Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Trip Reflection

My name is Colleen Andersen and our trip earlier this summer was not my first time traveling to Uganda. I had been twice before, on vacation with my family in the summer of 2009 and on a service trip with 26 other people in February of 2010. The beautiful country and it’s overwhelmingly welcoming people stole my heart on my first trip, and changed my life the second. I had extraordinarily high expectations for KidsUganda Youth Board‘s Adventures in Service 2013, but I can still honestly say that my expectations were exceeded, the reason being the 15 other people I was traveling with.

It was late morning on our first full day in Mityana, and I was standing in the middle of the field at Nkonya, the school in the fishing village, when I realized that this trip was going to be different from anything I had experienced before. It was recess, and all the students and teachers were outside playing. On my pervious trips, I would have been standing with half of my group trying to follow the lead of the one or two out going people who were playing a game with the kids. This time, I looked around and saw each one of my fellow youth trip participants playing in their own section of the field with their own eager posse of young Ugandan admirers. Maggie was teaching some kids the ABC’s, Paul was running around playing soccer, Morgan had seemingly become a human jungle gym, and Caitlin was sitting on the ground making strange noises and waving her hands in the air while the kids followed in a game of Simon Says. No one seemed to be discouraged by the difficulties of communication, and no one was holding back for fear of being judged. I remember my first trip for the lessons I learned from Patrick, Eva, and their family. I remember my second for the inspiration I felt because of the students at Marantha. It was in that moment, as I saw all of my friends scattered around the field, that I knew I would remember this trip for them and everything they would teach me over the span of those ten days. 

While I learned many lessons from my peers when we were in Uganda, one of the greatest lessons came to me out of our countless discussions after returning home. Asking someone who their hero is a common question, however, it is one that I have never really had an answer for. Hero is a really big word and holds a lot of weight in my mind. I came home from Uganda this June with a clearer picture of what it is that Patrick and Eva do, and that new understanding has given me the confidence to call them my heroes. The Maranatha Integrated Schools Project is a school system, so obviously the education the kids receive is an important part of their mission. But beyond that, Maranatha is a safe place for their students. It is where they come to learn, to see their friends, to be feed, to be loved, to be happy. It is the one place where they are free to just be kids. People always talk about the joy that they see at the Maranatha Schools, which can be confusing because when we look at the lives of those children, there is seemingly little to be joyful about. Many of these kids probably are on the more serious and less playful side when they are at home, but when they come to school they are free to forget their worries. They are free to play games and be silly, to smile and to laugh. They are free to be themselves, and that’s a joyful thing.

Some people could look at a trip like ours and say what’s the point? They might even look at Maranatha and say most of those students aren’t going to go on to University. They are still going to be poor, they are still going to have to work hard jobs their whole lives. What difference does it really make? Even if a boy was to go to Maranatha for 10 years, and still end up working in the fields, struggling to make a living just like his father. For those ten years he was fed, he was educated, he was loved. He was given a childhood and to me, that’s worth it. We didn’t build anything at Maranatha, we didn’t teach the students about God, or give them medical treatment. We played with them. Held their hands. Gave them a friendship bracelet. Made them feel special for the week, or even just the afternoon and to me, that’s worth it. 

As our trip unfolded, I knew I was experiencing the best ten days of my life, falling in love with something new every day, trying as hard as could to live in every moment, and praying that I would never forget what it felt like to be so completely happy. To say I will treasure the memories forever is an understatement. The bonds I formed on this trip, with the Ugandan students and my fellow Mzungus, are stronger than I could have ever hoped for. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss Uganda, and if you were to ask me to go back with you tomorrow my answer would be yes in a heartbeat.

Church Service Reflection- Emma Parkinson

            The original speech that was to be given by Emma Parkinson on July 28, 2013. The actual given speech was slightly different.  

