SALISBURY — On the surface, Chelsea DiLoreto’s story is that of a missionary.
For the next four years, she will be living in the Nigerian bush, teaching elementary school at an orphanage and taking care of intensive-need babies.
It will be a life to which hardly any of us are accustomed. Temperatures as high as 110 degrees. No running water. No electricity, except for a generator running for three hours at night.
She’ll live in a mud house with a tin roof and cement floor. Her diet will consist of a lot of rice, beans, okra and a potato-like starch called cassava.
But the hidden message behind DiLoreto’s selfless work is one of community, love and the realization we don’t need a lot of material things to be happy.
It’s a nice lesson heading into Christmas.
DiLoreto has lived and worked at the orphanage three different times, including an eight-month stint in 2010-2011.
Back in the States, she couldn’t stop thinking about the Ministry of Mercy orphanage, located in isolated bush country but not terribly distant from Lokoja.
“I felt like that was kind of home,” Chelsea says. “I feel like I belong and I have a place there.”
Come Jan. 11 and under the sponsorship of Liebenzell USA, DiLoreto will be going back. Four years without a break seems like quite the sacrifice, but it’s the kind of commitment needed to build relationships, she says.
DiLoreto acknowledges coming close to a panic attack in April 2011 when she was leaving Nigeria, thinking she was not returning.
“It just tore me apart that I would never see anybody again,” Chelsea says.
Plus, she was having culture shock in reverse.
Nigeria had taught her how having things and worrying about money weren’t important to happiness.
“The people are so happy, but they don’t need a lot of stuff,” DiLoreto says.
She remembers being back in Salisbury and walking through Walmart, thinking how silly all the excess was.
“It really was a shock to me,” she says.. “… We have so much stuff that we don’t need.”
DiLoreto’s mother, Faythe, visited Chelsea in Nigeria during her eight-month stay and says her daughter was happier and more confident than she had ever seen her.
“She does not realize,” Faythe DiLoreto says, “how unusual she is in that she is willing to leave all that we have here to go to the middle of nowhere in Nigeria and live without electricity and running water in order to raise, teach and love on these orphans.”
The oldest child of Faythe and Dr. David DiLoreto, Chelsea grew up in Salisbury. She attended North Hills Christian School for 11 years before completing high school at First Assembly Christian School in Concord.
While she was in high school, she took her grandmother’s advice and went on a two-week mission trip to the Nigerian orphanage where her cousin Crystal Gosnell was — and still is — director of education.
“I fell in love with the people,” Chelsea says.
She virtually demanded that her whole family travel to the orphanage the next summer, and on their visit, all of the DiLoretos looked for ways to help the existing staff.
After four years at Appalachian State University, Chelsea graduated with a degree in elementary education. But instead of starting a teaching career in the States, she left for a more prolonged stay in Nigeria.
DiLoreto taught her fourth-grade class of about 16 students in an old chicken coop. The students sat two to a desk, and her blackboard was a piece of plywood with a layer of charcoal dust to write on.
In class, the official language is English. The students also speak their native Igala.
DiLoreto created her own lesson plans, made her teaching supplies and taught eight subjects between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. School is year-round at the orphanage.
She lived with Gosnell, and the women shared their home with six children, including two boys with serious physical disabilities.
They all relied on cots for beds, a gas stove, an inside toilet and water that had to be hauled up from the creek.
Chelsea could charge up her laptop computer when the orphanage’s generator came on at night. A nearby town had cellphone service, and Chelsea also communicated with her family back home through daily Facebook posts and occasional chats on Skype.
The orphanage has about 200 students on site, who attend school through the sixth grade. They’re off to the local middle school and high school after that but are considered in the orphanage’s care until they’re 18.
The roads to reach the orphanage are dirt. Chelsea says it will take her a six-hour ride to reach the Ministry of Mercy site after she lands in Nigeria.
Today, students have a new school building so they no longer have to rely on chicken coops. Dormitories take up two buildings, and staff members, except for Gosnell, live together in a separate facility.
During her last stay, DiLoreto raised a set of twins, Blessing and David, whose mother died in child birth.
The babies were tiny and only 16 days old when they came to Chelsea. Each of the infants weighed less than 3 pounds, and their neonatal care would consist of being with Chelsea around the clock.
There was no other viable option if the babies would have any chance of surviving.
“The hospitals are pretty atrocious, even the best ones,” Chelsea says.
In the beginning, because the twins had stopped eating, Chelsea had to tube-feed the babies every two hours. She also carried David and Blessing to keep them warm. They were strapped to her, even in the classroom.
After the twins were older and less dependent on Chelsea for warmth, the students helped with their care in the classroom. DiLoreto described how a student might with one hand give a bottle to a baby, while writing out his lesson with the other.
David and Blessing lived with Chelsea and Crystal in the mud home. A house girl sometimes helped with the laundry and dishes, which was important with cloth diapers.
The twins are 3 years old, and Chelsea can’t wait to see them again.
“They’ve gotten a lot bigger now,” she says.
In Salisbury, DiLoreto has been working at Rowan Family Physicians during the days leading up to her departure.
She had hoped to be back in Nigeria in June, but her plans hit a snag, delaying her trip.
But pretty soon she’ll be wearing flip-flops and the colorful skirts made by local women. She’ll be swimming in the creek and taking bucket baths every day to stay clean.
DiLoreto knows she’ll miss little pleasures, such as Coca-Cola, hamburgers and ice. That’s all right.
She will be in a place where the real stuff comes wrapped in the smiles of children.
“I went to help out,” Chelsea says, “and completely lost my heart.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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