My 4th of July Kibbutz Volunteer Experience

I don’t know what it is about the 4th of July that scratches my insatiable travel itch but I have my suspicions.

Perhaps a dose of nostalgia?

Or the undeniable truth that I have a deep-seated passion for global adventures.

I long to explore untraveled parts of the world in order to connect with locals,  to communicate in unfamiliar languages,  to discover new sights, sounds, smells, tastes,  and to collect incredible stories along the way to share with friends and family.

One of my favorite 4th of July travel memories dates back to the summer of 2000.   I willingly agreed to join my dear friend Jesica in Israel en route to a volunteer job on a small kibbutz in the beautiful Negev desert.

Our assignment:  Harvesting the world’s most plump, succulent, mouthwatering dates.

Journey

We connected at Ben Gurion airport in the wee hours of the night, completely jet lagged, yet buzzing with anticipation of the mysterious adventure that lie ahead of us.   Our unairconditioned room was sparsely decorated and I specifically recall sleeping with the overhead light on to deter the scurrying cockroaches in search of a cooler oasis.  Little did I know this wouldn’t be the last time I’d be sleeping with the lights on;  The volunteer housing I would call home for the next 3 months had similarly sparse and buggy decor!  Yikes!

The following morning, volunteer assignment in hand and typical overpacked backpack & acoustic guitar in tow, we traveled 4.5 hours south to our home away from home,  a charming hilltop kibbutz named Grofit.   Located in the Aravah valley of the Negev desert, this place would serve as a classroom of sorts, rewarding us with the kind of life lessons that only stepping out of your comfort zone provides.

543a157e36c2d748d87f1fdd6dff60d9
Kibbutz Grofit with date fields in the distance (left). 

 

Kibbutz Life

A kibbutz is essentially a commune of people sharing land, resources, and the desire to enjoy a family friendly, relaxed lifestyle.  Today, kibbutz residents represent only 2.5% of Israel’s total population and while current modes of operation are far from the pioneering days, they continue to attract tourists as well as locals seeking a peaceful getaway from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

What I cherished most from my experience was the daily community fellowship, the meals enjoyed together prepared by loving hands, and above all, the opportunity to experience multiple cultures, languages, and rich conversations daily.    It was a chance to serve the needs of the kibbutz and in exchange we received the freedom to embark on once-in-a -lifetime adventures including an overnight hike up Mt. Sinai, lead by a team of Bedouins and camels,  snorkeling in the Red Sea in Dahab, and the thrill of meeting a local Jordanian family thanks to our taxi driver who insisted we stop in for a visit at 11:45pm to meet his relatives!   I will never forget that night!

04000081

Each day, I shared 10 hours with migrant workers from India & Thailand,  as well as volunteers from Belgium, Poland, France, Denmark, and South Africa!  Talk about the learning opportunities!

04000089

At dawn, our team drove into the date fields, feeling the coolness of night before the sun rose to the east over the Jordanian mountains.

The work was physical, the heat oppressive.

At times,  I  pondered the social injustices of the world as I placed nets around the unripened date fruits high in the sky.   I marveled at the agility and fearlessness of my Thai and Indian teammates, and admired their fortitude despite the dire circumstances which brought them thousands of miles away from loved ones in order to make a living.

dates2_mini-002

Lessons

Freedom to travel is a gift.

Service to others is a gift.

Relationships are a gift.

Learning is a gift.

Curiosity is a gift.

and gifts….. well……

Gifts are meant to be shared with the world.   Thank you for allowing me the gift and freedom of sharing this story with you!

What is your favorite 4th of July memory?  I would love to hear from you in the comments!

Until next time friends,

Stand In Love,  Jen xo

Jennifer Miller is a Las Vegas-based dōTERRA Wellness Advocate and  Community Partner volunteer  for global nonprofit BeadforLife and Street Business School whose mission is to provide entrepreneurial training to 1 million impoverished people globally by 2027.   Click here for a listing of upcoming events, or Follow her on Instagram or Facebook @standinlovejen .  To begin your natural health and wellness journey today with essential oils, click here .

 

 

 

 

 

Chick-Fil-A-Eight

Lafayette welcomed the “Chick-Fil-A Eight” as they have been nicknamed, two days ago from Dayton, Ohio.

A franchise owner of two Dayton suburban locations took Chick- Fil-A’s official corporate mission statement to an entirely new level.

“To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.  To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-Fil-A.”

As her Miamisberg location, the nations top performing location in 2015, undergoes expansion renovation, her employees were given the opportunity to earn their normal wages while serving flood diaster victims here in Lafayette.

A team of 8 workers, including Dayton training director Samantha drove 14 hours Wednesday to serve while their shop’s reopening date was pushed back.  Ranging in age from 18-23 years old, the team of 8 joined leader Bob for the most difficult job assignment in this area to date.

The homeowner is a recently widowed man living with his pregnant daughter and son as well as his granddaughter age 3.  Next  to his home is his machine shop where he makes his living.  This property is still under water and the devastation has compounded leaving homeowner utterly hopeless.

Enter Samaritan’s  Purse team of 17, including the “Chick-Fil-A Eight”. 


Amidst the debris, festering mold spores, and dampened memories rested an American flag, soaked in standing flood water.

Dylan, a recently injured U.S. Marine now working full time for the Chick- Fil-A franchise outside of Dayton, respectfully folded the flag with  coworker Brittin and  presented it to the broken-hearted homeowner’s son, Trey, in a solemn moment at the end of the day.


