"The February trip to Uganda with the Hearts and Hope team was one of the most eye-opening experiences in my lifetime. I think what stood out most were the people's smiles. No matter what village we visited, the circumstances, or time of day, we were greeted by children, teenagers, and adults. Each person wore the most beautiful smile; the kind that makes you feel warm inside. I was especially impressed by the ladies who sewed with me in Nakabango. They watched me with care as I shared instructions and ultimately ended up with the perfect, finished bag. Each time I looked up I saw them smiling at me, especially when they saw the project coming together. They seemed so grateful and pleased with what they had made with their own two hands. What a fulfilling day! I hope I continue to see all these wonderful smiles forever in my dreams."
And at the end of the day, your feet should be dirty, your hair messy, and your eyes sparkling. - Shanti
I decided to join the mission trip almost immediately afterthe opportunity was announced during a church service. I grabbed my dear friend, Wendy, and said, “let’s do it!”. Little did I know that spur of the moment decision would be one of the best of my life…
As a pediatric physical therapist and director of a multi-disciplinary pediatric clinic, I am used to working with children with differences and committed to helping them stretch and grow to their fullest potential. One of the ways I connect with children is through art activities. When we decided to join this trip I thought that one way for me to participate would be to lead children in art experiences. What I didn’t really think about until I stepped into a group of 70 kids in the first village, was that they really had no access to basic art exploration and because of this most of the children really don’t have opportunities to create and let their imaginations soar.
The “self-portrait” project – where children look in a mirror to discover what they look like and then paint a picture of themselves was a way to connect with kids. I was overwhelmed by the number of kids in each village squeezed together on benches or the floor, all ready to paint – something they have never done before! At first the kids seemed a little shy and had a hard time getting started. But, as we passed around mirrors their drawings began to emerge. Children were amazed by their reflections in the mirror and giggled when they saw a friend with them. It was beautiful to watch each child try and capture their own unique look and fascinating to see how deliberate they were in their approach to get it “just right”. It was fun to see the reactions of the kids as they looked at each other’s drawings – smiling, pointing things out and re-checking in the mirror.
It was immediately apparent that if given the opportunity, children will create and imagine and this is an essential element for child development. It was remarkable to be able to give over 700 children an opportunity to play, create and dream – something that happens every day for kids in the U.S. The smiles on the kids’ faces as they decorated a butterfly with paint and jewels or looked in the mirror to see what they looked like was such a joy! It was amazing to be a part of something like this – giving a “first-time” experience for children and watching them express themselves and really take off. It was hot and dirty, we were crowded together and kids had to share all supplies but you would have thought they were being given Christmas gifts. I was overwhelmed by the sheer happiness of the shared experience. In village after village, the children all responded with excitement and they were so proud of their art! One of the boys finished his painting and held it up and asked his friends, “does it look like me?” and they giggled and said, “yes!!”. He hugged me and said, “thank you!” and in that moment, I realized that this trip was going to bring me so much more than I could ever give. These children who have so little and who work so hard every day to help their families, are just children. They have the same desire to imagine and create. What a blessing it was to be able to give them an opportunity to just be a kid, even if it was only for one day.
Last time I came here I didn't know what to expect, I just knew I had to come, even though i was by myself going to a far away land with a group of complete strangers. I believe in life you have things you have to push yourself to do (such as every night when I walk into the hospital for a long 12 hour shift) and some things pull you towards doing them. Uganda is a puller. The people in this country touch my soul in a way that God knows I need. It's the ultimate reset button which takes me out my bubble where dreams of dollar signs and worthless nothings overpower my life. This hot, dusty place reminds me that it is absolutely not material things that make people truly happy. These people have so little but the smiles and palpable joy is abundant. In a land of such material poverty there is a bounty of spiritual richness, it has to be seen to be believed.
