Written by Mike Saum
Q & A with RVA Dorm Parents Jeff and Joyellen Hazard
An hour’s drive from Nairobi, in a forest of wild olive and pencil cedar trees that looks out over the Great Rift Valley, there stands a school. Much has changed in Africa since Teddy Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for the first academic building 100 years ago. The school itself has changed: modern curriculum, expanded programs, new buildings. The diverse student body, now comprised of almost 500 students from more than 20 different nationalities, represents 80 mission organizations in over 20 African countries.
But the reason for Rift Valley Academy remains the same: to empower missionary families to serve, and to disciple, nurture, and educate students toward academic excellence and Christian maturity.
What does it take for such a distinctive school like this to thrive, a school where 80% of kids are boarding students? It takes teachers, coaches, and administrators. Cooks, drivers, and builders. And it takes people willing to broaden the circle of a traditional family to make room for a few more. Maybe even 22 more.
It takes dorm parents.
Jeff and Joyellen Hazard have served as dorm parents at Rift Valley Academy for the past nine years. In a series of questions and funny, honest answers, find out why.
Out of all the missions ministries in all of the world, how did you end up as dorm parents at Rift Valley Academy?
Jeff: We are still asking ourselves that same question (laughing). Joyellen is an MK (missionary kid) from Kenya. I was born, bred, and raised in Michigan and then conned into coming out here after marriage. In 2001, Joyellen said, “Let’s go visit Kenya,” but we packet a LOT of stuff. We got off the plane, came right here, moved into the dorm, and actually stayed. We’ve been here ever since.
You didn’t always want to be a missionary?
Jeff: Oh no. When I was growing up, missions wasn’t anything more than having weird people from Africa who would show slideshows at your church and scare you to death to go anywhere outside of your own hometown.
What prepared you to be missionary dorm parents?
Jeff: After college I was a youth pastor for three years and felt strongly called to youth ministry. During that time, I was exposed to missions. I really enjoyed it and kinda got a passion for it, but I felt the only way youth ministry and missions were going to mix is if I kept taking kids on short-term mission trips. At that point I told God, “I’ll go anywhere as long as you don’t send me to Africa.” That worked out pretty well.
Then I met Joyellen and found out she was a missionary kid from this school in Africa called Rift Valley Academy. Never heard of it.
Joyellen: I attended RVA all the way from second grade up. My parents [retired AIM missionaries, Lee and Marsha Hoving] did Bible School ministry and lived all over Kenya.
Jeff: Shortly after we got married, I looked into RVA and started asking questions about needs and opportunities. Dorm parenting came up, so I went to Joyellen and we talked about it. I fell in love with the idea pretty quickly. I was like, “Let’s go! Let’s get out there!” She was a little hesitant.
Joyellen: I wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing just what was comfortable. I had to make sure all my motivations were correct and that I was coming because that was really where God wants me. So I had to wrestle with that for a while.
Jeff:After about two years, we had done all the orientation and jumped through all the hoops and raised all our support. We packed our bags and sold everything we owned and moved in.
What exactly is a dorm parent?
Jeff: Just the name “dorm parent” is kind of funny. We are in a parent role but we are not the dorm kids’ parents. Their parents are the number one influence on their lives. For us it’s more of a facilitator role— coming alongside the parents and helping them when they’re not physically here. A lot of it’s just mentoring. We challenge our guys to think critically from a biblical perspective.
Joyellen: We try to be a constant presence, to be around 24/7. During the school day, they are off and running . They might come in and have you sign this paper or get some medicine or ask a question here and there, but the days are pretty light.
It’s the evenings and weekends that are most intense. Our busiest time of day is from 7 until 10 at night. It’s just constant: study hall, hanging out and chatting, devotions once a week, things like that.
Can you tell us about your dorm and the kids that live with you?
Jeff: This is Duma dorm. Duma is swahili for “cheetah” although it’s filled with pictures of buffalos. It’s probably one of the oldest dorms on campus, and it shows. (Joyellen laughs) So we are working on getting that fixed up.
We’ve got grades 9th and 10th grade boys. We’re at capacity with 22, which we’ve had almost every year. We get the boys in 9th grade and close to half are actually new kids. They’re new to boarding, new to RVA, some are even new to missions.
In 9th grade, they’re just coming out of junior high. They’re still goofy but trying to be cool, because they’re in high school now. They still like to have toilet paper fights in the dorm, but they don’t want the girls to know. It’s kind of a fun time.
Joyellen: Usually we will have seven or eight nationalities in a dorm of 20 students. We have some who are missionary kids, some whose parents work for the government or are business people in Nairobi. You have kids that are not Christians, that are Muslim or whatever. Just all different nationalities and backgrounds. Some that are very, very conservative. Some from different missions organizations. We have interesting debates with the boys because they all come from different places.
How does dorm parenting affect your own family life?
Joyellen: We had no kids when we came out, so our family has definitely evolved and changed over the years from no kids to three kids—
Jeff: To 25 kids. Twenty in the dorm, three of our own, and two more dorm kids next term.
Joyellen: Evenings can be the hardest time of the day because we’ve got homework and bedtime over here at our house and we’ve got homework and bedtime over there. That’s why it’s nice to be a team. Usually we will divide and conquer.
Jeff: Even the dorm guys will step in. If I have an away soccer game and don’t get back until 8:30, I’ll come in and Megan is sitting there on the couch reading a book with one of the boys and Joyellen is over helping someone else with homework. They step in and help out.
