Dear MSDHS

Dear Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,

You have made the list every school hopes to avoid…the school shooting list…the mass casualty list.  The lock-down training you had, didn’t take into account a false fire alarm.  The hide-and-go-seek plan didn’t work as well as you believed it would, because training cannot cover every possible scenario a sick mind can conceive.  As teachers, you are aware of this fact, but you go to work anyway. And students come to school.  Everyday.

Except today.  The day after.  The day after the unimaginable happened.  The day after everything was turned upside down. The facts are still being pieced together, the investigation is ongoing. Rumors fly like the wind on cellphones and social media.  Talking heads speculate.  Politicians capitalize on tragedy to push agendas of one side or another.  The noise is chatter and supposition, but no one knows the horror.  No one gets what is was like to be inside that building hearing shots, seeing the losses.  No one but you. So, hold onto one another.

Know that those of us who have trained to sit defenseless with our frightened students huddled in darkness are with you in thoughts and in prayers. You are living our nightmare.  Today, we go through our minds and we take another look at our classrooms.  We lock the doors and pull the blinds.  We look for possible escape routes if we ever become you.  We think, ‘Where would we go, if we were here?’ as we walk down each hallway.  We wonder what would happen if we were in the cafeteria. We bring bats to school for “recess” and we leave them beside our doors.  Hornet spray that shoots from long distances is in the cabinet in case we have “hornets” in our building.  We carry our door keys around our necks, and teach children how to lock themselves in bathrooms and stand on toilets to avoid being seen.  It is what fear demands of us, to be diligent, so we do not become you.

Yet, we all know it is possible, on any given day, a seemingly random event will reveal the truth, that our best laid plans evaporate when confronted with reality.  Some lives are saved because of the training, but others are lost.  And in the middle of it all, you are there grappling with the pain, shock, and the grief.  Students ache for their friends.  Parents cry in horror as they face empty bedrooms and tables. Administration is fending off the press, and trying to create a space for healing to begin, in the midst of all the fingers pointing in a million directions.

Bless you Stoneman.  Bless you all.  Please allow us to hold space for you.  To lift our prayers, while you try to get your heads around the events of the day.  Let us stand when you cannot, and hold you with virtual hugs that need no words.  Give us the gift of carrying some of your grief so that we lighten your load. Let our tears be liquid prayers that mix with yours.  Know you are not alone, and though we cannot possibly grasp what you are going through, we are with you just the same. As teachers, as parents, as students…as humans…we reach out to say you are cared for.  You are loved, and your grief is felt in ripples across our hearts.

God,

Please be with everyone involved in this horrible event.  Hold up those who feel the losses, with your compassionate hand.  Give them comfort.  Surround them with your peace and grace.  Bring them people who can walk with them, through the processing of the grief.  Take their fears Lord.  Give them sweet sleep that is nightmare/flashback free.  I ask for the students to come together for one another during this time.  To hold one another up, and to not allow this to separate or isolate them.  I pray for unity among the student body.  Give them healthy ways to express their grief.  I pray for the parents who wake up today, without their children.  God, please, please, comfort them.  Give them the strength to get through the coming days, but also the years of empty places that are ahead.  Send your people to uphold and surround them.  Gather their tears.  Be with the teachers, as they continue to do their jobs.  Give them a voice. Open ears around them to listen to their fears.  Help them to be strong for the students and parents, but not to forget to nurture themselves and find healthy ways to express their own feelings.  Be with the administration of the school system.  Help them to navigate all that is happening.  Give them outlets to release their own grief, while still working through all that is involved with this type of event.  Be with the investigators, the first responders, the medical teams, the injured victims and their families, and the family of the shooter.  Many lives were scarred yesterday, Lord begin the healing process of the open wounds of the heart. Pour out your balm and begin to put the pieces of shattered lives back together.  In Jesus name, Amen.

Advertisements

My Comfort Zone

we are hope

I have been back from Uganda for 2 weeks. Back in my comfort zone. I have hot and cold running water just a few steps away at any given moment.  My electricity works all the time.  I have 3 types of ovens and a stovetop, as well as a refrigerator, which is full of food and spits out luxurious ice at the push of a button. I have a car that can take me anywhere I want to go, at any time I want to go there. These are the things I assume will always be there for me, the things I take for granted.

I do not have to walk several miles each day, with a jug on my head, to get water for my family.  I do not have to gather firewood to cook my food. I do not have to wait a month for my food ration to arrive, or figure out a way to make it last so that my kids can eat every day.  I do not live in a tent made from a tarp, or a hut made from the mud I made myself.

These differing experiences make me ponder and feel. They move me, and cause me to recognize I could have easily been born in a different place and had a completely different reality.  I could have lived in a country where war knocks on your front door, while you are running out the back.  Honestly, I am not sure I would survive it, because I am soft. I am not accustomed to the back breaking work it takes, just to make sure my family lives another day. It is beyond my comprehension how strong the South Sudanese people are.  If it were me, I would crumble up in the heat and die.

These kinds of trips are perspective changing ones.  I knew this would happen, and that my eyes would, once again, be opened to the disparity of the world in which I live.  I have heard it said, “We have poor kids here.  Why not feed them?”  I would agree with that statement. I have 20 years-worth of experience meeting the needs of poor kids in my own community, educationally and otherwise.  The schools here feed them breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack.  They also send home backpacks full of food every weekend. There are food banks, and soup kitchens in our town. The schools have clothes closets.  All of the community programs are specifically designed to care for these kids and their families. All of them are important to the well-being of children.

thank-you-note.jpg

In the refugee camp I visited, there are not the same types of programs. There are monthly rations, and that’s about it.  Fending for yourself is the norm.  Some kids can do that, and others cannot.  Being that 85% of the people in the camps are women and children, it is difficult to make do.  It requires the entire family just to survive.  The little kids, pick up firewood.  The bigger ones walk for water.  They plant and try to make the dry dirt produce something edible. It is a life of survival which produces a survival mentality.  Thinking past today is a rarity.  Going to school, if you have one near enough, is a luxury.