Not only had Trey recently lost his mother, now his home and life as he knew it had been washed away in the flood.

The team will return to the site again today to continue the work as well as bring light, hope, and the message of the Gospel to this family hurting from life’s tumultuous storms.

This morning’s group devotional called us to ponder the reason for our volunteerism.  To consider the states of our hearts. Are we here for our own plans, or are we woven  into the tapestry of Lafayette for a purpose much larger than our current understanding?

The longer I stay here, the clearer that bigger purpose has become. It is in these moments of deep connection with humanity that we contemplate our true, meaningful existence on Earth.  These times of trials are Faith’s most glorious chance for refinement and reinvigoration.

I have fallen in love with the people of Louisiana, and Lafayette in particular is making what will soon become an indelible mark on my heart.


These are the moments I live for and I am on my knees in humble gratitude for God stirring my heart to come.

He always knows just what we need, right when we need it.

 

“For I know the plans I have for You declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. ” – Jermiah 29:11

 

May the floods in your life remind you of what needed to be washed away, so that new beginnings may take root.

Share your thoughts in the comments if Louisiana has touched you in any way.  We learn from each other and take comfort knowing we are not alone in this life.

Stand in love, ❤️

Jen

@standinlovejen

Instagram

Jennifer DeBough Miller

Facebook

The Face of Micro Enterprise: Becka Babwairani

Becka Babwairani in front of produce stand
Becka Babwairani in front of produce stand

Have you ever wondered what it looks like to have a small business in a developing nation?  Please allow me to introduce you to Becka Babwairani, a 45 year old mother of 5 girls in Uganda.  Her husband left her 3 years ago because she was unable to produce a boy for him.  Left to her own devices to support a growing and needy family, she worked as a digger on a nearby farm.    After attending BeadforLife’s Street Business School training in Bulogo with the Bulogo Women’s Group, Becka learned she had the potential to be one savvy entrepreneur!  Pictured above with her sweet snacking bananas, eggs from chickens she rears, as well as cooking oil she sells for as little as a tablespoons at a time (100-200 UGS about .05$).   Becka started her business selling cooking oil, a Ugandan staple, bit by bit.  Gradually, she reinvested profits to grow and expand her businesses that also include a small retail shop in the front room of her home, where she sells g-nuts (local nut similar to a peanut, used to make a delicious sauce poured over cooked beans)  biscuits, laundry soap, sugar, and other small commodities.   While we were talking, a young boy stopped to buy some bananas and she instructed one of her beautiful daughters to “be sure to put that money in the banana business compartment”.   Becka keeps track of her businesses separately, a result of the bookkeeping training session.  She understands the fundamental business principles of ROI, and is now empowered to monitor the individual successes of her small businesses.   Seated on a simple hand hewn wooden bench with 3 of her girls, Left to right: Lovinsa 18, Sylvia 15, Gloria 7, and her grandson Jeffrey on her lap, she shared with us ripple effect her training is having on her community, in particular her faith community.  According to Becka, she has started a “hunger” for education and business training in her church community, and feels fortunate to be a testimony of change and access to training and opportunity.

“Faith plays a very important role in business,”  shared Becka, ” you do not cheat your business, you must be honest and fair about pricing, and you will reap the benefits.”

It didn’t stop there, Becka later on shared in her story that her goal is to move to the larger town of Nmendwa in order to further expand her businesses.   As the leader in her home, and a leader in her church, Becka seeks to provide the best for her families, modeling a hard work ethic for her 4 girls whom she hopes to keep in school and continue to provide for their school fees- a right reserved for those with income capacity.

I am drawing near the end of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings“, and have been contemplating the power of education.   Through her incredibly descriptive account of her life’s hardships, I have been afforded a glimpse into the history of racial discrimination, been exposed to a wealth of rich vocabulary, and have pondered the transformational impacts of educating women.   Each causing me to reflect, research, and mull them over in my relentlessly analytical mind.  Maya, like Becka, displayed a level of determination in life that is driven from within, from a place of deep-rooted injustices caused to her, and makes the choice to overcome.

” Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently”- Maya Angelou

Becka holding grandson Jeffrey,  with daughters Lovinsa, Sylvia, and Gloria
Becka holding grandson Jeffrey, with daughters Lovinsa, Sylvia, and Gloria
Becka's small retail shop
Becka’s small retail shop
selling to neighborhood client
selling to neighborhood client

Never underestimate your own or another’s potential.

For more information on how you can help deliver the promise of opportunity to a woman living in extreme poverty in Uganda, please click the link below!

Tomorrow the “Ignite One Million” campaign will go public!

http://vegas.ignite1million.org

http://www.beadforlife.org

Harsh Realities of Life in the Developing World.