When I cry and feel pity for these kids I immediately remind myself that while it is undeniably sad to see a child in tattered clothes and hungry, God himself sent his son to earth born in a dirty stable, not a fancy birth center, lain with wild animals, none of which were stuffed. He was poor and spent all his time with the outcasts of society. Loving the least of us, what better example could there be to follow?
Uganda also reminds me of how humans are all so similar. We are connected on a level that supercedes even language, I can go all day playing with a child, holding and laughing with them only to realize that we havent said a word to eachother. Sometimes words aren't needed. Once we sweep away all of our perceived differences our divided world has ingrained in us, we realize that we belong to one another. It doesn't matter what race, sex, religion, or nationality we are. God has entrusted us to each other and it is our resonsibility to share not only our outside goods but our inside gifts as well. I may provide some material needs for my 4 beautiful kids in Uganda, but what they give to me in return is far more significant.
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The Hearts & Hope mission team has returned from Uganda! We had uneventful flights coming home; some team members were even able to get an earlier flight from Detroit and catch some family functions last night! We are thankful for safe travels and pray for rest in the next few days.
Kelly Turntine, a two-time team member, shared these words with us during one of our devotion times this week. They are a beautiful capture of what so many of us were feeling! Thank you, Kelly!!
I step off the plane, I breathe in the thick, fresh air
I embrace the dark night of Africa, not a sense of mine impaired.
Riding through the towns and villages, the smells change with each mile.
As I think of the days to come, my face can’t help but smile.
The sights I will see, dances I’ll enjoy and hands I will hold secure.
Faces of friends, dances of dreamers Hands of angels, of that I’m sure.
Yet all at once my heart is troubled; pings of sadness depress my mood.
When I witness houses built with mud, inside families without food.
Uganda is a contradiction, in the most devastating way
For a moment you feel utter bliss, but turn your head and it's dismay.
How natural it seems, dazzling fruit stands and hills of passing farms.
Yet unnatural when you see the small-child tending it with body builder arms.
People with wealth beyond their awareness ponder why I come to such a land;
The danger, the dirt, the damage, they just don’t understand.
These words do not affect me though, my heart follows a different decree.
From the mouth of Jesus who said,
“what you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.”
Unfortunately, I am having trouble accessing our blog editing software and I’ve been unable to post on it for several days. My apologies!
The second half of our week has been no less busy than the first. As always, the days are long, but fulfilling. On Thursday, we began our day in Mbulamuti, where we delivered packets to 100 sponsored students. They were so excited about our visit! We helped them paint self-portraits and work on a message to their sponsors. The teaching staff and students there are ready to begin school on Monday!
Our next stop was the village of Namwendwa. There is no Hearts & Hope partner for this village, but thanks to generous donations from Party With a Purpose attendees, we have put in a borehole well! This changes the lives of these people in so many ways – clean water means healthier bodies, kidss can go to school instead of hauling water long distances, and girls are safer when they don’t have to fetch water when it’s dark. We will officially dedicate the well this coming week. We played games with the kids and let the women (and a few teenage boys) make cross necklaces and then we were on our way. Such beautiful people!
Pastor Paul, Beth, Pastor Scott Rische, and I attended a banquet in honor of all the pastors and their wives on Thursday evening at the City Hotel in Jinja. It was a wonderful affair and gave me a great chance to catch up with some people that I don’t get to see too often! I appreciated the invitation. Becky, Wendy, and Mariah spent a quiet evening at the hotel and caught up on some sleep.
On Friday, we were able to visit the village of Butangala, where Immanuel Lutheran Church in Wentzville, Missouri partners. They started their school, which is housed in a temporary structure, a week early so we got to see a lot of the kids. There is a huge disparity in kids who go to school and those who don’t. We spent a full day there and loved being able to let their creative juices flow through painting and some other crafts. Dental hygiene was a hit and you couldn’t help but believe that this was brand new info for many of the kids.