The Greater Hope Schools Initiative, just started a school lunch program at Hope Primary School in the camp.  The parents of the students do the cooking, so all 600 students get one meal each day.  The pictures show smiles from ear to ear, as the children eat their fill.  Learning is increasing, as is hope.  All because of one meal a day.

I heard a story once of some orphans who had been through traumatic times.  They couldn’t sleep at night, until someone figured out they were worried about when and where their next meal would come from.  Each child got some bread to sleep with so they knew they would eat again tomorrow. It solved the problem of not sleeping. For the kids at Hope Primary School to know they will get at least one meal a day, will have a similar effect on their studies. It is difficult to concentrate when starvation is rumbling around in your stomach. The difference on their faces, after just one week of the lunch program, is remarkable.

I am not sure why it has to be either we feed kids here, or we feed kids there.  Why can’t we feed both? It seems to me that all children should have the right to survive and to thrive, no matter what country they live in. It is not up to me to pick which ones need help.  They ALL do.  So rather than wall my heart off, I have opened it wide, and despite the pain of seeing the hardships, I have also seen a spark of hope beginning to flame up.  The smiles of the students are amazing to witness, because this lunch brings life to them, in more ways than one.

To find out more about the lunch program go to The Greater Hope Project

kitchen 2

 

As a Matter of Fact…

8219c958-56c6-4fe1-9c2b-62ab4f759128

The story of how I got involved with a South Sudanese refugee camp in Uganda is an interesting one.  I have been asked about it enough times I thought it might be a good idea to write it down.  Sometime in the fall of last year, a question popped in my head demanding an answer.  I ignored the question for a good while. It was in reference to the plans for establishing long term bases and church planting in foreign countries that AIM (Adventures in Missions) is currently undertaking.  The question was, ‘Is there an educational component to the development of these bases?’  I am a part time employee in the Parent Ministry department, not the Long-Term Missions department, so I wasn’t sure why I needed to ask this question so badly, but it would not leave my head, so I went to Seth Barnes (the founder of AIM) to ask it.

“As a matter of fact…we do have an educational component to our South Sudan Refugee Project,” he said.

“What is the South Sudan Refugee Project?” I asked.

He proceeded to tell me about the conflict in Sudan and how his dear friend Uche had contacted him about helping in the refugee camps in Uganda.  Uche has been a missionary to South Sudan for years. The project to come along side what Uche is doing there, already had a team of people working to help refugees in many areas of need.  Seth sent me two documents, one had an overview of an expansive plan to address needs of water, medical care, shelter, food, as well as emotional and spiritual needs.

The other document was a plan to develop an educational model, called the Greater Hope Schools Initiative, that will be used in refugee camps to start schools which address the specialized needs of children who have endured enormous trauma.  The overview document included an empowerment program in which students work on projects around the school to create ownership. A student lunch program to meet their physical needs was to be developed. It included a child-centered teaching approach which focuses on real life problem solving and critical thinking skills. It addressed the emotional needs of children who have experienced trauma.  It had a discipleship program built into it.  It included a community component which involves parents in every aspect of the school.

As I read that document, everything I have done in my 20-year career as an educator was included. My heart began to beat faster and my mind was spinning with ideas of ways to put some meat on the bones of this document. I felt the need to talk to the educator on the team about the school portion of the project, only there was no educator.  What?  No educator?  How can you build an educational model without an educator?  And so, I became the educator on the team, and began to design a chit system (point system) to have students do jobs/projects around the school.

IMG_3097

Meanwhile, in Uganda, there was a man who escaped South Sudan’s war and saw the need to start a school in the refugee camp.  Alfred is an educator who has a passion to see the children of his country educated to be the leaders of the future.  A group of refugee parents led the way, and they started Hope Primary School. It started under a tree, with Alfred teaching all the students.  Soon there were more teachers and more students.  The group came together, each family bringing a tree to be a post of what would become the classrooms of the school. Alfred and Uche came together and a vision for Hope Primary School to become the first of the Greater Hope Schools was born. Hope Primary School is a pilot school for the Greater Hope Schools Initiative, which is only a small piece of the overall South Sudan Refugee Project. There are many moving pieces in this project on many levels, but the school is the part I felt most drawn to.

I felt compelled to go to Uganda.  I wanted to meet Uche and Alfred to hear more of their vision.  I wanted to see the teachers I was designing things for, and hear their hearts.  I have been a teacher who is told what to do from someone who has not been in my classroom.  I did not want that to be the case here. I needed to stick my toe in the water and see if this project was as much of a fit for my skills as it appeared.  The only problem was that it costs quite a bit to go to Africa. Every penny we bring in goes to pay bills, so I talked to God about it. I told him if he wanted me to go, at this time, he would have to make it clear and provide the money.  My first seed money came in when a friend of mine won a contest and felt led to send the prize money to me. I got three other unexpected checks in the mail as well.  Next, some work I had done years ago resurfaced, and it was clear I had never been paid for it, nor had I finished it.  With the back pay, and the pay for the completion of it, I had what I needed to purchase my ticket. Hannah found me a great price on a ticket, which went up ten minutes after I purchased mine.

