If it seemed crazy, it felt completely insane. I sat in the coffee shop across from one of the parents whose child I work with and stared – not at her, but through her, my mind spinning.
She had invited me to go with them. To Africa. To Uganda. To be with them when they picked up the two children that they had been fighting to adopt ever since I had first met them. To be with them to witness the culmination of hours upon hours of struggle and prayer and moving legislation, earth, and heaven. And, to truly investigate the prospect of setting up a therapy department at a malnutrition clinic there. She had invited me. And she meant it. She meant it enough that she was offering to pay for my food and hotel cost for the whole time I was in-country.
“Find a plane ticket,” she said, “my husband and I will take care of the rest.”
Back It Up
Let me back this story up for you. Last November (November 28th, 2016 to be exact), TEAM’s monthly book club was on “Kisses From Katie” by Katie Davis. It’s a story of a young girl who moves to Uganda and ends up fostering and adopting A LOT of girls. It’s told in precious and moving narrative and led to vibrant and challenging discussion at book club. It’s a good book. I highly recommend it. Simple, unpretentious, inspiring.
Well, the next day – yes the VERY NEXT DAY, this mom from work (Brooke) out of the blue asked if I’d want to come to her house that evening to meet a man they know from Uganda. We had spoken of this family’s ties to Uganda briefly, and I knew that they had been attempting to adopt from there for a while, but other than what I had learned from Kisses From Katie, I knew pretty much nothing about the country.
To be honest I felt awkward. I mean it’s just not every day that you get asked over to dinner by the parent of a child with whom you are working. It’s like asking a teacher over to hang out. I think I would have died if my parents had ever asked any of my teachers over for pot roast and pie. But, Brooke bridged this professional/personal gap – and she did it flawlessly. She promised me Chick-fil-A. I don’t eat nuggets often ya’ll, but every time I do I think, “If I were skinny I’d eat this every-day-a-da-week.” So, I accepted the invitation.
I’m kidding about my accepting Brooke’s offer based on a spread of spicy breaded bird. I wanted to be friends with this woman – and not “I talk to you for five minutes in the waiting room at the clinic” kind of friends. But real friends. Plus, it just seemed like too perfect of a coincidence – the fact that I had just read a book based in Uganda and now was being asked to an evening of hearing the personal story of a man from the same country. It seemed like a set up from God. So I agreed and that evening found myself plopped on the floor of a beautiful home, high fiving Brooke and her husband Doug’s two children and petting their adorable dog.
Over the next couple of hours, I listened to one of the most incredible personal accounts of survival, hope, inspiration, hard work, and heartache that I’d ever heard. Emmanuel, a man who grew up in severe poverty, starvation, and mere survival on the streets of Uganda, told of how he came to know the Lord and later started a hospital, a school, a church, and a malnutrition clinic. Hummm… and I complain that my life is busy… To say the least, I was undeniably inspired.
The clinic immediately intrigued me. Not only because of pictures of children that looked like they’d been snipped out of National Geographic, but also because I could just picture these children who have lain in bed or lain on dirty streets, starving for days… weeks… months…? I didn’t know all the details. But what I did know was that they most definitely were not crawling, walking, or running like they needed to. Which meant that their muscles weren’t developing, their bones weren’t strengthening, their visual systems weren’t integrating, and their brains weren’t maturing. They were missing crucial developmental milestones, which would affect their ability to succeed and thrive for the rest of their lives.
But what if this malnutrition clinic also had occupational, physical, and speech therapy?
The evening was coming to a close. I needed to get home. I had an evaluation to type and prep work to do for the next day. But, before shaking hands and telling Doug and Brooke thanks for inviting me, I squeezed into the tight circle of conversations that had formed around Emmanuel and asked him, “Do you all do any therapy with the children that you are rescuing?” He looked at me, and with exhaustion showing in his eyes, shook his head.
Thus, the wheels began to turn.