Greetings from plot 96 on Bunyoni Rd, Kataza district Kampala, Uganda! Finished up a load of hand washing as the morning rain finally ceased and the sun will shine for exactly 4 and a half more hours- just long enough to take the heavy dampness off my two boldly printed, safety pinned waistband maxi skirts and pair of light weight cotton pajamas drying on the rusted metal clothes line we share with the neighboring apartment housing two brilliant young sisters- both university graduates still seeking employment opportunities after two years.  Seems the complexities of my first three weeks in Uganda- and first time in sub Saharan Africa have finally brought me to a moment of deep contemplation, even fearful realizations I had to address. I am writing from the comfort of my humble abode today, recognizing the need to hit the “pause and process” button on my African adventure transistor radio. Monday’s completed field visit to Bulogo women’s group was the pinnacle of this “Awakening” – an expression I borrow from shame researcher and author, Brenee Brown. I returned late that evening after a difficult return trip stuck in hours of typical rush hour “jams” as they are called here. The nights can grow so dim, literally no street lights, only the burning flames of small kerosene lamps aglow lighting small tables of smoked fish, unrefrigerated meats, fruit and vegetable stands, and the scent of burning piles of rubbish in the air thick and heavy with the darkness of night. The traffic in Kampala hits a head in the am for three hours and at night for at least 3 hours. The city streets are literally gridlocked- with cars, matatus, bodas, cyclists, and people scrambling for a place to inch forward. I liken crossing one of these streets to a human game of “Frogger” – without the slightest bit of exaggeration in the analogy.

It was bound to hit me- the wall. And so yesterday morning brought me to a halt. I landed in Uganda and have remained a human funnel – wide at the top desiring to take in as many fluid experiences as I possibly could these first 3 weeks that I was like a cheerfully colored latex birthday party balloon gorging down air filling to the widest stretches of itself before bursting in excess – in my case – emotional overload. I sat paralyzed at my desk in the inventory room shared by a young American named Steve, and began to think I may not be able to handle any more. My arms and neck stayed stiff like boards, hands felt like jittery fingers in the middle of a cold winter’s day. The “clip clip clip ” of the gardener’s shears on the bushes outside my office were literally fraying my nerves. I grabbed my phone, plugged in the little white earbuds and attempted to drown out the surfacing feelings with some orchestral Italian harp music I downloaded in the early hours the morning of my departure from home- unable to sleep. Recognizing the signs of anxiety- I reached for two things- my phone and two calming homeopathic sleep tablets called Calms Forte. Unsuccessfully skyping my husband and parents with whom I had not communicated in two days – for lack of wifi access- I had to follow the normal self- soothing protocol and realize this time was bound to come and was totally normal.

Today’s working from “home” has allowed me to experience tremendous insight into my work here, as well as space to process the varied experiences so far. I think I arrived in Uganda with my ” wow this is all novel! ” lenses, then transitioned to ” hmmm, that’s odd but I understand its part of life here”, to ” oh my word, life is just so difficult here, and I am totally overwhelmed by the daily realities for so many Ugandans” lenses. Humans don’t share much in common with these transition lenses outside of the different cast of light they let in your frame of view. I am learning and experiencing the time- consuming tasks of hand washing, line drying, and ironing every piece to be sure to singe any trace of mango fly eggs that were hatched on your damp clothing – lest you forget and it buries itself and hatches underneath your skin like it did to our neighbor Lee the week we arrived- requiring a small incision to be made to remove the worm under her skin that had grown.

I am learning to allow myself to feel the raw feelings of fear – as they relate to embracing change and accepting discomfort. Living with roaches, armies of ants, geckos on the walls, mosquitoes everywhere, all while viewing the injustices all around of people living in abject poverty will take it’s toll. Each day for the past 3 weeks as I leave the iron gate of my compound in Kataza and walk down Bunyoni road to begin my Teva- sandaled trek to work, I am confronted with the horrible realities of life in the developing world. I have lived and worked abroad in Israel, and various places in Europe for extended periods of time, but none of those trips would be able to properly prepare me for the sights I would witness in sub-Saharan Africa. I’d love to be able to insert more specific and startling statistics on things like the lack of indoor plumbing and running water data,or the rates of incidence of untreated bronchial infections in women and children due to daily cooking over and inhaling charcoal fumes, in the country- which I know would be astounding, however I very quickly became used to the fact that I do not have instant access to wifi when and wherever I want.

Today’s quiet day allowed me to reflect and write stories on the members of Bulogo Womens group. Space to process. Space to pause and to revisit my commitment of coming here in the first place. Humanity is a shared experience- this is proven to me over and over again as I make it through another day on the ground.
I love the write up by Tara Sophia Mohr called, “10 Rules for Brilliant Women”.  
Rule #1: Make a pact. 
She writes, ” No one else is going to build the life you want for you. No one else will even be able to completely understand it. The most amazing souls will show up to cheer you on along the way, but this is your game. Make a pact to be in it with yourself for the long haul, as your own supportive friend at every step of the way.” 
This piece of advice aligns with the core messaging of the Street Business School training I attended in Mutungo last week with the 12th enrolled class of over 75 women and some of their children. YOU are the business. YOU are the capital. YOU must believe in the power YOU have in YOU and make a commitment, a pact, with yourself and trust in it’s potential.
I challenge you to think about a pact you would like to make with yourself. What would it look like? What would it say? What would be the impact of this self commitment? Know it may be scary along the way, but in retrospect, an adventure worth the risk it took to get there!
Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to be transparent and real with my thoughts- we don’t help anyone by acting like we have it all together all of the time- vulnerability and truth lead to connectivity!
Make a pact to implement a small change and share with someone you love!