There was another team going in at the same time as me, to do some filming to bring some awareness to the plight of the refugees and to spotlight the project.  Another team was there to live and serve in a children’s home for orphans in the camp, called Dreamland. Others were also going in to train people to work with trauma victims.  It seemed to be perfect timing for me to go.  God had done what I had asked, which meant I needed to follow through with my decision to go.  Let me say, I have not traveled internationally until the past couple of years, and I have never done it by myself.  I am always with someone who knows more than me, and I follow along like a chick follows its mother.  The idea that I would have to fly nearly 24 hours, with a lay-over in which I would leave the airport in Qatar, and find an Air Bnb, was scary to me. To get back to the airport in time for my flight was scary for me.  To spend a night in Entebbe on my own, and handle switching money, as well as paying for things with the money I didn’t understand, and then to fly in a small plane to a dirt airfield was scary to me too…but I knew I had to do it.  I got encouragement from many people to go for it.  Hannah promised me I could do it, and I believed her.

IMG_3286

I went.  By myself. I didn’t get lost or miss my plane. Honestly, I felt quite accomplished when I arrived back home that I made it intact, with all my belongings.  While I was on the ground in Uganda, the people I met, were as inspirational in person as they were from a distance. I met men who fled their country and brought 135 orphans with them. I met pastors and missionaries and teachers.   I got to meet the government officials who are over the camp from the Office of the Prime Minister.  I met the Bishop of the Church of Uganda who we are working under while we are there. I had a wonderful meeting with the Minister of Education and her team to discuss the Greater Hope Schools Initiative. I had an opportunity to train the teachers and develop next steps for their plan for the school.  I got to dance and play with orphans, and meet students who see the need for education. My trip confirmed what I thought to be true, I have something to offer to this project. Therefore, you will be hearing more from me about the crisis in South Sudan and the needs of the refugees. I have been invited back to train more teachers in May, so pray if that is supposed to happen God would provide.  I am still tutoring and working in Parent Ministry.  This new project isn’t a paying one, but it is a heart one.  Thanks for all your words of encouragement to me as I take these crazy steps I feel led to take.  Here’s to living fully!!

February 2nd, 30 Years Ago (Guest Blog)

As told to me by Bill Gunnin

love

This thirty year mark is a significant day. It is a monument that marks a day of before and after in your life.  A day of reckoning so to speak. For you, it is a day of monumental shift where everything changed. For me, it is not that way at all.  I don’t have a before.  I only have an after.  I don’t remember what I was like before.  I am told I am different now than I was then and that’s all I know.  For me, I don’t feel different, it is just a continuum of my life.

It grieves me you had this horrific time in your life because of me, and I can’t relate emotionally.  I can’t help you with it, or heal it for you, or work through it at all, because I don’t remember any of it. You tell me the things I did, and I am horrified in my mind, but I don’t feel it.  I can help intellectually, but emotionally I can’t connect at all to your pain.  I can say I am sorry and it could help some, but I have no connection to the feeling of it.  I say I am sorry, because it is what you do when you know you have hurt someone.  For me it is just head knowledge of what happened, but for you, it is great emotional pain which I have no part of.  It is a big day for you each year to mark the day your life turned upside down…our lives turned upside down. For me it is just another day.  I am grateful to be alive, and I know that is why we celebrate this day, but I don’t even know how to talk about this day.  I am flummoxed.  It’s a day that changed everything, and I don’t remember any of it…so what the hell am I supposed to say about it?

Thirty years later.  I should have done more with my life in thirty years. I have no patience because I am ADHD to the hilt.  Yet, I can sit and tune a piano for hours.  I can do tedious things sometimes, but others I can’t sit still. My TBI makes me a dichotomy, unstable and unable to be consistent, which is a big problem in my life.  It holds me back, and I can’t do anything to help it.  Heaven knows I have tried, and you have tried to help me.  It feels quite a mess, like I am lost and cannot find my way. Mostly it feels like failure.  In thirty years, I should have been in a different place, but I’m not…we’re not, and that feels bad in the deep places.

As far as memories go, you ask what I remember of that day and I have snippets.  Nothing chronological at all.  Just like still photos in my head that don’t seem to go together.  They are foggy.  I am not sure if some of them are real, or if because you have told me the stories I have a “false” memory.  I remember having breakfast that morning at IHop in Roswell with a family from the church. I have trouble pinning past memories to specific days.  I remember breakfast, I know that I did that on the morning the accident happened…I’ve been told I did. I remember getting a notebook from them. I met with them more than once, so it can get a little blurry which meeting I remember.

I can’t do chronological.  I have bits and pieces, after the breakfast. Walking the halls.  Vague memory of a wheelchair.  The door in my room had a window in it. I had to wear a belt over my clothes.  I hated it, I remember not wanting people to see me wearing it because they would think I was a crazy patient.  I remember there was a dining room, and I had some job I got to do there, but I don’t remember what it was.  I remember people asking me the date.  I would go look at the calendar so I would know, but then not be able to remember. That was frustrating to me.  I have memories of them giving me lists of things to remember.  I remember physical therapy, but then it gets blurred because of the other rehab place I went to later on.  I remember people following me around. I thought they were stalkers. I didn’t know they were there to make sure I was safe.  I remember going home for day visits and having to go back to the hospital. I was nervous about it, really scared, but I didn’t want to go back to the hospital.  I wanted to be home.

This is a vague feeling…how do I describe this? I’ve never quite tried to communicate this or thought about this, I remember going home, but feeling like I am not sure if I belong here.  I felt lost.  What am I supposed to do now? I remember going into the house and feeling a sense of being unsure and afraid.  No schedule, no responsibility, no job.  I was so nervous.  I felt trepidation.  I feel it now, just talking about it.  Insecurity.  Not confident.  I thought I was supposed to know what to do, but I didn’t. It was a bad feeling. When I look back at that time it might have been the realization I was not who I used to be. Only I couldn’t verbalize it, I could only feel it, and not even really know what I was feeling.  Does that make sense?  It is a very uncomfortable feeling that I used to be one way and I am different now…I don’t remember what I was before.  I hate that.

