“You can’t wrap your mind around poverty unless you’ve been there and seen it,” said Mike Catalano.

Catalano of Owls Head and Taylor Witham of Rockland recently returned from a mission trip to the United Republic of Tanzania, where they did work at an orphanage, provided food to the hungry and spread the Christian message.

Catalano has been on four trips to the orphanage in Moshi, near the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, but on this trip he visited several outlying villages. In the remote village of Gonja, he witnessed utter and unimaginable poverty as the mission team delivered rice to the people.

“You would see kids coming out of houses chewing on roots,” he said. “I was shocked that it could get worse than Moshi. We were in the presence of starving people.”

He said he had no doubt that the rice the team provided that day saved lives.

Witham said people in America should be thankful just to be able to brush their teeth and have clean clothes, or to not have to drive down the road to get to a source of water.

“The poorest in America are living better than the people in Tanzania,” he said.

Witham, 31, and Catalano, 27, journeyed to Africa as part of the Landmark Tabernacle World Missions, based in Virginia. The two Midcoast residents are members of the Grace Church on South Main Street in Rockland, and served as part of a 10-member team that spent about two weeks on the trip at the end of January and in early February.

The mission supports the Safe Haven orphanage in Moshi. Children ranging in age from newborns to teenagers are provided with meals, clothes, showers, hygiene products, access to church services and education.

In addition, the organization has built churches in small villages around Kilimanjaro, and provides food for the residents.

Despite the efforts of the mission, Catalano said it cannot begin to meet the overwhelming need in the region. He said there are no jobs available for most people and no educational opportunities.

Witham said a homeless person in Rockland, Maine, could still scrape together enough change over the course of a day to get a meal at a fast-food restaurant, but even that is not an option for the starving in Africa.

The orphanage is situated in a former factory compound just outside Moshi. It must be gated like most homes and businesses in the region to protect against thieves. Law and order is essentially nonexistent, Catalano said.

The orphanage has been in operation for about 12 years. About six years ago, construction began there on a large new building that will provide a big commercial kitchen and dining facilities as well as housing for 250 children.

Many of the children there are HIV positive, and the orphanage helps children with health problems.

The greatest challenge facing the orphanage now is a regional water shortage. Witham said the team had to go and get water with a pickup truck off site and bring it back. The mission organization is now raising funds to dig a well for the orphanage, but the project is expected to cost $20,000.

During this trip, the team members worked on pouring concrete footers for the foundation of a church being built on the site. They also did some painting in the orphanage and made trips to outlying villages to provide rice.

Even when the missionaries are not there, Catalano said, Jonas, who runs the orphanage, makes trips with food to the villages. The Landmark Tabernacle Mission sends rice to Africa throughout the year.

Witham and Catalano said they saw children chasing after their bus, because they knew the visit would mean food.

For Witham, the trip was especially meaningful.

“I recently got saved,” he said.

Witham said that in the past, he spent a lot of time partying. But around Halloween last year, he began to make a change.

It started when he found himself sick in bed with the swine flu at the Trade Winds Motor Inn in Rockland. He said he was trying to use a hotel room Bible to prop up his laptop so he could surf the Web. After a while, he started reading the Bible instead.

After recovering from his illness, he said, he talked to his mother and other family members, who were supportive of his change, and he was invited to the Grace Church.

“He just walked into church one Sunday,” Catalano said.

It was there that Witham heard about the mission.

“I’m going to church and they’re talking about it,” Witham said. “I felt I could go over there and make a difference.”

The mission trip had been booked with all the available spots taken, but someone had backed out. Witham called Pastor Keith Powers at the Landmark Tabernacle in Virginia at the last minute and got the last available seat on the trip.

“Taylor was the life of the trip,” Catalano said. “He kept everyone laughing. He has a lot of personality.”

Witham went from feeling like he had no place he could go a few months before, to being thankful for what he has.

“It’s always an eye-opening experience,” Catalano said.

For more information on the Landmark Tabernacle World Missions, visit landmarktabernacle.com/magnum.asp?pg=Missions

People Around Us is a regular feature on VillageSoup and in The Herald Gazette that highlights the stories of friends and neighbors in the community. Anyone who knows someone in the community who has an interesting story to tell is asked to please contact Daniel Dunkle at 594-4401, ext. 269 or by e-mail at ddunkle@villagesoup.com. Please mark the e-mail subject line “Attention Dan Dunkle” to make it stand out.