Love Hunger: Stella’s Story

Thankful for this cool, cloudy Sunday morning for spiritual refilling at Mbuya church.   Enjoying the lullaby of  a heavy -early morning rainfall, I woke up from a Benadryl’s night rest.  Benadryl has been a good friend to me helping reduce the swollen itchy welts all over my legs- which after two weeks in Uganda look like a battlefield of scratches, scabs, and discoloration after many a night of itching, digging, smacking, pinching, fingernail pricking and any other manner of reducing persistent itching, swelling, and irritation.   I share this only to show how it pales in comparison to the annoyances and aggravations faced by  nearly each and every woman I meet in the programs here at BeadforLife.  Suffice it to say that today’s message at church about complaining and provision by God – taken from Exodus 16-  and John chapter 6 helped put my wandering thoughts about perceived difficulties back into perspective.

I joined fellow BeadforLife staff member and friend, Phoebe, yesterday for a meal at her home in Buziga- a beautiful neighborhood accessed by a series of bumpy, severely pot holed dirt roads.  Her home is so lovely and is as open as her    Giant heart!  Papayas, green beans, avocados, passion fruit, and more grow in her garden outside, while wild turkeys and chickens frequent her front porch!

I love cooking- and Phoebe provided the first real opportunity to prepare local Ugandan cuisine together with her in her cozy home with husband Ben, and two children- Tendo almost 4, and Carol-2.   Matoke steaming in fresh banana leaves on one burner, rice boiling on another, and gorgeous halved plantains sautéing in golden bubbling hot oil in another saucepan! We were friends cooking together over a hot stove, talking like women do- enjoying the simple gift of each other’s company!  What a blessing it was!

After sharing a hearty meal, we loaded up Tendo, Carol, and some cousins from down the street and headed to Ggaba village – a small bustling fishing waterfront district on the coast of Lake Victoria.   We walked hand in hand through the Saturday markets where one can purchase anything from saucepans, to wooden spoons, to firewood for cooking.  Heaping piles of tomatoes and “Irish”- white potatoes- stacked like cairns on a hiker’s trail marking the way!  A sensory overload- a feast for the eyes and the nose!

I held hands with two precious young girls – Sylvia age 7, and Stella age 6.  Sylvia is a cousin of Tendo and Carol by blood, while Stella is a relative by love and tenderness of Phoebe’s extended family who took her in as a baby 6 years ago.  See, Stella’s mother is a prostitute in a red light sort of district here in Kampala.  It is believed her father may have been an Asian tourist- as her characteristics show evidence of mixed backgrounds.  She is an absolutely beautiful girl who is incredibly shy, severely underweight for her age, and just overcame a bout of both malaria and typhoid which she obtained by eating ice cream made with unboiled water.  This precious orphan girl is living with a 70 year old auntie of Phoebe’s who just had the heart to provide a home for her when she was left unwanted as a baby.   Being adopted myself, I feel tremendous compassion and connection with these girls here.  I could feel her longing for love, longing for a sense of permanency, longing to have someone to call “mom”.  Stella stole my heart from the moment I laid eyes on her- I could just tell she had a different story.  Again, a silent communication of sorts that said, ” will you please give me your love today, and I will pretend you are my mommy today while we are walking around hand in hand on a Saturday afternoon”…. “I will pretend, just for this hour that you love me unconditionally, and you don’t judge me because I was left as an unwanted orphan girl , daughter of a prostitute mother I have never met, and a father who probably doesn’t even know that I exist and would not care if he did.”

After watching birds nosedive in the blue lake searching for food, storks perched on the edge of rickety and sun faded wooden boats, we held hands again and returned back through the bustling marketplace.  On our right, outside of a crowded firewood marketplace, I noticed a girl about the age of 10-11 years old sitting on a stool covered in the most horrendous 3rd degree burns imaginable.   Her skin was black and pink in areas where regrowth and healing had occurred, and yellowish-green and bubbling puss covering  the length of her right arm, right leg and foot, and right side of her face.   Unable to continue to just walk on, I asked Phoebe- and she suggested we approach and offer to assist if we could.  Turns out, the young girl- named Susan- was the victim of a severe petrol fire.  The co-wife of her father set fire to her home in a rage of jealousy.  In an attempt to kill Susan’s mother, believed to be inside, the deranged woman killed Susan’s younger sister and severely burned Susan by pouring petrol on the house and lighting it on fire.   Susan’s mother ran inside and was able to to rescue Susan, severely burned. Unable to seek treatment in their local area of Masaka- they were referred to treatment in Kampala- over 4 hours away by an overcrowded taxi making frequent stops.  Susan’s mother sells firewood collected to help get money  for her daughter’s treatment in the local hospital.  All I kept thinking was that if this was at home, this young girl would be hospitalized and her open bubbling 3rd degree wounds wrapped with care in gauze by a nurse in a clean facility with antibiotics given to prevent infections- not to mention some type of generalized pain relief.  Yet there Susan sat, people staring at her in dismay and with despair- wondering what her story was.  We gave to help her mom what we had available in our hands at that time.

Stella grabbed my right hand, and Sylvia my left hand.  I think even these two young girls were frightened by what they saw.   When our fun day together was over, I gave the girls big hugs and took photos with Phoebe’s energetic son Tendo and contemplative little girl Carol.  After rounding the corner of her foster home, Stella peered back, and ran to me again for another big big hug! I held her sweet little head against my belly , hand on her head as she snuggled in for more affection.   What a precious little girl- hungry for love.

What are you hungry for in life?  Do you crave the material things the world tempts us with?  Those things  designed to help us forget momentarily our appetites for something deeper, more fulfilling? How do you get your spiritual filling and are you even aware that you crave nourishment of another kind?

I will be reminded of the Stellas of the world, the Agnes’ of the world, and share the light I have in me given so generously by the grace of God our Heavenly Father from above.