Joyellen: When we were on furlough in the States, the kids were like, “Man, our house in Kenya was bigger.” They are thinking about the dorm. They asked, “Where are all the dorm boys?” That’s what they’re used to. It’s all they’ve known.
How do your own children relate to the kids in your dorm? And vice versa?
Jeff: We usually don’t let those guys talk to our kids. We try to keep them separate. (laughs)
No. Our kids—Megan (7), Lindsey (5), and Ian (2)—were all born here in Kenya. They’ve grown up in the dorm. So our kids are dorm kids. They have 22 big brothers. The dorm guys hang out with them. They play with them. They will sit and read books and stories and watch movies and—
Joyellen: The boys really like princess movies and Veggie Tales. (laughs)
Jeff: It’s funny how many 10th grade boys you’ll find sitting down and watching Elmo. You’ll get 15 guys and they’re sucked in.
Joyellen: Sometimes our kids will leave the room—
Jeff: And we’ll turn off the TV and say, “Alright, it’s time to go outside and play,” and groans come from the 10th-graders, not from our kids. It’s kind of funny.
Jeff: When Megan and Lindsey were little, the dorm guys at the time would put them in the stroller and take them for a walk. Of course that was a chick magnet. (laughs)
What about balance and boundaries?
Joyellen: Sometimes you feel like it’s impossible, like fighting the current and going the wrong way. It would be a utopia if you could only be a dorm parent. But everyone has needs and the next thing you know, you step in and you’re swamped.
Jeff: It is really hard to set boundaries between our work in the dorm and all of the other obligations you have. You don’t have one job at RVA, you have a hundred other things. I run the IT network here and all the internet and email for the entire station—about 900 users. I coach soccer. I drive a bus—which I thought I’d never do—in Africa. (laughs) I teach Sunday School. I fix my truck. A lot. I have a Land Rover.
So those boundaries are harder to set than between the dorm and our family. They’re a lot less distinct, because I think, “How would I want my kids to be treated if they were in a dorm?” These kids are part of our family. We have a door on our house, but it it always open. We don’t have “our family” time where we say, “Sorry guys, you can’t come in, because you are not part of it.”
What does it take to be a good dorm parent?
Jeff: We have been doing this for nine years and we have learned a lot and we still have a lot to learn. We have been the good, bad, and ugly. I look back at our first two years in a dorm and we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. I still feel like, “Wow I did that again.”
Joyellen: I think because I was a dorm kid, that’s a bonus. I can say, “I really liked this about a particular dorm parent. I did not like that. Let’s make sure we’re doing this and not doing that.” I think that helps.
It takes consistency, creativity, fun, laughter. A sense of humor helps. Identify with the boys. A situation happened last night where something had happened to one of they boys and Jeff identified with him. The boy was very thankful for that. Just coming along side them and venting with them.
Jeff: When we were young and new, we had the dorm parent handbook which explained all of the little rules, and we were black and white. “Page 3, Rule B says this and you broke it. You are done.” Over the years we learned that it is not about the rules; there is a lot of heart behind it. It’s about just figuring out where the kids are.
We might have two kids who do the exact same things, but there motives are completely different. The rules say A + B = C, but then you get to the heart of the issue. One kid is looking for trouble, but you’ve got another kid, and his parent’s village just got pillaged and burned down and they were chased out of their home. He got the e-mail last night and he came home and punched a hole in his door. He is not a malicious kid, he just doesn’t know how to handle those kinds of situations. He is a thousand miles away from his parents, and he just got bad news, and he doesn’t know how to handle it. So does that kid need to be hammered? No, he needs a hug.
What would you say to someone who might suggest that boarding school is an outdated model?
Jeff: Joyellen grew up in a boarding situation and she’s got two other brothers. I think all three are success stories for boarding. It’s individual to the kid and individual to the family. But being part of it, I look at the opportunities these kids have here, for community, for sports, for extra-curricular activities, arts, fine arts, and life skills. You can do that in home-schooling situations or group-schooling situations, but there is something bigger here that RVA provides. There are opportunities here that they wouldn’t normally get.
And nothing is done without prayer. This place has been running for over a hundred years. I think that just the fact that it has been going for so long and so many kids have been coming out of here with positive experiences says a lot.
What makes it worth the sacrifice?
Joyellen: It is always nice when the boys come back. You can see that they actually do grow up and some things do sink in. It is nice to see because sometimes you are like, “Will that kid ever grow up? Will he ever hold a job in society?”
Jeff: It’s fun to get e-mails about where they are and what they are doing and what their passions are. Guys that were just struggling to get by are now telling you that they are working here or doing this ministry. Stuff that was a challenge for them here, they have overcome. That’s exciting, not to take credit, but just because you were part of that.
Are there any passages of scripture that are particularly encouraging to you as dorm parents?
Jeff: Christ is coming back soon! (laughs)
Joyellen: “Take every thought captive, make it obedient to Christ.” That is one of my favorite ones, because it’s easy to feel discouraged because dorm parenting is such a daunting task. Take those thoughts captive.
And also “With everything you do, love the Lord your God with your heart, soul, and mind.”
Jeff: Every year, I talk to the guys about Romans 12. I love the way The Message puts it: “
Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going to work, and walking around life—and place it before God as an offering.” Make your everyday life a spiritual act of worship and constantly remind yourself, “This is what God has called me to do.” Just hanging out with the boys is part of worship and part of praising God. This is the responsibility that he has given us.