On Saturday, we headed down Iganga Road, which runs east out of Jinja. We stopped at the new seminary and enjoyed a tour given by Pastor Peter Maganda. It is quite a campus and will be fantastic when it is complete! They have been holding classes there since August.
The best part of the seminary for me was pulling onto the land and seeing three faces I had not seen in about 2 years. Three boys who lived on the streets of Jinja most of their lives. Messiah Lutheran Church had attempted several things over the years, hoping to give the boys food, shelter, an education and mostly some love. Each time, the boys left to live on the streets again. We came to realize that they needed more than what we were able to give. They needed someone who understood the allure of no rules and exactly what kind of environment they needed. Over the next couple of years, one boy in particular, Abraham, would appear every now and then. Sometimes it would be while I was eating at the Source Café or shopping in Jinja. Sometimes it would be at one of the schools we were visiting. But in 2016, I never saw him. I really thought I would not see him again; honestly, I kind of gave up.
And then, there he was. Tall, strong, truly a young man! He could look me in the eye and when he spoke, a deep voice had replaced the soft whispers I used to hear. They are working on construction at the seminary. They have beds (that were neatly made!) in one of the unused classrooms. They were making African tea when we got there. Violet and Pastor Charles both told me the boys are “reformed”. I felt that, too. They talked about their goals and how they are using the small amount of money they are making. My prayers will continue to be with them as we look at ways to get them into vocational schools so they can learn a skill that will support them for the rest of their lives.
After the seminary stop, we headed east to Busia and then south to Nalwire. This village is very near the Kenya border. It was very dry and there was a lot of dust; you could see the impact on the crops.
We were entertained through song, dance, and drama by the Sunday School kids. Their music is so joyous! You can’t help but smile the entire time! Nalwire has no partner through Hearts & Hope. The land where the temporary school and church structures sits is only borrowed; it and 2 adjoining pieces are available for sale. We toured the land and talked about the cost.
Afterwards, we had a short amount of time to visit with the women and kids. We had lunch at Margaret’s home – she is the women’s leader in Nalwire and a wonderful hostess. The skies darkened during lunch and we had to say a hurried good-bye before getting on the bus, but not until we presented goats to four of the women. A donation from a member of Redeemer Lutheran in Redwood City, California allowed us to give this generous gift.
We made our way home and made a quick run to our hotel rooms before we gathered back at the reception area to head to the All Friends Restaurant for dinner. Several of our Ugandan friends joined us and it was a wonderful night of laughter. We got back to the hotel and most of us went straight to our rooms. We are tired!
It has been a fabulous week. We look forward to the second team of 17 people arriving this evening! Praying for safe travels for them!
Ahhhh, we are back at our beloved Sunset Hotel International. All is right with the world!
We made the beautiful journey from Kampala to Jinja, stopped at the market for water, and headed to Kaingagoga. The school structure in Kainagoga was dedicated one year ago this weekend and it’s a thrill to see all those kids and how happy they are. Almost every sponsored student was there, even though school doesn’t begin until Monday.
The kids got to paint self portraits and enjoyed some more dental hygiene lessons, including crafts! We have some precious pictures to share. We presented 2 goats to 2 women, purchased with funds from St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Peoria. We also presented 1 offspring goat to another women; this is the how the program is supposed to work! She had received a goat in 2016 and was “paying it forward”.
In the fall, we presented 5 sewing machines to the women’s group, another project funded by St. Peter’s. Today, they took us to the staff room in the school where they had the machines all set up and had some of their creations on display! One woman is teaching the others and they have made great progress. They were so excited to share their progress with us. We met with them and watched them decorate small fabric pencil bags. They are such a fun group!
We passed out candy and were on our way. It was fun to finally be back with Pastor Paul and Beth and Pastor Scott Rische at dinner tonight. Lots of laughs – and some whole tilapia. Everyone is tired though and it was an early night for most.
We are thankful for safe travels and for the friendships made because of these trips!