For as it was preached today’s message, ” it is a blessing to be hungry for this kind of spiritual fulfillment”. To hunger this way is in itself a blessing onto us. ”

Photo:  left- Stella(red and white dress) Jen, Sylvia, Joseph, front: Tendo and his baby sister, Carol.

Agnes and Lessons of Love

 We were together again, her dark almond shaped eyes, round dark brown cheeks and beautiful features smiling back at me….. The sight of maize growing in the fields in the distance, looking outside the window of the small brick home. The pigs tied up nearby, goats in ropes lower in the fields with their newborn babies learning to nurse. We were all together again and I could breathe.I was awakened by this dream this morning before sunrise at approximately 5:45 am. Reliving my visit with Agnes Kyarimpa in the small rural district called Lwamaggwa.
My journey to Lwamaggwa district began in the morning around 8 am when I was greeted by World Vision staff members Samuel and Barrack. I jumped into the back of the white Toyota 4 x 4 relief vehicle with a recently retired couple from New Zealand- named Malcolm and Jennifer. They were on a 10 week overland vacation through Africa and decided they would make it a priority to visit their children’s sponsored children while in Uganda and Tanzania. Jennifer, a retired 7th grade English school teacher, and her husband decided they would pack and haul over 50 kg of unused and beautiful private school uniforms to share with the two villages they planned to visit later that day. I was fortunate to have wonderful company on a good portion of this very long drive to just north of the Tanzanian border.

After a brief coffee and rest stop at the equator town of Kayabwe, we carried on to our next stop- the district of Rakai. The district was heavily impacted by the HIV and AIDS crisis in the mid 80’s, severely damaging the social fabric of the entire community. Many children are orphaned and families live in small brick homes with tin or thatched roofs. It is not uncommon to see children taking care of children in these poor rural areas. After visits with the local World Vision office and staff in Rakai, we headed off for our final destination- a tiny village in the county of Lwamaggwa. The towns grew smaller and increasingly remote, as we carried on down the red dirt pathway ahead. Looking out the passenger window, I noticed many things which made my mind race with curiosity. Questions loomed and thoughts lingered. People toting empty and heavily used plastic yellow gerry cans to bore holes to fill up with a day’s supply of water. It would be carried back home long distances at a weight of 30+ lbs to use for boiling water for beans, rice, or matoke and perhaps for a small load of washing up clothing soiled from a couple weeks worth of toiling in the sun tending a garden or other manual labor. The small brick homes and mini roadside businesses lining the streets of Lwamaggwa county along with the lush vegetation looked as though they were rendered in a sepia tone filter- the red dust applying a thick permanent copper tint.

As we drove deeper into the uneven and rolling hillside located near Lake Victoria, I became anxious to cast my eyes upon my beloved Agnes, whom Rusty and I have sponsored for a number of years through World Vision’s amazing child sponsorship program. We first approached her primary school as we climbed up on the hillside and entered her home town village. Dozens of uniformed school children carrying small plastic tubs earlier filled with the day’s serving of rice or starch, ran alongside the side of the World Vision truck waving their hands and smiling, offering the heartiest of welcome wishes!!

Running over maize fields on a bumpy forged path, we stopped in front of a small brick home about 150 yards downhill from the car. Rolling green hills dotted with banana trees in the distance, I jumped out of the truck and saw Agnes running up towards me to greet me!! We recognized each other’s faces immediately from the previous correspondences and photographs and embraced in the customary manner in this region! She is so beautiful!! “omuwala mulungi!” I exclaimed in Luganda- “beautiful girl!

She was out of breath from running and excited as she waited all day for us to arrive from Kampala! It was nearly 7 hours after our departure at this point. Her voice trembled a bit as it was a bit nerve racking meeting her sponsor for the very first time in person! I, too, was nervous and cautious not to smother her in affection- which differs in Ugandan cultures especially rural areas.

Letting Agnes take the lead, we approached her home where her petite mother in her late 40’s greeted me in the customary manner. They kneel down before guests and visitors to greet and show their sincerest appreciation for your travels and visit. This is very humbling and made me want to get down on my knees to be at the same level. I bowed down and hugged each of the family members visiting, including Agnes’s eldest sister who traveled a long distance to be part of this pre arranged special visit! I also met Agnes’ youngest sister- aged 7. Agnes, on the verge of her 13th birthday, was dressed in her special dress, as was her mother…this is the same dress reserved for special occasions like world vision photos for return correspondences, and important gatherings. I recognized the bold patterns from the previous year’s photos I received in America- it was the same dresses for the third year.

I took off my sandals at the front door and entered into this precious, most welcoming little home they had carefully and meticulously prepared for our visit. We knelt down on a dried grass covered dirt floor covered in hand woven grass mats. Two small tables covered in freshly cleaned white cloths joined us, in preparation for the feast they prepared so lovingly for me and the World Vision staff members who accompanied us from Rakai to Lwamaggwa. Daniel, and Margaret joined to translate and provide comfort for all parties- acting as intermediaries and friends. Barrack, our driver took on the role as photographer allowing me to be fully present in this exciting time with Agnes and her family.

I followed the lead of our guides and left all belongings and gifts in our truck at the top of the hill, so I would be able to receive all that this precious, deeply impoverished family desired to share with me first.