              My name is Emma Parkinson and I am going to be a junior at Woodlands Academy this fall. My life is progressing faster than I would like it to, and often times I feel like I am being left behind. Yet 10 days in a different world can shift your perspective on things.
 Reflecting on my time in Uganda us like trying to pack a suitcase. There are so many things to think about and I get all jumbled when I try to pick out what I want to tell people. So please forgive me if this seems unorganized.
            Not all of the red dirt is out of my KidsUganda shirt. In fact, I hope that it never comes out. If you’ve ever been to Uganda, you know how eerily beautiful the country is. The colors are so vibrant and this red dust is everywhere. The people are just as vibrant as the colors around them.
 I do not think that there is any way to prepare yourself before going to Uganda or any country like it for the poverty that you will see. I was often taken by the remoteness and simplicity of many of the square structures made of mud and trees. The children that we met at the Maranatha schools were as happy as possible when we saw them each day, but I could not help but wonder if they ever smiled at home, and that made me horribly sad.
I wish I could tell you about a more specific memory that I have from Uganda that affected me more than all of the others. But, the truth is, I do not value any moment from out trip more than another. There is nothing that I regret or that I wish did not happen. Every single time we were able to talk and play with the children was as amazing as the next, and I will never get tired of remembering their smiling faces. Just like the KidsUganda phrase, “Every child is precious,” to me, every memory of the children and everything we did with them is precious.
A lesson I learned in Uganda is something that I have always had a hard time explaining. Unconditional love. But what does that really mean? After thinking about it for a very long time, I still cannot articulate what it means to me. I can only explain it as what I feel after coming home from Uganda. It is when a children comes up to you and grabs your hand like a lifeline, and says that they missed you yesterday.  It is 16 people, and our bus driver, sitting on a bus singing anything and everything as loud as they possibly can. It is the determination to brave a bumpy bus ride and see some smiling faces even when you were violently ill not an hour before. The only way to explain it is to say that unconditional love is what I feel for all of the children and all of the people who came with me.
Everyday, I look through some photos from our journey. I see how we became less tense around each other, and how eager we became around the children. I see us talking to people who we had never talked to before, and enjoying every second of our crazy bus rides. I see children who are so incredibly grateful for our off-key songs and sweaty hands. Everyday, I miss Uganda a little bit more. Just like that red dirt still staining the collar of my KidsUganda shirt, those children and their smiles, and my very own trip companions that I can now call friends, will never leave my heart.  

Saturday, July 20, 2013

One Month Later

A month has passed since our group of remarkable people returned from Uganda. Reintegrating into the lives we lead back in the United States, we have all reflected upon what we saw and how if affected us. Out of all of us, we have more than 2,000 photos of everything we saw. While many of them are head on with smiles toward the camera, there are a good number that capture genuine joy and happiness in the moment. I think those are the most beautiful photos because they best represent what our trip was about. Here are two such written accounts and photos that speak for the entire group and what our incredible trip gave us.

