Joe and Julianne Kurowski didn’t want a typical rest and relaxation honeymoon when they married 14 years ago. A Franciscan nun for 35 years before marrying Joe, also a devout Catholic, Julianne felt compelled to “do something in the third millennium.” The Cameron Park couple packed their bags and flew to Kenya, not knowing exactly what they’d do once there.
“I felt pulled to Africa,” said Julianne of her thoughts back in 1999. “We went open and God sustained us. Now I could talk on and on about this. I eat, breathe and live Africa.”
Julianne was immediately drawn to the street kids who clamored around her. Many were orphans, their homes devastated by the AIDS virus that infected 10 percent of Kenya’s adult population at the time. “If they weren’t homeless, some of these kids lived with destitute grandmothers,” Julianne said. “They weren’t poor; they were destitute.”
The Kurowskis initially took in four children as their own to feed, clothe, educate and love. Aside from one girl who needed medical attention in the United States, they couldn’t legally adopt them because of steep fees.
“It costs at least $10,000 to legally adopt a Kenyan child,” Julianne said.
The Kurowskis raised their formally adopted daughter, Maureen, in Cameron Park where she attended Buckeye Elementary, Camerado Springs Middle School and Ponderosa High School until she was 16. Two years ago Maureen told her parents, “I want to be with people who look like me” so she returned to Kenya and her biological sister, who is also one of the Kurowskis’ children.
Today Joe and Julianne are the proud parents of 12 Kenyan children who range in age from 7 to 26. They are also the sponsors of two adult children in their 30s, now both professionals. The Kurowskis visit Kenya twice a year and stay for three weeks each time. They described these visits as jam-packed with hugs and plenty of parental guidance.
“We spend a lot of time with each of the children,” said Julianne.
Their youngest daughter, 7-year-old Lizzie, was 5 when they found her on the streets. “I couldn’t take my eyes off her,” Julianne explained. “She was babysitting even younger children in exchange for food. I could tell she was bright, but I worried about her.”
Technology has been a huge help to stay in contact when the Kenyan and American Kurowskis are apart. “I’m raising my kids by hi-tech,” Julianne said with a laugh. Last Christmas she presented all of the children with a photo book she made online. It was a commemoration of their time as a family, titled “Kenyan Kruowskis 2000-2012.”
What’s surprised Julianne most is how affectionate the children are, especially the boys. “They hug and cling to me. All the kids call me ‘mama.’” Whenever Joe and Julianne come to Kenya it’s like a big family reunion, they said, and all of their children come together.
For the younger children, the Kurowskis pay a woman named Theresa to watch over them and to see that their needs are met in between visits. The adult children have all gone to university while the younger children attend boarding school.
“Ideally, the children will be educated in Kenya and want to stay to help Kenyans,” Julianne said.
For years Joe and Julianne paid their growing family’s expenses until their parish, Holy Trinity in El Dorado Hills, learned about their story. According to fellow parishioner Judy Silva, Holy Trinity was so inspired by the Kurowskis they created a Human Concerns Ministry to financially support local and global causes such as theirs.
“It’s been a gift to know the Kurowskis and to see how they got involved,” she said.
Deacon Jim Hopp, who leads the Human Concerns, explained what the Kurowskis mean to their parish. “They are incredible Christians who are examples to us all,” he said.
Human Concerns Ministry regularly sends out surveys to locate needs.
“Though the Human Concerns Ministry’s main focus has been for Kenya, money is funneled into one place and distributed accordingly,” said Silva.
They also donate to local charities such as the Upper Room dining hall in Placerville and another global cause, Father Tom Hagan’s Hands Together, which provides hot meals and a free education for children living in or near Haiti’s poorest area, Cite Soleil.
The Kurowskis often speak about their mission to their congregation and said the outpouring of support has been overwhelming. Today they pay for their own travel, accommodations and any expenses for Maureen while donations from Human Concerns Ministry and individuals cover the financial needs of their other children.
This month Human Concerns Ministry will host its fourth annual benefit barbecue at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 10, in Holy Trinity’s social center. Besides a full dinner, there will be African and Haitian music, raffle, silent auction and videos of their missions in Africa and Haiti. Tickets are $13 per adult and $7 per child or $45 for a family of five or more. Visit holytrinityparish.org to purchase tickets.
What advice does Julianne give to others who want to be of service?
“People should do what they are called to do,” she said. “You don’t have to go to a foreign land to make a difference. And don’t let money hold you back. Just do it! If everyone just did a little bit this world would be a better place.”