My name is Grant Ehlmann. My wife Tonya Ehlmann, son Dane Ehlmann and I sponsor two children through the Hearts & Hope program. Tonya has been to Uganda once and this was my third trip.
Due to prior trips, I had a pretty decent idea of what to expect and sort of the controlled chaos that plays out during package distribution and playing in the villages. That all happened, and as expected, went smooth as it always does-thank you Julie. We all had a lot of opportunity to play with kids in the various villages and in my case, see familiar faces and re-unite and catch up.
A welcome sight was the improvement in both surroundings and the children themselves. They appeared to be even happier and healthier than my previous visits. The sponsorship program was truly making a marked difference in their lives and well-beings. This was amazing to see.
Without wanting to sound too greedy, a HUGE reason I go to Uganda is to see my sponsored child, Betty. As many know, I first met Betty in 2013. She had a noticeable disability (cerebral palsy) and I would eventually be linked up and able to sponsor her in a school that catered to disabled children.
Fast forward to June, 2017.
About two days into the trip I overheard Julie (Stroder) discussing plans not only to visit Betty at her school, but to actually pick her up from school and bring her along to her home village of Mbulamuti where she would spend the entire day with us and then be dropped off back at school at the end of the day. Needless-to-say, this piqued my attention and I anxiously looked forward to the visit over the next few days.
Day of the visit:
What a mixed bag of emotions swirled around in my head. How would she look? What would I say? How would I react? How would she react? Would she even want to be around me for that long?!? Those were just a few things I was wondering.
We pull up and of course Julie allowed me to be seated at the front of the bus. I exited the bus and looked towards the entrance where I thought she would be coming from only to be flanked from the rear as she had snuck around the back of the bus and met me with a huge hug!!! Betty and I hugged for a good long while and she was grinning ear to ear as I remembered so vividly from the last time. In short order, all of my concerns subsided and she was greeting all of the team members as they exited the bus. Betty was so happy to see everyone and her face made this obvious.
After a very warm greeting, we were able to tour the school and see her classrooms and meet the teachers. All I can say is, wow! The subjects being taught were way over my head and this was not something that was staged. These kids were learning advanced mathematics, etc. Very impressive to say the least. I also had a chance to meet the head teacher and director of the school who would allow me a selfie to compare from two years ago. It was a moment to remember.
What came next was also a moment to remember. The director referred to me as "Betty's father!" As if all of the commotion and introductions weren't enough to have me buzzing, to hear those words just hit home! It was then I knew how important it was to have been able to be a part of Betty's life and being able to sponsor her. For the remainder of the tour and prior to heading out with Betty to the village all those I came in contact actually referred to me as "Betty's father" as well. I felt a sense of worth and realized encounter with Betty back in 2013 was all a part of a bigger plan I was not in control of.
As we proceeded to board the bus with our newest occupant, we quickly got into Betty's packet I had purchased. It was, of course, over stuffed with as much stuff as Tonya and I could fit in it. Julie knows what I am talking about! 😉
Betty loved every minute of it and before long we were at her village of Mbulamuti. She was greeted by the villagers with open arms and almost treated like royalty which I absolutely loved. There too, I was approached by elders and many others as called "Betty's father." This was an amazing experience and continued to get better throughout the day. She hung by me most of the time except when we were handing out things. During lunch I was privileged to make her a plate of food with Violet interpreting quantity for her. Boy did she load up her plate for such a small girl. I would later see her calling a not-so fortunate (un-sponsored child) to her side and sharing most of her food with him. This was heart-warming. I was so happy happy to see her treating someone less fortunate with compassion. Not something we see back home too often.
As mentioned, the day progressed and it was amazing. Before we boarded the bus for home, we made a pit stop where Betty had been staying with a person (not family) when not on break. I was able to see the living quarters and also see a small piece of land that we may be purchasing to build her a small home on. It was neat to think that all of her hard work and struggles would pay off in the form of her own home.---Details on this will come in the future so stay tuned.
The trip home seemed short and before I knew it, it was time to say good bye to Betty. Up to this point I had really held it together. I chalked that up to the notion that because I had all day to process everything, I wouldn't become a blubbering mess of emotions. Well, that changed when I say my final farewell to her in the director's office. All of what I had been thinking I was in control of came rushing to the surface. I was struggling to hold back tears but it was futile. All of the day's events and memories leading up to this point came rushing at me like a freight train. It was hard to process but I had to say good bye and she did the same. It was a bittersweet moment. I was happy she was happy but I was sad to say bye.
After saying our goodbyes I had a lot of time to think about everything over the next few days ahead and remainder of the trip. Each time I would think about that day I found myself smiling. I'm sure people who saw me smiling out of the blue thought I was nuts but I didn't care. I was genuinely happy and not about to let go of that day and those memories.
As I sit here now and type this up I find myself smiling while at the same time choked up because I did have to say goodbye. Uganda has a special place in my heart. They say that Uganda is the Pearl of Africa. To that I say Betty is the Pearl of Uganda. There are thousands of Betty's in Uganda but there is only one Betty. Until next time, I will hold on to the memories and experiences I had that one day in June 2017 in the middle of Uganda with my sweet little girl, Betty...
Betty and Grant walking back from the land where they hope to
build her a small home to live in during breaks.
Betty made this necklace for Grant - what a treasure!
Hearts & Hope is a nonprofit organization focused on unlocking the potential of people in Uganda through relationships with people in the US.