palmer recalled. “Never did we feel unsafe.”

She said she did not see signs of abject hunger, but the houses and streets reminded her of illustrations of America from a century ago. Homes often had dirt floors and small rooms, and some people lived in structures made of tin.

“They would go to sleep by the sun because they didn’t have electricity,” she said.

During the mission trip, First UMC volunteers built a new home for Francis, a young Panua beneficiary, because his home slid down a hillside during a rainstorm.

Palmer said she was most inspired by Lucy, a teenager who recently finished high school and was running her own hair salon. She has four siblings and dreams of becoming a pharmacist.

“I felt like, wow, this girl is going to go someplace,” Palmer said.

She said the trip cost about $3,500, and she was able to raise much of it through personal fundraising.

Though she was happy to return home to the U.S., she thinks she might like to make the trip again someday.

“The more I think about it, the more I miss it.”

For information about Panua Partners in Hope, visit  To see a video about how to grow a multistory garden, go to

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