My first trip to Uganda in April 2007 was a defining moment in my life.
It changed my perceptions, what I wished for, and mostly my heart. This change formed a new path for my life. The path has not been straight; in fact there have been many turns, hills and even roadblocks along the way. But it is my story, and I’m ready to tell it.
I remember the trip well. I had signed up for an opportunity through my church without much thought, which was probably a good thing in hindsight. I’m not much for “roughing” it. This includes camping or staying in two star hotels, so as you can probably guess, I was completely out of my comfort zone once I arrived. I remember so clearly my first night in Nairobi. I remember my tiny room where my sheets were still dirty from the previous guests and the noises from the busy streets echoed through the walls. To be honest, I laid in bed that night wide awake, waiting to be abducted. (It probably didn’t help that I watched Blood Diamond on the airplane.) Still without any sleep, I was relieved to see the sun come up.
There were many memorable moments on that trip, but I’m going to tell you about three and how they led me to where I am today.
The first one took place in Kenya at a crowded marketplace close to the Ugandan border. Our bus had stopped so our leader could exchange money at the bank. Our group got out for ten minutes to stretch our legs. A young street boy approached me. He was filthy with dried dirt all over his body and he had a small torn rag that was held by a piece of rope draped over his privates. It was his only piece of clothing. He looked about 10 years old and I was surprised when he gave me such a big, beautiful smile. I was even more surprised when he asked me in English, “Where are you going?” I responded that we were heading to Uganda. What he said next were words that I’ve heard in my dreams and can still picture now as if it were yesterday, “Can you take me with you? I will lie on the floor and won’t say a word. Nobody will know I am there.” By the time those were words were said our leader came out and ushered us onto the bus. I watched him wave to me through the dusty air as our bus headed to the border.
The next few hours on the bus were agonizing. I cried for hours. I was angry, ashamed, afraid… but what I felt the most was HELPLESS. How could I walk away from a homeless child begging for help? What if that was my son? I would certainly hope someone would be there to rescue him if I was gone.
Sure, there have been many times in my life since that day when I wished I hadn’t seen that boy cry out to me. It would make many decisions easier. But I did see and hear him, and now I have responsibility. This may sound as though I have regret and that I’ve created a burden for myself when in fact, that boy and the next few experiences I’m going to share have been a blessing in ways that are beyond measure.
Once we arrived in Tororo, Uganda and got settled, we headed to a small clinic. I heard there was a woman there who had triplets weeks earlier and the babies were sick. The mother wasn’t producing milk and the babies were starving. I was feeling a little overwhelmed and exhausted, so I was hesitant about what I might see.
When I arrived at the clinic, we went straight to the room where the woman and the babies were waiting. The mother was sitting on the side of the bed with her teenage son. She was holding two of the babies and her son was holding the other. They weren’t alone in the room. It was filled with a dozen other women with children all waiting for help. While we waited for some of our group members to return with formula, the mother asked me if I wanted to hold her baby. I was handed the baby girl wrapped in a blanket. She was tiny and beautiful. She would open her eyes a few seconds at a time, and I knew she could see me. What I witnessed next still amazes me today.
One group member was able to retrieve a few bananas. She gave one banana to the mother and the other banana to her teenage son. Each of them peeled the banana, and without hesitation broke the banana into pieces. They walked around the room and handed a small bite to each person in the room. After they distributed the banana to all the others, they each had one small bite left. This last bite was again split and shared with the babies before they finally took the last small piece and placed it in their own mouths. Here was a woman who was struggling to keep her children fed and alive, but felt love and compassion for the other women and children in the room. I was so moved by this woman’s strength and sacrifice. All along I thought I was the one who had come with something to give, but what she gave me that day is something I will be forever grateful for.
A young boy captured my heart in Uganda… Ojambo Kennedy is his name. It was an instant connection, I suppose because he latched onto my hand the moment we visited his school. He was about the same age as my son, Sam, when I met him and in many ways reminded me so much of him. His smile was contagious, but he also had a mix of quiet confidence and a slight mischievous demeanor about him. While he played games and soccer he made sure I was watching when he scored a goal or crossed the finished line. He was a lucky one. He had been rescued by an organization and was waiting for a sponsor. Although he was now safe, it was difficult to learn what he’d been through. He had already lost his parents and one sibling, was living with his remaining siblings and ill grandmother in a dilapidated mud hut, and was sleeping on the dirt floor each night wondering what the next day would bring. I knew I was committed to Kennedy, and he helped me understand that I COULD MAKE A DIFFERENCE. I might not be able to change the world, or even Uganda, but I could change his life and knowing that was totally awesome!