Seated on the mat, Margaret to my right, Agnes in front of me, and little sis to my immediate left, the first of many gifts began to pass through the curtain just to my left separating this recently tidied and intentionally prepared sitting room from the other mere 5 sq foot room where her mother, eldest sister, Agnes’ primary school teacher and several neighbors had gathered to prepare all the feast!

I was handed the most beautiful, perfectly arranged bouquet of wild flowers Agnes collected earlier in the day, as she stayed home from school waiting and preparing for our encounter. I loved these flowers and thought that was the end, but to my surprise- there was much, much more to come. Next through the curtain, I was handed large hand woven baskets containing the largest freshly picked avocados I have ever seen in my life!!! Rusty and I eat an avocado daily at home- and this was so lovely to receive! Another basket came through the doorway- this one containing 15 freshly picked mangoes from a tree nearby in the garden! Overwhelmed at this point, I just took a deep breath and continued to receive- something I find difficult- especially coming from a family who is literally giving me more than they have for themselves. After the mangoes, avocados, and one gigantic papaya, came another cardboard box! Out from the box, Agnes’s mother pulled out a fresh chicken- alive, legs tied together with twine, and body wrapped in a shroud of fresh banana leaves! The contrast of the chicken’s red comb with the waxy green finish of the slightly torn banana leaves made my heart melt! This is an extraordinarily generous gift. ” how can they be giving this to me, ?” I pondered. Having never been gifted a live chicken, I kept it on my lap and began to stroke its head like a pet dog. I am sure this amused the family, as much- if not more than it amused me!

Thinking the live chicken would have to be the top of the gifts, I was speechless as more gifts came funneling through the next room passing through many hands before reaching me! A lovely hand woven 2 piece basket was constructed of beautiful natural linen and dyed green colors in a typical African pattern. I lifted the top off the basket to discover nearly two dozen freshly hatched eggs! The fresh eggs here have the most subtle blush colored shells- appearing too pretty for consumption! I set the gift basket alongside the cornucopia of fresh tropical fruits, while the chicken remained in my lap still as a puppy fast asleep. The last gift to come through was an heaping sack of freshly harvested g- nuts. G nuts are a staple in Ugandan food and are the base for the infamous and savory g nut sauce often accompanying freshly steamed matoke.

Agnes’s elder sister re appeared at the front door with a basin and small water can to help us clean our hands before taking the meal they so graciously prepared with love and care. She poured water, likely pumped and fetched earlier in the day, over my hands while the trickle fell into the plastic basin below.

Our feast began with bowls of freshly cooked chicken and tomato broth into which we placed steamed matoke. As the honorary guest, I was given the liver of the chicken to enjoy as well as the drumstick. The liver and gizzards are generally served to the head of the household- or to a special guest. This was a tremendous honor. Bowls of rice, bowls of “Irish”- the Ugandan name for white potatoes- and fresh cabbage and tomato salad were also shared with all of us. It is common for this meal to be taken using the hands in lieu of silverware- hence the hand washing ritual beforehand.

Agnes was asked to pray a blessing over the food for us all. We bowed and she thanked God for all that He has blessed her and her family with. As she prayed in Luganda, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the sweet, calm presence of the Holy Spirit filling this room overflowing with love, faith, generosity, and beauty.

Agnes is 12 years old, and attends P3 class- which is about 4 grades behind where a girl her age in the city would be placed. It is commonly seen in very rural areas- as the focus is often on maintaining the garden, crops, fetching water from the nearest water hole, and attending to the pigs and goats.

Goats. Oh the goats.

The barrage of surprises and bright eyed ” you’re kidding me” looks continued to come….

As a sponsor of Agnes through World Vision- her community is funded by a pool of donors in that particular area. This way, the entire community shall benefit from the donations made by others, including the family of the sponsored child. Each Christmas and various times during the year you may make a special gift for the family in particular- and the family itself will select items based on greatest need. I knew Agnes’ family purchased a couple of pigs two years ago, as well as 3 goats this past Christmas from the photos I received. Agnes’ mother had great news for us as we walked out of the house after a satisfyingly delicious meal……

One of the goats Rusty and I gifted her delivered 2 babies just hours before we arrived!!! I couldn’t believe it!!! Fresh blood still on the mama goat… And two babies- one black, one white….. Freshly cleaned by momma and nursing as we stood by in amazement at the miracle of life! We scooped up the babies, held them close to our beating hearts as they cried out with newborn life! What a joyful occasion!!

It was beginning to feel surreal at this time. I was floating in happiness. High on joy, thankful for the blessing of coming to visit and making preparations over 4 months in advance to do so. It was worth every step of the process! To share in two hours with this family and neighbors who literally gave to me all they could possibly afford and then some. This family living in extreme poverty, who sold one of their own chickens to be able to provide us with fresh bottled drinking water. This family, consisting of all women- working the land and fetching water as the father/husband lost his life to AIDS years back. Agnes, a precious, beautiful young Ugandan farm girl- taking care of her little sister with all things at home and often not able to attend school.

As I handed out my gifts just before our departure 4 hours back into Kampala- I began to realize our visit was coming to a close. Agnes loved her new school backpack- a rare commodity in this remote village. She handed out tootsie pops, ring pops, and even tried her very first piece of chocolate. She didn’t know what it was. Neither did her mother. My precious 12 year old sponsored daughter had never heard of or tried chocolate before in her life. She carefully unwrapped the tin foiled Hershey’s kiss and removed the white and blue white tag from inside. Biting down gingerly on the tiny milk chocolate tip, her tongue and taste buds came into contact with the sweetness and she began to smile – signaling to the crowd watching that it was in fact, tasty!
“Not another goodbye,” I thought to myself. “You can do this without crying,” I repeated. You can’t possibly be attached after two hours and only corresponding via letters until today’s visit”, my thoughts continued to press…

Tears began to swell up in both eyes as I fought like a warrior to hold them back and keep my composure. “Keep it together, Jen”. “This is a happy time, not a sad one”.