I remember going to court to plead nolo contendere.  I was told to say that, so I did.  So, there was no penalty.  I didn’t think I did anything wrong, but I had the ticket for following too close, since I hit from the rear. I can’t remember what I was doing or anything about the day and the judge thought I was bad off since they had to check me out of the hospital to go to court. My dad had information from a private investigator he had hired to find out what happened.  I didn’t know that at the time.  I didn’t know someone pulled out in front of me, or that there were three cars totaled. I didn’t remember it was raining, or that the construction truck that pulled out in front of me had long lumber hanging out the back, which is what hit my head at 60 miles an hour. I didn’t know a bystander had removed my seatbelt to try to pull me out, in case the car was going to blow up, but no one would help him, and I was pinned inside until the jaws of life arrived. I didn’t know I was unconscious at the scene, but when I woke up it took 7 people to get me in the ambulance because of the fight or flight response. I don’t remember being handcuffed and tied down in order to control me and get me help.  I didn’t really know anything about any of it, only what I have been told later.  It sounds terrible and I am glad I don’t remember.  It is like I am talking about what happened to another person, not me.

I remember my friend Jim Moon coming.  That could be a false memory, because you have told me about his visit ,and how perfectly timed it was for you for him to be there on the day they moved me to the rehab unit.  I don’t remember anything before that, the ICU, or the surgical unit. I think I lost several weeks. I remember other people coming and going, but not anyone specific. Lots of visitors, but I can’t recall any of them. I remember a tape player in my room.  I don’t remember throwing it because I didn’t want to hear music. I didn’t know there were three different tape players because I kept breaking them, but you wouldn’t give up trying to play music for me.

I remember the boy next door with the thing through his head. I knew he was worse off than me since he couldn’t talk or move his head at all. His mom was nice to me.  I remember being across from the nurses’ station.  I didn’t know the window in my door was so they could watch me closely to make sure I wasn’t hurting myself or doing crazy things.  I remember walking past the babies in the nursery and looking at them.  They were cute.  I think there was a TV room and we tried to watch the Olympics. I didn’t know that I couldn’t sit still for more than 5 minutes and I paced and walked the halls to keep moving.  I remember I had some kind of job at meal time, but I didn’t know it was taking trays from the people in wheelchairs and putting them away.  I didn’t know they gave it to me to keep me busy since I couldn’t sit still.  I felt pride that I had responsibility.  I thought I was better off than the others. I remember talking to people and feeling I provided an important service.  Like a waiter.  I felt less damaged. I was helping people worse than me. I used my people skills…always trying to be charming.

I remember looking at my calendar to show them I was smart. I remember thinking they were over concerned that I knew what day it was.  So I would go look and then I still couldn’t give them the right date. I felt I was outsmarting them to go look at my calendar right before they asked me the questions.  Funny I knew they were going to ask, but I couldn’t get the answer right. So frustrating.

I remember the belt and having to wear it.  I wanted to hit my dad with it, because he was antagonizing me.  I felt mocked. He was trying to be funny by calling me cripple, but I didn’t think it was funny at all.  I got really mad at him. I don’t remember you stepping between us so I wouldn’t hit him, but I remember the feeling I was going to explode.

I do have a memory of riding in a wheel chair, before the belt. I didn’t know I made you walk me constantly at a specific speed…not too fast, not too slow…for hours and hours.  I didn’t know you all tag teamed to take turns walking me. I don’t remember learning to walk again. I do remember you taking me to the chiropractor to try to fix my shorter leg.  We went several times, before it finally shifted.  In my first memories after the accident, I was walking, so I guess I lost a few weeks. I remember one day I was looking for you and couldn’t wait for you to get there. I put on the sweatshirt you said I looked good in and waited. I was so happy to see you come around the corner that day. You have told me that is the day I was back…you could see the sparkle in my eyes again.  I only remember being happy to see you.

I also remember being excited about a necklace I got you for Valentine’s Day.  My dad gave it to me, but I really thought I picked it out.  I can’t remember what you got me.  I didn’t care about that, because I was so excited about giving you the necklace. I thought I gave you pearls, but you say that was for our wedding.  I get things mixed up sometimes.  It was opal with diamonds around it, now that I see it I remember it.  I don’t remember the stuffed dinosaurs with their necks twisted together that you bought me at the gift shop.  I also don’t remember telling you all about how I went shopping to pick out the necklace.  I guess I made that up since I didn’t know how I got it.

I remember playing an electronic poker game and making houses with playing cards. I don’t know how I had the focus for making those houses.  I don’t remember exploding when they would fall.  I remember pacing and walking in circles around the hospital. I remember being mad and hitting the windshield of the car and breaking it.  Did you ever doubt I would get back to stable consciousness?  What scared you?

Everything scared me. It was so unpredictable. One minute you wanted me right by your side, the next you were calling me names and telling me to get out of your room.  Then you would beg me to stay.  It was a rollercoaster on eggshells.  Rage.  Anger. Inability to focus.  Constant movement.  When you got home it was worse than in the hospital.  You put your fist through the walls, threw the keys at me so hard they stuck into the sheetrock. I got good at ducking. I also learned to stand up to you, and somewhat how to not take it personally.  I knew it was brain related and the inability to control emotions, since it was a frontal lobe injury.  So in some ways it wasn’t your fault, but still it hurt so it was very difficult to deal with. You needed to have consequences for your actions, even though you couldn’t control them.  I eventually learned to try to teach you coping strategies, and some of those worked sometimes. I also learned how to adapt my life to what you need.  It has been one hell of a journey for both of us, Honey. We have endured so much, and that is the reason I celebrate this day.  It shows us God’s faithfulness to hold us together despite horrific circumstances, and years of coping with this injury. I am so glad you lived.  Happy 30 years alive day! 