Starting my journey in Africa, I felt like a fish out of water. I couldn’t see what I had in common with the African women or how I could possibly make a difference. The problems seemed so enormous and our lives so different. Yet each day I began to open my eyes and heart and began to understand that I have everything in common with these women. They want the same things I do… to be the best mother and wife possible, to keep their children safe and healthy, and to have their kids go to school and have all the opportunities the world has to offer. And their children want the same things our children want… to be accepted, feel safe and protected, and to feel worthy of love. Their circumstances and lifestyle are certainly different, but even if most are less educated and poor, they are “richer” than me in many ways. The Africans have taught me much, but mostly the importance TO LOVE and need one another, to BE BRAVE, and TO HOPE. In each trip and every new experience, I know I will be blessed by the lessons they continue to teach me.
When I returned from Africa I struggled with transitioning back to my normal life. Everything and everyone seemed selfish, entitled, and unfair. It took some time to realize that everyone has their own passion, dreams, and fears. This didn’t mean they didn’t care about my plans; they just had their own agenda and their own life. How do I connect the dots?
My first step was sponsoring Ojambo Kennedy and getting his siblings sponsored as well. Check. That wasn’t too hard. Next was sharing my experience with others. Check. What I didn’t realize was that my story inspired a few others to go on a trip. That was unexpected but very cool. Check. My friend, Chris, who went on the trip came back and asked me to start a nonprofit with him. Wow! I didn’t have the resources or a lot of time, but this was an opportunity to make a difference and we could start slow.
In 2008 Pipeline Worldwide was born. Our mission was to create connections, make sustainable change, and impact lives. We started off doing one event a year to now hosting five yearly events. We’ve provided clean drinking water to over 200,000 people in Rwanda, Uganda, and India, built homes for Rwandan genocide survivors, provided truckloads of water to the homeless, and served hundreds of meals to families at Phoenix Children’s Hospital during the holidays. If this sounds like I’m bragging, well I am! When I said “Yes” to going on my trip to Uganda those many years ago, I never thought I’d be part of such an amazing impact. But saying “Yes” has opened the doors to making everything possible.
What I experienced in Africa were simple yet profound lessons.
HELPLESSNESS – Feeling helpless is depressing. It makes you feel small and insignificant. It can also make you more fearful. I had a choice when I drove away from that street boy. I could decide that there was nothing I could do and go back to my safe normal life or I could choose to do something that made me feel helpful. I didn’t save that boy that day, but I saved another boy a few weeks later. And after that, I helped save his siblings. That made me feel good! It also gave me confidence to take the next small steps to becoming more helpful, useful, and significant.
TO LOVE and NEED ONE ANOTHER – I recently attended Pipeline’s first Holiday Concert. We hardly marketed the event and had 400 people attend. I remember listening to the music and watching all the people in the crowd. I felt very proud and deeply grateful. So many people showed up; they were saying “Yes, I want to be a part of this”. I really didn’t do much to help with this event; I didn’t even know most of the people in the crowd. My willingness to share my story with Chris and Chris’s willingness to start the nonprofit, and then the enormous amount of people who jumped in over the years… all led to this. I couldn’t have done this myself, but I chose to love and rely on friends, family, and even people I didn’t know yet to share their love and influence. We can all love and each of us has influence, sometimes more than we could ever imagine.
TO BE BRAVE – I’m reading a book called Daring Greatly. The author talks about being vulnerable in order to achieve wholeheartedness. I think she hits the nail on the head. I signed up to go to Uganda without much thought. As the trip got closer, the more scared I became. I thought about all the bad things that could happen to me or to my family while I was gone. I tried to think of ways for backing out… can I really afford this? I can’t be away from work that long… Can my husband handle taking care of all three kids himself? But I went, and during much of the trip I felt uncomfortable and not in control. It was exactly what I needed. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we become available for growth. I’ve continued to challenge myself to be vulnerable. I’ve started new businesses, one that failed and the other I sold before I met my goals, but I grew through each of them. So often we focus on our failures rather than our successes. Failure is necessary in order to accomplish success. It takes bravery to experience either and when we push through it, it is incredibly rewarding.
TO HOPE – Sometimes when you become vulnerable, you open yourself to criticism. I remember being called naïve for some of the efforts I was making. That used to REALLY bug me, but now I recognize that I am a little naïve. That’s okay. Being naïve makes me hopeful. It helps me see the glass half full and makes me believe anything’s possible. The women I met in Uganda faced many challenges, but they believed their sick child could get well, that they would be safe walking for water each day, that they would wake up the next day with a way to feed their children… Are they naïve too? I think not. I think they’ve learned to love, are strong and brave, and filled with hope.
TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE – If you watch the news, travel to a third world country, or even listen to gossip, then you might be convinced that our problems are too big and it’s impossible for one person to make a difference. My first day in Kenya I would have agreed with you, but my purpose for putting my story on paper is to tell you otherwise. It starts by not wanting to feel helpless, wanting to love and need others, choosing to be brave, hoping for a better life for yourself and others, and believing you can make a difference.
Hopefully my story encourages you to tell your own story. We all have one and together we can make a difference.