It was a promise the young couple made as they began to follow their passion. Even so, as they stepped forward on their venture there were misgivings.
“I still remember my dad saying, ‘What! You’re going to Africa with a man you don’t know and with people that you just met?’ ” Carla Picicci said with a smile as she recalled the questions and the coincidence that led her and husband Jeff to their destiny in Kenya.
The former Pasco couple who have since founded the In Step Children’s Home in Cherangani, Kenya, understand that God works in mysterious ways. One of the first was serendipitously bringing four people together at a funeral.
“Joyce and Ron Panzero had come to the Tri-Cities because of a death in their family,” Jeff said, remembering the chance meeting in 2003. “We didn’t know them, but they were related to the widow. While we were talking to them we found out they were interested in missions too.”
Already, Jeff and Carla had been active in their church youth group mission trips to Mexico with their son and daughter. At times, the couple had entertained the idea of a full-time ministry there someday.
“I had a great job and worked with great people,” Jeff said about his employment with one of the Hanford contractors. “But did I want to do this for the rest of my life or something that I loved doing, something that mattered.”
Even so, a choice like that might hold regrets if it were made too soon. There were children to provide for and a savings account to build.
But by the time Jeff and Carla met the Panzeros, their empty nest was a reality. The two were already well on their way into a 10-year plan they’d created for their future, including paying off their home and cars in an effort to be entirely debt free. This would allow them the freedom to make serious decisions about moving south of the border to help others, but certainly not continents away.
Nevertheless, the direction of that step-by-step plan was about to change.
“Joyce worked at Skagit Valley Community College,” Carla said, as she reflected on the way things came together in their initial conversation. “She told us that she knew a Kenyan man that we should meet.”
Before long, Jeff and Carla were making weekend plans to stay on the west side of the state with acquaintances they really didn’t know. But this husband and wife felt it could be God leading them. Upon meeting the Kenyan student, there was instant rapport, the couple said. It then seemed a natural next step to accept the invitation to meet Edward’s African family during college spring break.
But because Jeff didn’t have enough vacation days to cover the three-month stay they needed for researching the area, he made a life-changing decision to leave his job permanently.
“Prior to this, we came up with a philosophy of no regrets,” Jeff said, thinking back to how they’d planned for a future full-time ministry at some point — and now this choice. “Which decision is more likely to end up with us having no regrets? If we go to Africa and it goes bust, we can come back and survive. But what if we don’t go and we always regret?”
During their lengthy visit, Jeff and Carla discovered a countryside much like the one where they’d roamed as kids growing up in rural 1970’s Pasco, but warmer and greener. They also found there was a need for clean water that they could establish with existing natural springs. In addition, there was potential for a medical ministry. Villagers needed monetary assistance with transportation and physical help to and from a health clinic, another niche the couple could fill.
“By the time we came back, we knew in our hearts,” Carla said, recalling how earlier they had sold their home in preparation for whatever ministry God called them. “We sold or gave away our household belongings and in January 2004 we moved to Kenya.”
And then this mother, grandma and daughter added, “Saying goodbye to family and friends was hard, and it doesn’t get easier as grandkids come and my folks age.”
Still, their philosophy of no regrets remains as they daily see their life-purpose revealed.
“In July of 2006, Jeff got a phone call from our local chief,” Carla said remembering his chilling words of how a newborn had been discovered by school kids in a cornfield nearby and no one in the village wanted to take her. “It was by God’s mercy that she lay there two days without dying, and there were even dog scratches on her belly. We named her Rehema (Mercy) Grace.
As Rehema Grace has grown from an infant to a healthy 10-year old, the spring water projects and medical ministry have grown to include an orphanage and more. Now this nonprofit known as Rehema Ministries is managed stateside by the couple they fortuitously met 13 years ago, the Panzeros. Continents away in Kenya, Jeff and Carla manage the In Step Children’s Home — a place where infants to 3-year-old’s find loving arms when there are none, a forever family to call their own.
Jeff and Carla have sought God at every step of their journey. But at the start years ago, even they questioned their wisdom about driving across Washington to stay in a couple’s home — strangers they’d only met briefly at a funeral.
But when there was doubt, an assurance came — one they saw as a sign.
Carla, remembering the worry she and Jeff felt and talked about as they walked up the Panzeros’ driveway that day, said, “Ron is a fishing boat captain and just then we looked up and there’s his boat. We knew it right then, that God was leading us.”
And the name of the boat in bold letters that caught their eye?
SUSIE MCENTIRE benefit concert for Rehema In Step Children’s Home
Saturday, October 8th 6:00PM
South Hills Church, 3700 W. 27th Ave, Kennewick
Tickets: $30 online www.rehemainstep.com or Riggle Plumbing 509.735.3916 and The Johnson Group 509.735.6220