Thing is, I often cry tears of joy. As the family helped me load my gifts -bags at a time, baskets of fruits on top of their heads, flowers, chicken, and all…. I became deeply saddened that it was coming to an end. As the night was drawing near, and with a long night’s journey on the road ahead of us, I was encouraged to jump in the car for departure. We took our last photos and said goodbye. Hugs, and more hugs, loving embraces and looks of sincere gratitude in all of our eyes, heaviness in our hearts.
When we turned the vehicle around and began to drive away- I searched the crowd of gazing brown eyes and brightly colored clothing covered in dust to meet those of Agnes. I saw her mom, her sisters, and the neighbors…. As I held the second wildflower bouquet she gave me just before leaving, I became fixated with locating her beautiful face one last time so I could hold it in my heart forever. Unable to do so and tears flowing like a river, Margaret pointed downhill towards the house in the distance and said “Agnes has run home already…. she is deeply saddened by your departure as well. I just wept and wept.

Agnes and I exchanged very few words- as she didn’t understand English and I didn’t want to interrogate her or interview her family like I have been doing during all my other encounters through my work here with BeadforLife.

This was different. We were just together. I now fully understand what it means to be in the “beauty of someone’s presence”. I was in the beauty of her presence for two hours- silently communicating. It was peaceful, and surely blessed by the Lord’s presence as well.

I held on to that encouragement as we drive off into the distance, children lining the corn fields waving goodbye and running alongside of us all the way to the dirt road back into Rakai.

I know I may never see Agnes again, but I am comforted by the fact that she and I shared in this precious moment with each other surrounded by her loved ones. I felt loved and accepted by her family, and I certainly felt humbled by the extent of the family’s generosity. I know God was with us, and will keep us together in spirit always.

Reciprocity.

Love multiplied.

Giving and receiving.

Blessings.

Standing…. And resting……. in love.
To learn more about how you can sponsor a child in the most vulnerable stretches of the world, visit : http://www.worldvision.org

Street Business School Insight: A Trip to Mutungo Village. 

Obwavu Bye Bye!  “Goodbye poverty!” in Luganda.

Over the course of the past two days I have witnessed the heart and soul of BeadforLife’s holistic poverty eradication model here in Uganda.  Yesterday, ” Standard Group” arrived one by one, having traveled great distances on overcrowded roadways to meet the 9:30 am sale start time. At the call of ” circle”… ( drumbeat- dum dum dum dum…) circle…. Da dum , dum dum… Circle!” The women mobilize for a short time of refreshing, and a chance to sing, dance, and clear their minds of all their troubles and worries for just a short while. Babies resting on hand woven mats in the humid equatorial sun, while their mommas experience an uplifting and engaging social group activity. Each of the 35 women belonging to Standard Group has a unique and captivating story to tell. While time didn’t permit me to speak with them all, their smiles and expressions told so much. The truth is easy to find in the gaze of one’s eyes. I’ve come to appreciate this silent communication.

I liken BeadforLife’s role in the communities to that of a shepherd, gathering the flock who have gone astray, left behind, and in need of guidance and leadership backed by love and genuine concern. Each group of women are hand selected to participate in the 18 month Beads to Business program or the shorter- condensed 6 month Street Business School program.

Today I visited the village of Mutungo- transport to which required a ride in a matatu as well as a Boda Boda in the interior of the village. Today’s session lead by 3 of BeadforLife’s entrepreneurial training staff ( Rachael, Clare, and Joanita) took place inside of the local church. I peeked into the boarded up space with simple roof and saw rows and rows of plastic white chairs, and one easel at the front of the class. On the wall hung three tear sheets reviewing yesterday’s lesson on the 4 P’s – in addition to the notes from session #1. Women arrived with supplies in hand, babies on their hips, and hope in their hearts! In the customary manner, we formed a circle and moved around singing and dancing like school children. I took my seat next to coach Clare, located at the front left side of the classroom, who acted as my Luganda- English translator and immediately started taking detailed notes. This highly customized and researched curriculum is based on core components which serve to engage, empower, and substantially improve the economic independence of these women holding no more than a 5th grade education.

On average, Street Business School members earn less than $0.60 per day and many earn 1/2 of that. This means they are unable to afford school fees for their children, they may not understand the rights to land ownership, nor are they aware of how they deserve to be treated as accepted members of the community.

Beatrice is one of these women. Both Beatrice and her 17 year old daughter Maureen attended today’s session with hopes of transformation. Maureen sat in the front row, so eager to learn and write down each and every word from the trainer’s mouth. Maureen, you see,  stopped going to school at the age of 12-13 at the conclusion of primary school. In order to continue to secondary school, fees are required for supplies and exams- fees her widowed mother of 15 years, Beatrice, could not afford. Having merely a primary school education herself, Beatrice makes her living selling raw sugar cane stalks to local children. Once a week, she walks about an hour to collect over 23kilograms of raw stalks and transports it on the top of her head all the way back to her village. She nets approximately 1,000 Ugandan schillings a week profit- or about $0.29 – a WEEK.

