When Des Moines firefighter Mickey Kinzenbaw learns of a need in an impoverished country, he doesn’t just write a check. He hops on a plane and travels to the source of the need — sometimes to work in an orphanage or build a school or teach sustainable farming methods.
He has taken humanitarian mission trips to Mexico, Jamaica and Hungary and helped with Hurricane Katrina cleanup in New Orleans. Occasionally his wife and two young children go along on the two-week trips, sometimes he travels solo.
Last year Kinzenbaw and his wife, Mandey, made a much bigger commitment when they sold their Ankeny home, packed their things into a storage trailer and moved with their kids to the South African country of Zambia for nine months.
The family’s move served dual purposes: to try to adopt a child and to start an agricultural aid organization. The adoption fell through, but the family was able to start its organization, AgriHope. They formed the nonprofit with their church, Ankeny Free Church, which also supports other missionary work in Zambia.
“Zambia is one of the poorest nations in the world,” said Mickey Kinzenbaw, who took a leave from his job at Fire Station No. 1 to make the trip. “People are poor, hungry and undereducated. I have a farming background, and we prayed for an opening to use it.”
AgriHope starts its efforts in schools, offering meals to students, he said. They work with the kids by teaching them to plant crops like tomatoes, cabbage and sweet corn using sustainable farming methods such as crop rotation.
They work with families to bring new farming methods to the community.
“Meals aren’t offered in schools,” Kinzenbaw said. “We help students essentially grow what they eat. Kids attend school more regularly when there are meals, learn much better farming practices, and also focus better while they are at school.”
Life in Zambia presented both challenges and rewards for the Iowa family. They lived in an old building with concrete walls and floors and a tin roof. Water and power availability was inconsistent and the family lived out of a suitcase for the first six months while their shipping container was detained in Mozambique.
“We had a stretch of almost two months where we’d only have water once a week,” Kinzenbaw said. “You don’t realize how much of your life depends on running water until you have to fetch every gallon you consume out of a well.”
The family also had the opportunity to be filmed for the HGTV show “House Hunters International,” comparing their home in Zambia with two other properties. The episode will air on Oct. 22.
“We got to film where we had been working at the school toward the end,” Kinzenbaw said. “The crew was really impressed with everything. They told us that not many people they filmed were doing stuff like this.
“I think the poverty they saw, combined with the optimism and hope they felt, was really powerful.”
The Kinzenbaws are back home in Ankeny now, but they intend to continue their work with AgriHope. Mickey Kinzenbaw will return to Zambia for a few weeks in November to help students and parents from two local schools plant their crops.
“I think the best part about working in Zambia was being able to make a real, concrete difference in a lot of people’s lives,” he said. “I felt like a little kid getting a birthday wish because we had been praying for this open door for so long. It was humbling.”