Reflections and Lessons Learned
By Caitlin McCarthy

         Prior to Uganda, I had not traveled farther from my home than Mexico—and I took that trip back in fifth grade, accompanied by the safety net of my parents and the luxury of a beach. So needless to say, as the date of our departure for Africa approached, I found it quite difficult to prepare myself mentally or even emotionally for the adventure that lay ahead. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know whether to be nervous or excited, terrified or thrilled. I tried to feign nonchalance as my eagerness nearly consumed me.
         Our flights from Chicago to Amsterdam and Amsterdam to Entebbe were uneventful. And I remember, after our 16-hour journey, stepping off the plane in Uganda and thinking in the nighttime air, “I’m in Africa.” However, the true magnitude of this statement didn’t quite hit me yet. The next day, even, when I saw Uganda in the daylight, I still couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that I was in a different continent, that I was halfway around the world.
         In truth, I don’t think it ever quite hit me that I was in Africa. And, surprisingly, this somewhat lack of recognition gave birth to one of the greatest lessons Uganda taught me—that the world isn’t all that different. In the Maranatha schools, yes, the children spoke a different language, yes, they played different games, yes, they ate different foods, and yes, they lived different lives. But the essentials, the essentials like a thirst for knowledge, a nurturing of ambition, a hunger for justice, a never-ending search for joy, and a commitment to love, these essentials, well they are the same in Uganda as they are here in America, and despite my limited travel experience, I would venture to say that they are similar to those of all people around the world.
          I don’t think I ever felt like I was in Africa because I felt like I was at home. Patrick, Eva, and the environment they have cultivated at each of the five Maranatha schools are one hundred percent responsible for this. I didn’t just experience a sensation of welcome or hospitality, I was completely inundated with love. What makes the Maranatha students so remarkable, so unique, is their willingness to love and be loved. And again, this all stems from the marvelous and unparalleled foundation that Patrick and Eva have laid. The students depend on, trust, and devote themselves to one another. They wholeheartedly accepted us, the KidsUganda Youth Board, into their unbreakable family, and from that moment forward, only more love, confidence, faith, and respect could emerge. This is also one of the greatest lessons that Uganda taught me—that all we need is each other. A comfortable house, available food, adequate clothing, clean water, yes, these are needs. However, if we strip ourselves of these tangible necessities, we will find that the most basic need is the love, companionship, and support of another human being. Belief in this fundamental necessity radiates from the Maranatha schools.

          Our ten days abroad, eight on-the-ground in Uganda, absolutely flew by. Not a single one of us wanted to leave; we all felt so comfortable and at home that we wished to stay for the rest of the summer. God-willing, I’ll be back in Mityana and working with the Maranatha schools in the future—perhaps for a summer during college or for a year before I enter the workforce. My time in Uganda interacting with Patrick, Eva, and the Maranatha students, showed me that love and joy are simple, and that too often, these straightforward feelings are polluted by the perceived importance of money, status, and image. Let myself, and the fifteen others who went on the trip, attest to the fact that Patrick and Eva’s schools positively impact the lives of countless students and that the ongoing support of KidsUganda makes the fulfillment of their mission possible.

Red Dirt and Love
By Emma Parkinson 

            Something you notice about Uganda right away is the intense color. Fruits seem more vibrant, and the sky seems bluer against the background of green trees and winding roads. People’s clothes stand out against their dark skin, and the buildings they inhabit have a clear outline against the backdrop. Most obvious is the brilliant red dirt that coats you like water, sticking to the clothes you wear and embedding itself in your hair. We would be scrubbing it out for days after we got home.
         On June 9th, 2013, our group of 16 departed for a ten day service adventure in Uganda. A rough 8000 miles away from Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Mityana, Uganda houses the center of the Maranatha Integrated Schools Project, of which KidsUganda is a close partner. Past projects have raised money to build multiple structures and facilities at all five of the schools.
         For the first ever KidsUganda Youth Board Adventures in Service trip, 13 Youth Board members from three different high schools and two colleges gathered together in the name of service. The community was eager to help as news of our trip spread. Students gathered at CROYA to make friendship bracelets and classroom items such as flash cards and math tools. Members of the Youth Board wrote letters to top medical companies to ask for donations of any supplies that they could offer. After many Thursday night meeting and hours of hard work, together with our three chaperones, we braved over 16 hours on multiple planes to our destination.
         With only eight days in country, we did and saw incredible things. Children swarmed us as we would unload our bus with things that had been donated by generous people at home. As we tied on the hundreds of friendship bracelets made by students all over the community, the smiles and gratitude were evident on the faces of the children. Visiting all five schools in the Maranatha Integrated Schools Project, we could see the good the schools were doing. The main school, Mizigo Primary, was large and had many facilities such as a boys and girls dorm, a sick bay, and a kitchen area. Across the street, Mizigo Vocational/Secondary School hosted students of high school age. Nkonya, located in a fishing village, was smaller but no less exciting. Kigalama and Kyetume were both remote, hosting children of a younger age.
         At Maranatha, love, much like red dirt, is tangible. There is an overwhelming connection between the children and everyone around them. The bond from teacher to student, and even student to student is incredible. We were lucky enough to be swept up into this incredible love, and we felt it from each and every child we met. The hard truth is that many of these kids have horrible home lives, living in poverty, many walking miles to school in the dark. Worst-case scenarios include sexual abuse and parents dying of AIDS. Despite this, the children are happy to be at school and they easily give their love to you.
         During our time in Uganda, we heard countless stories of tragedy and triumph that shaped many of the children’s lives. Two boys named Steven and Jonathan captured the hearts of our group. Young brothers, they had attended one of the smaller Maranatha schools until very recently. Their mother died of AIDS and their father is a legally blind alcoholic. He would make the two boys walk him to the bar and he would drink until he was too drunk to take them home. Often times they would sleep in bushes on the side of the road. When Patrick and Eva heard about their situation, they moved them from the rural school to the boarding accommodations at Mizigo, where they now live. When we first met them, they were timid and sad little boys. But after a day of trying to get them to smile, we were able to make them laugh and enjoy themselves, despite the recent tragedy that hung over them.
         Our trip group learned about love and happiness. We have broadened our perspectives and are aiming to focus more on others. Life is a precious thing, and we have seen that firsthand. The KidsUganda Youth Board will determine what projects to focus on in the future. We hope to improve the lives of the children that gave us so much more than we can ever give them. Members of our trip left a piece of themselves with those happy, smiling children at Maranatha.