Thanks.  Can we stop talking about this now?  I don’t want to remember anymore.

Beginner’s Luck

mosquito

I made some adjustments at half time.  I studied my opponents.  Every move was predictable.  Then I realized, so were mine.  Especially, being as green as I am.   I changed my strategy to behave like a veteran traveler, and I went back into the game.

Being intentional as a strategy was new to me.  I put my haphazard ways behind me and set out to leave no room for my enemy.  I got up, got dressed, and then coated myself with bug spray…slowly, one limb at a time.  I gave myself breaks between each limb, so the chemical cloud would dissipate.  That way I could both breathe and don my chemical shield.  It worked for the day.  Round 7 was mine.

In the evening, the weather was glorious.  I decided to sit on the porch and enjoy the breeze, however, I neglected to reapply my armor.  Round 8 went to them.

By the last two rounds, I had my strategy down.  I applied my spray the same each morning.  I also learned, that as soon as I arrived back in my room each afternoon to go ahead and ready the mosquito net…before the sun set, while the little blood suckers were asleep.  It worked like a charm, and they couldn’t figure how what hit them.  Rounds 9 and 10 went to me.

In the end, I starved the little guys.  The final score was 6 to 4, and barring any malaria breakout when I get home, I must say I was pretty proud to win so big in my first major championship. I will continue to take my malaria meds for the upcoming days because I know pride comes before a fall, and they would love it if I let my guard down and got sick once I am home. Ultimately, I know I learned some great lessons which will benefit me in future matches with them, but this time, I am happy to have won by beginner’s luck.

 

The Story

IMG_3276.jpg

The story that got me here, the one that actually got me on the plane to Uganda, wasn’t the fact that there were refugees or even the orphans of war, those exist in many places around the world.  No, as compelling as those stories are, I would have been content to read about them from the comfort of my own country, as I have done many times before. I would have given them my pity, but not been moved by compassion to go. I would have felt bad and hoped that someone would help them, but I would not have saved my own money to purchase a ticket. I would not have known how to help and I would’ve thought there was nothing I could do.

The story that captured me is one where a man named Alfred fled his country to make sure his family was safe.  He left a job and a life behind.  He arrived in a foreign land and saw the future of his country roaming the refugee camp, and decided to start a school.  Under a tree. He gathered a community of parents who wanted a school also and they built one.  That story mesmerized me.  The recognition of a problem, yes, but he did not wait for someone else to bring aid.  He started.  Just himself and a handful of others.  They took the initiative to educate the children who will be the future leaders of their country.  Without supplies.  Without help.  Without a building.  Without books.  Now THAT’S a story.  Maybe it spoke so deeply to my heart is because I am a teacher.  Maybe it is because now there are 16 teachers who have done the same as Alfred.  They inspire me. Only a few of them are officially trained, most of them are not, but all of them passionate to see children educated. Alfred planted a seed of hope and it started to grow.

Now, he is my new friend and has told me more details of his story.  He has a bachelor’s degree in education and was a teacher.  Then he went to India to complete his Master’s degree in business and personnel management. When he returned to South Sudan he was hired by the schools to be the assessment coordinator for a large number of schools.  It was a very good job.  He drove from region to region visiting and consulting with schools.

Alfred has 6 children and in many African countries, the children who go to school must pay tuition.  With that many children, his tuition bill was high and caused him much stress.  Shortly after he started his new job, war broke out again. It was not safe for his family, so they came to Uganda.  He continued working in South Sudan, but many conversations with his family led him to come here to get them settled. He planned to return to work so they would have income, but the borders closed to those coming into South Sudan.  He lost his job, so now he lives in a refugee camp.  He suffers from hypertension due to the stress of the past few years. He was offered a job by a university 1 ½ hours away, but without a vehicle he cannot make the journey, besides, he says he will not abandon the children in the camp because he knows they are the future of his country.  He saw a need and he leads the school here.  The steps they are taking are small, but the vision is huge.

IMG_3273.JPG

Because of his story, I had to come meet them.  To see what they are dealing with in person, so that the Greater Hope Schools Initiative I am working on will encourage them, rather than hinder them in their efforts.  I did some training today and thanked them for what they are doing. I told them how inspiring it is to others.  I also told them they are the reason I came across the ocean, so I can learn from them. Even though I am the one training, they are the ones teaching.

IMG_3279.JPG

I had no trouble at all in getting them to share their vision of what they want their school to be.  There we several words that reoccurred in the activity we were doing: leaders, community, peace, exemplary, respect.  These ideas are born out of their struggle, born out of knowing what is NOT needed because of their experiences. Taking the big ideals and translating them into actionable steps required focus, thinking, and much discussion.  As a group, they came up with plans to begin developing student leadership and community dialogue immediately. Baby steps to implementing the Greater Hope model. They are not deterred by the fact it will be a slow and gradual process.  They are used to slow processes. These young teachers want their country to change and they see the potential to have some part in the process and that is enough reward for them.

