The worst part wasn’t the intruding rats, the bland food or the unfamiliar.

It came at the end, when it was time for Devon Ayer to leave it all behind and head back to normal life, which suddenly seemed so big and busy and complicated.

Ayer, who graduated from Monmouth Academy in 2010, recently went to an orphanage in Tanzania hoping she could help, maybe make a difference for a child or two. She left the East African country month later, desperate to return to the children who waved her good-bye, tear-stained faces saying what their language never allowed them to.

“Just the way you care for them, smile with them and love them, you have this understanding,” Ayer said. “There is so much love there. We could really feel it back. They cried when we left, which made it so much harder.”

The impact, Ayer believes, has altered the course of her life and pinpointed its direction. Ayer was a family studies major before leaving for Tanzania and since returning she has added a second major, justice studies.

She is now considering a career in family law. That may change, but she is certain her desire to help children will not.

“I feel a strong connection to Africa, but I know I’m not going to live there,” Ayer said. “I can help kids here get out of bad homes. That’s what this trip made me realize. That’s what I’m passionate about: helping kids.”

Ayer’s African journey began last year when the 19-year-old University of New Hampshire sophomore told her parents, Raymond and Vicky Ayer of Monmouth, that she wanted to spend Christmas break working at Living Water Children’s Centre in Arusha, Tanzania.

“I felt like it was the right thing to do for her,” Vicky Ayer said. “It gives you pause, but at the same time you’re awfully proud.”

Devon Ayer did several service projects with the Key Club and National Honor Society during high school.

“When I came to college, I found it was a little harder to find groups,” she said. “You really have to search. We have a really long break and I wanted to make good use of that.”

Ayer heard about the opportunity at the Tanzanian children’s center from her best friend, Danielle Poirier, whose sister, Lindsey Poirier, had spent the previous Christmas break volunteering at the orphanage and planned to return this year. Ayer and Danielle Poirier decided they wanted to join her.

“It was just for the experience,” Ayer said. “I really just wanted to make a difference and stand out.”

Ayer spent last summer working at Fast Eddie’s drive-in restaurant in Winthrop. Picking up all the extra shifts she could, Ayer finished the summer with the $3,000 she needed for her trip.

“A lot of students that age would say, ‘I’m going to St. Petersburg (Fla.) or someplace,'” Vicky Ayer said. “She chose to go to Tanzania. She doesn’t regret it, that’s for sure. She would have paid twice that.”

A 7,000-mile grip

Devon Ayer and Danielle Poirier left for Africa on Dec. 18, the day after their final class. Ayer’s only other ventures outside the country ware a class trip to Europe in high school and treks into Canada.

“This was the farthest I’ve ever been by myself,” Ayer said.

The friends arrived in Arusha on Dec. 20 — after a computer glitch forced an unexpected one-night stay at a hotel near the Kilimanjaro airport — and settled in with their host family, who care for 30 children in the orphanage.

“We got there during Christmas break, so we got to know the kids and hang out with them,” Ayer said.

When school started, Poirier and Ayer taught basic English and social skills to the 5- and 6-year-olds. The women also spent time at an elementary school teaching basic computer skills and introductory math.

The power supply in Arusha is sporadic, at best. Insects and other creatures are constant companions. One night Ayer came face-to-face with a rat while sitting on the floor watching a movie.

“We really got a feel for what it is like to live there,” she said. “Even living in an upper class home, it was still tough conditions.”

Still, Ayer, who returned home Jan. 19, is counting the days until she can get back to the children and their games of jump rope and hokey-pokey. Moments after Ayer and Poirier were introduced to the children, a couple of the younger ones grabbed their guests’ hands and showed them around the place.

It turns out the children’s grip holds past 7,000 miles.

“We saw two little girls. They got dropped off while we were there. Somebody found them in the village and just dropped them off,” Ayer said. “Danielle and I got close to a little boy named Joseph. We took money from her family and what I have left to send him $600 so he can go to school next year.”

Ayer said $600 can change the life of Tanzanian boy as surely as five weeks can the life of an American college student.

“I think about how fortunate I am,” Ayer said. “I had been there a week and it was Christmas. We gave each child a box of crayons and coloring books and stuffed animals. Seeing those kids light up over a box of crayons was definitely worth giving up that day to be with them.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

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