Friday, June 21, 2013

Day Eight (Tuesday, June 18th)

Our last day of our Ugandan Trip was a packed one. We spent 24 plus hours in traveling; on airplanes; in airports; on layovers etc. This alone would've merited a "packed day" but we as a group had a full day prior to our traveling fun.
We started off the day rising before dawn again, to go visit Mizigo’s early risers and all of the kids coming to school to meet Pat. Yet again, when they set eyes on us Mzugos, they come running up into a full hug. These kids that have walked miles in the dark never fail to jump into a spirited hug with anyone that offers it. Being our last time at the school, they say some good-byes and even give some gifts. Just ask Matt about his plethora of flower bouquets. Some were given notes; others were given woven crosses and even some tomatoes and avocadoes. Stephen and Jonathon said good bye to Jack and Colleen, just as Moses did to Matthew and so on. It was the perfect start to a sad ending. After the school we packed our bags of smelly, dirty, puke-infused clothes and boarded the bus for the city. Once we got to the city of Kampala, passing the hospital and lake, we got ready for the alleged pick-pocketers that never seemed to show. We spent hours in the market, haggling with the aggressive shop-keepers, and knocking down t-shirts from $6 to $4 (14 billion shillings). After buying our hats, shirts, and other African mementoes we again boarded the bus for what we thought was just a drive to a restaurant that we would no doubt have to order plain rice. Instead after an hour of driving through Ugandan country sides, we pull into a resort on the lake. We ate dinner while the sun started to set over Lake Victoria. With the backdrop and scene of a much different Uganda as our last image, it was quite the contrast to what we’d seen. Eva had an amazing dinner planned along with dessert and bonfire. It was a good way to end our Ugandan visit.
The bus ride to the Ugandan airport was a somber one. We were drained of energy from the long day’s activities, but knew we still had a day full of traveling to go. While we checked in we said our good-byes and thank-yous to Eva, Helen, Jason and Pat. We all decided that one day, we would be back. The plane rides were something else. A lot happened in the day of travel that has still gone unnoticed. While this post is days late, I still think that some things should be recognized.
  • Paul had a rough first half of travel; looking pale and sleepy, almost passing out before getting to his seat. But he can do a mean goat noise.
  • Caitlin, Sofia, and Paul showed the crowd on the second plane that kids still wear capes and run around, regardless of age.
  • Komi will resort to eating food off the plate with his mouth at the lack of any Purell.
  • Matthew’s digestion system went through some dramatic changes during his Ugandan trip.
  • Colleen is not someone you want sit next to for 15 hours on a plane.  
  • Morgan will do anything if dared to in an airport, including tipping over a cleaning cart.
  • Dan Salzman does NOT get along with some receptionists at the airport.
  • Margaret is partying in Amsterdam at the moment.
  • Mrs. Andersen’s famous quotes aren’t able to be shared. Ask Jack for further explanation.
  • Reid can’t hold his own bowels.
  • Emma writes a mean story when she gets to know you.
  • Nell’s nickname is Taco and we aren’t sure why.
  • Maggie isn’t someone to mess with if she’s tired, hungry…or in Uganda.
  • Harold, number 14, is the man.
  • Joanne’s conversations for a full three days were all started with the phrase “What does your poop look like?” (Our group was much too open by the end of all this)
Coming through the Amsterdam airport was our last group debrief and our question to answer was what we took away from our trip. This was one of the deepest discussions of our trip and here are some of the things we took away:
               Be happy for the little things. Be positive, grateful, and find joy. Remember what we have and have had. Broaden your perspectives. Be happy with what you have. All we need to be happy is each other. Stay in the moment. The kids did more for us them we did for them. We can make something out of nothing. We should be proud of the work KUYB accomplished. Don’t worry about what others think. Keep your doors locked. Keep life simple. Check the luxuries. Take risks for the greater good. Brake the teenager stereotype. Think positive. Focus on helping others.
               Coming home from Uganda, the sixteen of us have grown a lot and widened our perspectives on life. We are learning to be much more grateful for what we have, and try and ask for less. We are all more compassionate and try to judge less to understand others’ situations. We’ve seen a lot of new and saddening things, we’ve experienced incredible moments, and most importantly, we’ve helped.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Day Seven (Monday, June 17th)