We then spent time on how to write a lesson plan, since most of them have no formal training.  We talked about behavior management strategies and what will work in a classroom of 96 students who are all experiencing differing levels of trauma and PTSD. We talked about how to break lessons down into chunks, and how to try to allow the kids to be more engaged. We talked about record keeping. We could have gone on for days.  One day was not enough.  I came with the idea I could encourage them and bring some hope, but as it turns how they were the ones doing the hope bringing…to me. The name of their school is Hope Primary School and it couldn’t be any more accurate.

IMG_3278.JPG

 

Exile Life

IMG_3104

Our project leader Uche and Mickey, our communicator with the Office of the Prime Minister, have been orienting the team.  This includes cultural awareness, as well as a history lesson. There have been hours of questions and answers about the situation in South Sudan and all the people have endured there.  It was very informative, but if I had to tell you all the different tribal issues in detail I could not do it.  The complexity is mind-boggling.  The simplistic explanation is one tribe got positions of power in the government and began living above the law while oppressing others.  Another tribe did not like this and began to rise up.  Several other tribes then also joined in to try to overthrow the government.  The bigger issue is that many of the other tribes do not like one another, so pretty much everyone is fighting everyone else. The whole country is unstable and there is no security.  (Uche please let me know if this is too simplistic or inaccurate.)

However, what stood out to me from our meeting was the fact that this is not the first war in the region.  There was another one, some years ago, where there were refugees who fled into Uganda. They were here for many years waiting for peace to come.  When things settled down, they returned back to South Sudan. Now those very same people who were children when they came before, are faced with the decision to leave again now that they are the adults.  Some have decided to stay in South Sudan, because they would rather die on their own land than go back into a refugee camp.  Others are fleeing again, bringing their children with them this time.

Uche made a comment that stuck with me, ‘They have an exile life.’ More importantly, our instructors made sure we understood, anyone working with them needs to know they also have an exile mindset. It comes from being forced from their homes.  Living in another country that is not their own.  Waiting. Simply existing.  Living in limbo. Foreigners in a foreign land. For years.  No hopes for the future because they don’t know where they will be, or even if they will still be alive in the future.

We are helping Hope Primary School, a school in the camp run by South Sudanese teachers, attempt to develop a model that brings some sense of stability to life in the camp.  They need some guidance and someone to come along side what they are doing. Their desire is to create a vision for the future for kids who don’t know how to dream. They want to break the exile mindset.  To do so there is much work to be done and it starts with the children.  The school will be a bridge to families and develop a sense of community from the inside out. It will give them a place to call their own.  It will help them to feel like they are moving forward.  The children will be educated so future of South Sudan will be different when they are the leaders.

On paper, it all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?  Theoretically it is neat and clean and simple.  But in practice, here on the ground, it is another story.  The lack of resources, the lack of personnel, the enormous numbers of children, the environment of hopelessness in the camps, all of it is daunting.  All of it is overwhelming to me…and I don’t live here or try to teach 96 students a day with no books, paper, pencils, or materials. I cannot imagine what the teachers must feel on a day to day basis.  It is a God-sized vision, which only he can bring to pass.

So in that spirit…here is my prayer.

 

Lord,

Please direct the teachers at Hope Primary School.  Give them wisdom. Show them the steps needed to progress their vision and yours.  Give them strength to teach the numbers of students you bring them.  Help them to see past the crowd and into the hearts of each child.  Multiply their numbers, bring them more educators and more to support them.  Stir in the hearts of the parents to join with the school by helping, volunteering, and being with the kids. Give them divine creativity on how to do this thing they can see.  Help them to have innovative ideas for scheduling, and teaching.  I pray for the children.  That they would feel your love at the school.  That they would feel safe there and I pray their minds will be open to learn and they will be motivated and engaged in the lessons.  I ask that you give them dreams for their future.  That the exile mindset would be broken off of them.  Help their thoughts to be looking forward.  Heal their hearts Lord.  Erase their memory of traumatic events they have witnessed.  Allow them the freedom to share their stories with those who are trained to help them.  I also pray for their parents.  Lord, hold them close to your heart.  They are in survival mode and it is hard to see past a lifetime of pain.  Heal them.  Heal their scars.  Give them hope again.  Help the children to lead the parents on a new path of hope.  Bring routine and normalcy through the school.  Help it to feel like a home away from home.  Give the teachers ideas for kids and their families to be involved in building a community there.  Connect them with the right leadership to carry it through, here in country, and also those around the world who can help them.  Thank you Lord for your hope for this school.  In Jesus name Amen.

Michelle vs. The Mosquitos

mosquito.jpg

Something a bit more lighthearted for you…and me.

In Africa, they have a lot of mosquitos. It is why I am taking Malaria medication while I am here in Uganda. The pesky critters are the same as ours in that they buzz in your ears, and hover around you looking for a meal.  They are different than ours in that they are smaller, and you cannot feel their bites so much…and of course, they can carry malaria.

My first night, they tricked me. It was probably their strategy for a newbie, and I think they can smell a rookie from miles away.  The weather in the shade with the breeze is glorious here. Especially knowing that at home, everyone is frozen over. I was sitting beside Lake Victoria in Entebbe as the sun set.  Just like at home, the little buggers came out to eat.  I noticed around the lights there were thousands of them, so I headed indoors.  My room was screened in and had an AC unit so I turned it on.  I couldn’t get the mosquito net around the bed so I went without.  No problem.  In the morning, I had no bites. Round 1 went to me.

So, the next night in Arua at my new location, I didn’t even attempt the net, and because there was no AC I slept in as little as possible, on top of the sheets. Can you say feast?  I woke with bites all over.  Fortunately, they do not itch like they do at home, and I brought anti itch cream with a suspicion that I would be on the mosquito menu. Round 2 went to them.