Following the training, I was invited into Beatrice’s home, along with her daughter Maureen and we talked about her dreams for her new business and how she could realize the potential inside of her. Reminded by the training earlier that day, she scanned through ideas while Joanita patiently and so precisely translated for me. We all giggled in this 10 x10 sq foot home with only a thin sheet hung as a front door. Naturally, we purchased a sugar cane stick from her and I sampled what I like to refer to as a “Ugandan lollipop”! Biting down on the coarse, fibrous stalk – you have to slurp out the little bit of sugary sweet liquid that is extracted when squeezed.
Maureen sat closely to me on the couch, her head curled up snugly on my left shoulder the entire visit. By the end of our visit, a crowd of neighbors and village children arrived at the front door peering in to see what all the commotion was! We were praising God and praying for blessings to come to Mutungo village. Laughing heartily, we moved outside of the dark, cooler interior of her home and outside into the bright sunshine.

Two doors down, we were invited into Rose’s home- a much smaller, less structured little home built of timber. Squatting down to enter her tiny front door, my eyes were greeted by two small beds, a dirt floor covered in blankets, and a small sitting chair. Rose has 4 children, and they all live with her in this space. Mosquito nets hung from the low tin roof, and we took a seat and listened as she shared her business with us. Unlike Beatrice, Rose has a steady stream of income selling cold sodas and waters in public gathering places such as matatu stops. I noticed in the corner of one of the beds, a heaping pile of belongings behind a sheet draped 1/2 way from the rear- forming a little partition. This was the extent of her belongings- her children’s few pieces of torn and tattered clothing, a cleaning rag or two, and a water can. Rose walks to fetch clean water. Her youngest daughter named JenRose- thin as a rail- introduced herself to me in English and caused the entire room to roar in laughter! In hysterics laughing, they were so impressed with her courage and inhibition. I am sure this moment created memories we will all cherish for a lifetime.
BeadforLife is the shepherd.

Destitute, down trodden women the sheep.
As this day draws to an end, I am reminded of the message in this week’s church bulletin on Faith, Hope, and Love.

       ” Those who know they don’t know it all, find it easy to believe. People who can’t control tomorrow find it easy to hope. People who have nothing to give but themselves, find it easy to love.”

This last sentence helped me understand why Maureen nestled so closely to me during our home visit. Love is what she has to offer to me, and how sweet the feeling!
To engage and help ignite 1 million women out of poverty through entrepreneurial training and mentoring, please prayerfully consider a donation by clicking here:  vegas.ignite1million.org

Love and blessings to you all!

Half Way to Uganda.

Meet my travel neighbor from LA to London- Annie Quinn.  Author, 2x breast cancer survivor, and my personal travel angel.  We had the best talks and I am so blessed to have had her company for 10 hours on that first leg of the flight.

Half way.

Boarding shortly for round two- London- Entebbe- another 9.5 hours.  Looking forward to laying down on a bed more than anything.  Have not slept a wink in nearly 24 hours.   God, please give me strength to push on, and please remind me that I am crazy for carrying such a heavy “not on rollers” carry on and a backpack.

P.S.  For those of you following from the beginning of my journey, I have not even touched my coloring books or crayons!

Three More Nights

……. Until I leave for Uganda to volunteer with BeadforLife.org.  Scared? Yes.  Ready to “ignite one million” women out of extreme poverty? Yes!

Bags packed, check! Immunizations, check! Malaria pills and all meds for 2 months- almost! In preparation for this journey, I have been advised to carry everything from electrolytes to Epi-pens!  I feel as though I am preparing to land on another planet- not knowing at all what to expect.  This is what makes the journey so incredible and makes me feel so alive!  My love for Africa began many years ago, and my dream is finally coming true to visit this amazing land.  I will have the opportunity to work directly with women in extreme poverty in Kampala and capture their stories of triumph, survival, and overcoming the odds in a country where business failure rates hover around 81%.   Women of second chances.  Women who are facing fears.  Women who long for change and step up to the challenge.

Today is my last day at work until mid September.  Three more nights with my husband Rusty, my English bulldog Desmond, and my sweet pug, Boomer.   Three more nights with my three stooges at home.  Historically, goodbyes have proven difficult for me.    I have said au revoir  to France, Israel, Greece, Chicago, and find it hard to part after relationships have blossomed, been watered, and grown roots in my deep connecting heart.

As a sufferer of anxiety, I have packed coloring books, crayons, pencils, and markers to ease my nerves while traveling 25 1/2 hours to my preliminary destination.  A friend shared with me an adult coloring book called ” The Secret Garden“, recommended for adults to help provide focus and stress-free activity for the mind.  I am planning on coloring my way to Uganda via positive affirmations, gardens, and beautiful butterflies in my secret garden.  The metaphor is a propos because life is like a secret garden.  Treasures to be discovered if we just make room to find them.  To be open to possibilities.  Open to discovering the unknown.  Open to inquiry, relinquishing our need to control every outcome.  Uganda will be my secret garden, and I can’t wait to plant my first seeds there!

To join the movement to empower, educate, and provide the promise of self-sufficiency for 1 million women in extreme poverty around the world , please visit : www.ignite1million.org

If you would like to support BeadforLife’s vision of expanding the Street Business School program and want to link arms with me, please donate to my fundraising goal of $100,000 here  : vegas ignite one million

Webale Nyo! (Thank you very much!)