Today was bittersweet. It being our last day with the kids made for some somber goodbyes. We took a long drive to a new school called Ketume. This school, being incredibly new (and incredibly secluded) only had kids from baby class up to “P4” or the equivalent to our 3rd graders. We had them all line up after receiving friendship bracelets and they each got a toothbrush and some toothpaste, something they had never even gotten near. After a solid 10 minutes of the kids’ contemplation over their slightly-boring new toys, Patrick bit the bullet and gave them a tutorial on how to properly brush your teeth. This was met with some laughs until they realized he wasn’t doing it wrong. Here was also when Komi went on a hike with Patrick to see the school’s previous water situation. Before they had the money raised for their cisterns, they (the kids) used to have to walk a mile or two in the forest to get to a small trickling river and then drudge all the way back with the water they gathered (with no shoes as usual). We all realized how lucky we were and how important the littlest things can be for these kids. After this we played a lot of games with them.
These games included singing by Maggie and Matt (lots of country songs) and some volleyball with Reid and the Ketume teachers. It was also supported by--finally--a cool and overcast day that promised some rain. After the kids showed Jack their acrobatic skills and they taught Joanne a countless number of confusing games we boarded the long bus ride ready for a well-deserved nap. Instead we ended up having a relaxing, music-accompanied, scenic drive through miles and miles of beautiful landscapes and cityscapes. We even went through some of the biggest tea leave plantations any of us have ever even seen. Miles and miles of tea leaves that looked better than Snapple has ever advertised. Some of the tea collectors started jumping and waving at the sight of our touristy appearance and camera-filled bus windows. 
After the bumpy, but beautiful, scenic drive we came to the nursing center at Mizugo (the main school) to drop off and pack our donated medical supplies. These included Emma’s first aid kits and gloves, Caitlin’s bandages and gauze, among others. Here we also handed out Jack’s (Donna’s) generous contribution of numbered uniforms which the kids were eager to try on and play in. They looked very professional and we wanted to thank the Williamses for their effort in this. After that, Eva took us on a tour around the girls dorm and to the Secondary School (their high school equivalent) and we met and preformed for the kids. They were a little hesitant to talk and mingle with us, being our age, but after awhile they were teaching us things and even had Jack record a video of some pretty impressive break-dancing.
Overall the day was a big hit for everyone involved, while still hitting a somber note, being our last full day with the kids. While we are eager to get back home, we are dreading the good-byes to come tomorrow.