I was determined to not fall prey to the blood suckers again.  Before dressing, I sprayed myself with bug spray for the day.  I came home with more bites.  I wondered, do African mosquitos think my American bug spray is perfume? Does it attract them rather than repel them? It appears they crawled into my sleeve and chowed down.  Round 3 went to them.

Finally, I figured out how to use my net for sleeping.  Only did you know, that if one mosquito gets inside the net, it turns into a cage? I slept in a cage with a mosquito.  Round 4 went to them.

I saw some mosquitos in my room.  I got my flip flop ready.  I danced wildly swinging it over my head, until I got them both.  Round 5 went to me.

In my cage…I mean bed, I carefully checked for rouge mosquitos.  I saw one on the inside of the net, just hanging around waiting for me to go to sleep. I tip toed to my bag and got out my spray.  I used the element of surprise and sprayed him to death.  I also mostly sprayed me to death too.  I could not breathe.  I’m not sure who won the round.  I coughed all night…but no bites.  He died…so I am claiming victory for round 6.

It is half time and currently the score is tied.  The bites I have from earlier are fading.  My strategy to win this is to receive no more bites for the next three days. Here I go…back into the match….

 

I Try to Imagine…

michelle-in-front-of-yonahI try to imagine what it is like for the refugees fleeing the war.  Below is what I see in my head.  It is fiction, but there are elements from things I have heard here. Some families come the camps together.  Others, the men stay back to either fight, or to protect their property. Some of the parents are shot in front of their children, and then the kids taken to become child soldiers.  The women and girls are raped.  People die along the journey of starvation or dehydration. Children are sent ahead by parents who do not want them to become child soldiers. There are many unaccompanied minors who have no idea where their parents are. And many women who do not know where their husbands are. Many families have numerous ‘extra’ kids they took in along with way. I write this story from pictures I see in my mind’s eye to try to imagine…

I wake from my bed to the onslaught of my neighbors’ screams and gunfire.  I feel the terror of looking out my window and seeing my town going up in flames.  My feet hit the floor at the same time as my husband’s and we know the war has arrived here. We run to gather the children with urgency. Throwing the most basic needs in bags, we flee into the night.  We attempt to quiet the frightened children as we make our way to try to become invisible. We see soldiers as silhouettes, kicking in doors and dragging people out of their homes to the slaughter. We cover the children’s ears, so they won’t hear the terror chasing us.  We carry them in our arms until we are out of breath. We pray we have gone far enough to stop.  Reassuring words which we don’t feel, come out of our mouths into their ears.  Their questions are quivering.

“What is happening?  Where will we go? How long will it take to get there?  What about our friends?  What is all the screaming?  Why is the sky lit up?” 

The queries of children never end.  My husband and I lock eyes and both realize at the same time, we don’t know the answers to the questions.  Too close to us, there are shouting voices, and lights meander back and forth through the trees from the road.

“Mommy, what’s that?”

“Shhh! Please, you must be as quiet as a mouse, both of you.”

I hear the footsteps in the brush, then the shouts when others in hiding are found and hauled onto the road.  They are begging for their lives.  Two shots and the begging stops.  My daughter’s pulse is racing under my hand.  She instinctively knows to remain quiet.  My prayers rise silently for the rebels to move on, to leave us hidden.  We are as low as possible and as still as statues.  Only the darkness keeps us covered from their eyes.  After what seems like months of their searching in the grass, they load their truck and it rumbles away.  The children are scared into silence, and they do not break it when we move on.  Up ahead of us we hear whimpering, like a wounded animal. Only, it is not an animal I am hearing; any mother knows the sound of crying babies. The three children are crouched low trying to stifle their cries as best they can.  It is a miracle they were not found by the rebels. They pull back as we approach.  They are our neighbor’s children. Tears rise and my throat tightens as I realize who the bodies up on the road belong to. They sacrificed themselves for their kids. Confusion and fear cloud the eyes of the little ones, then relief comes when they see it is us, their friends.

The oldest boy is holding the youngest babe. 

“Mom said for me to take care of him and to take him to the border.”

The middle one simply stands, shaking, and holds her arms up to me. I accept her into my own and she lays her head onto my shoulder and spills her tears there.  

“You all can come with us,” says my husband.  He knows it will slow us down to have three more little ones with us, but he cannot just leave them here and neither can I.  We walk for miles in the direction of the border.  It is slow going with 5 children, but they are doing their best to cooperate.  As the sky grays towards the dawn, we find a place to lie down for the day.

We must travel only at night to remain hidden as much as possible.  We also have to take a different path, further from the road which is grown over and difficult. It will take a week or more to get to the boarder because of our slower pace. Once the children are comforted and quietly resting under some bushes, I sit next to my husband and we whisper.

“Where are we going to get water?” I wonder.

“I will go out now and try to find some before tonight.  You stay here with the children,” says my husband. I do not want him to go and he does not want to, but we have no other choice.  He takes my oldest son with him.  We embrace as we say goodbye.

“Wait for me here.”

“I will wait,” I choke out.

I wait for two days. Many others pass us on the path.  They take pity on me and share sips of water with us while I am waiting.  Some families have 10 or more children they have collected along their way.  The nights are filled with activity all around us, the days are quiet.  In the distance, I can hear trucks on the road, shooting, and yelling, but we are too far away to know what is happening. I do not know what to do.  My husband has not returned, and the little bag of food I threw together in the night is almost gone.  I have 4 small children to care for.  If we stay here we could be shot.  If we stay here we could starve.  Either way, we die. My only choice is to get going, to find water on my own.  I tear a piece of my sleeve and tie it to the bush.  It is a signal to my husband that I have moved on, if he returns.  As night falls, my quivering hands gather the children for the journey.

 It took us two weeks to get to the border.  Other groups helped us along the way to try to find food and water.  My youngest became sick on day 7 and she died on day 10.  My eyes wept for one whole day as I dug a shallow grave, while the other children slept. Then my heart closed up tight, and remains so, to this day. By the time I crossed the border, I had added two more children to my little group.  Not replacements for my own, just others who were found wandering. I was given a tarp when I arrived, and I have made a make shift house out of branches and plastic.  I spend my days trying to take care of my family.  One of my older girls, walks for water each day.  I go to find food for the others. I cook over a fire in the dust and fall asleep as soon as the sun goes down, so that I can get up and do it again tomorrow. I do not know if my husband and son are alive or dead, or if I will ever see them again.  Sorrow is my companion, suffering my nourishment.  The war has stolen everything from me, and given me only despair.

When I see the women walking along the road here, burdened down with heavy loads, I imagine the weights they carry are far heavier than I can see. You may ask why I would try to imagine such horrors.  I will tell you why…I want to have compassion, rather than pity.  Pity sets itself up higher than others and looks down upon their plight.  It says, “Too bad for them. I am so sorry for their situation,” but what it means is, “I’m glad it’s not me and will never be, because I am above that.” Pity does not move, it sits and watches, and says all the right things on the outside, but the heart remains unchanged, unmoved. Pity is degrading. The recipients of pity feel ‘less than.’  Much of the aid given in the camps is out of pity. The people here do not want pity, but pity is better than nothing…so they accept.  Instead, they want to be seen, valued, and understood. They want to be their own people with hope and a future.

Opposite pity is compassion. I define compassion as mercy, infused with understanding.  I cannot empathize with these people.  There is no way I can wrap my head around what they have been through.  It is beyond my experiences, yet I want to understand better so that my compassion moves me in the correct direction.  A direction of caring with intelligence.  A direction of helping without hurting.  Every time Jesus healed, it says he was ‘moved with compassion.’ He did not ever degrade. He lifted up. He saw past pity, and moved with compassion. Yet, he did not just help on the surface, he dealt with the root cause.  He worked on the heart.

Of course, he was God, and I am not…so I use my imagination to help inform my sympathy and my mercy so they become compassion. Then I trust his grace to empower me and give me discernment on how to move…in the right direction in such complex circumstances.  Otherwise, this trip is for nothing and I have left things worse than I found them. Hope deferred makes the heart sick, and the last thing I want to do is to offer hope and then remove it.  No, it has to be born in the people to be sustainable.  I cannot give it, I can only plant a seed. They must water and care for it to reap the harvest it brings.

Desolation and Mango Trees

IMG_3184

Desolation is defined as extreme sadness caused by loss or loneliness; the condition of a place or thing that has been damaged in such a way that it is no longer suitable for people to live in; the state or condition of being desolate. It is the word that comes to me over and over while driving through the camps.  The place is desolated, as are the people.  The loss, the loneliness, the homesickness hangs thick in the air.  There is great damage here in hearts and minds.  Every family has a story.  Every person within the family has one too. There are too many stories for all of them to be heard. It is collective sorrow.  Many of them have never known peace.  The tribal conflicts in their country have been going on for decades. The way I feel reminds me of after 9-11, when we were all shell-shocked and hurting in unison. Slow to trust. Feeling threatened. On high alert. In mourning. Trying to find our footing. Trying to rebuild lives with gaping holes in our hearts. Think of a day like that, only it lasts for forty years. What would it do to life?  Change it drastically.  I see that hollow shell-shocked look here.  It is heavy.  The physical loads they carry along the road are a representation of what their hearts are feeling. They are burdened under the weight of life. Hope is not visible in many faces or places. Even when talking about surface level things there is sorrow behind the eyes. Yet, they move forward.

At first glance, the primary school blends into the landscape as just more makeshift buildings in a countryside full of them. They are not much to look at, but they are sturdy pavilion-like structures that serve their purpose of protection of the students from the sun and the rain.  It is what is inside those pavilions which stirs my heart.  It is the teachers’ dedication to the students.  They see the kids as the future of their country.  They face insurmountable barriers and a lack of resources, but they continue on.  They are fueled by a spark of hope. I want to bring some oxygen to that spark while I am here.

IMG_3187

On the property of the school, the children planted some mango trees in the fall.  In the midst of a desolated land full of dust and heat, the tree team has faithfully watered those trees. They come even when the school is not in session to tend to the mangos. Each tree is small, and enclosed in a little cage type structure to protect them. If you look down into the enclosures you see green hope peeking back at you.  They are small representations, but they are taking root. The students who are tending them have a reason to get up and moving…they have ownership.  It is a beginning.

Peace for their country is being born here, in this one school, in this one settlement, in this one camp.  It seems a drop in the ocean. Why even try?  How will this really effect the whole situation? They are just kids, after all.  Ahhh, but do not undervalue what God can do with kids who have hope.  Kids who are resilient, who know what war feels like and do not want to return to it. They are moldable clay in God’s hands.  Designed for purpose.  Thoughtful and pensive.  Old souls in young bodies. Those who are learning how to dream about the future.

The teachers have been entrusted with this generation under some harsh circumstances.  They are passing the baton to this scared and wounded generation. They are teaching them to think of the future, since they have never thought past today. They are planting dreams, like the mango trees, and watching them begin to grow.  It is still too early to tell how many will survive, but with the right care there is hope, which is something that has been missing until they escaped the warzone. Mother Theresa said, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean.  But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”  Each drop poured by the teachers into each child at Hope Primary School reaches each family and builds communities, which heals countries, which can change the world.  Do not underestimate the power of the mango trees.

IMG_3188