Later Turned Into Now
But I thought starting a therapy department in Uganda would maaaaaaybe be in the future. Maybe this would be a place to visit a few years down the road. To check it out. To investigate. To tentatively poke my toe in. Maybe one day, I thought. Maybe starting a therapy department could one day happen. Maybe. Over the course of this past year, when people asked me what was next, I’d mention the maybe of Uganda. I dreamed and brainstormed. But, the maybe box stood tall. Not dark and looming, just tall.
Until, nearly a year later when Brooke and I chatted over lattes, and all the maybes changed into… now? Now. Question mark.
This was on a Tuesday. Within 24 hours I had decided that I was taking Brooke and Doug up on their offer. By the next day, a physical therapist (and dear friend/respected coworker) was coming with me. And in less than a week we both had been funded for plane tickets through our church.
That weekend Brooke, Doug, my coworker Molly, her husband, and I got together to iron out some details. By the following Friday I was packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice (since our plans were revolving around the final “ok” from all things adoption & embassy oriented, we had to be ready to go as soon as Doug and Brooke got the adoption green light). By the next Wednesday, just two weeks and a day from that mind spinning coffee date, Molly and I had two huge suitcases packed full of donated therapy equipment (thanks to some major help from coworkers and TEAM). We flew out the following day.
Stressed and Starvation
Um, for those of you who have not traveled internationally, let me just tell you that preparing for, shopping for, and packing for going to Africa in two weeks is… well… awful.
I wasn’t just packing for myself, but I was also taking a suitcase of supplies to two high school aged boys that I sponsor, and we were taking two suitcases of therapy equipment for the hospital. I pretty much don’t even remember my life from that time period. I think I blacked out for days at a time due to stress and lack of sleep. Plus, I purposefully went off of coffee so that the coffee that I did drink in Uganda would matter – would help me kick the jet lag with every milligram of possible caffeinated strength. I’m sure I was lovely to work with that last week before leaving. Really.
There is no way to summarize the trip. It was… beyond anything I could have imagined. At the malnutrition clinic, Molly and I spent time demonstrating how to use the equipment we brought. We assessed each child, helped feed the adults and babies, and had the highest honor of sitting with each mom, uncle, dad, grandma, or caregiver and hear their personal story. Starvation is not a simple matter in Uganda. It is a complex grid of poverty, cultural traditions and norms, land and weather conditions, politics, family dynamics, and more. Each parent had a story that was raw and complex, and their words and eyes revealed the emotional scars and shame that they felt for not being able to provide for their child.
One little girl in particular captured my soul. She was the size of a two and a half year old, maybe three max. But she was seven. Seven! I had never seen the true ramifications of long-term malnutrition and starvation with my own eyes. She was an orphan and her uncle, who had seven children of his own to care for, had sacrificially left his village to accompany her in to the clinic. This little girl had never begun speaking (possibly due to trauma), she was slightly cross-eyed, and it was obvious that she had never seen a man-made toy in her life. In fact, none of the children (or adults) had.
And Then My Heart Exploded
The first little toddler that I had attempted to get in prone over a wedge to demonstrate strengthening and visual tracking positions had LOST HER MIND when I placed Spin-A-Letter in front of her and turned the wheel. What brings joy and gladness to American children’s hearts – the music, the lights, the twirling letters - struck shaking terror in this child. I mean, she completely freaked out. It didn’t help that grandma (who had accompanied her to the clinic since the child’s mother had abandoned her) kept yanking on her arms in a desperate attempt to get her to engage with the horrifying toy.
I was traumatized. She was traumatized. It was rough. This is the real life of therapy overseas – cultural differences and an incomplete unawareness of the extent of those differences add flavor, but also add just a feeeeeeeeew complications here and there.
I looked around the room. I needed a child who I could use as a model to teach some basic methods, but most of the children were small babies and I was afraid the same dreadful event of freak out and shrieking would repeat itself. Then I saw the seven year old. She looked chill. I prayed she was chill.
Ya’ll, I had all the nervous sweat going on. There was sweat coming out where I didn’t even think it could. It was already hot. I mean, I was in Africa after all. It was sticky and humid and I was nervous and my adrenaline was pumping and I wanted these doctors and nurses and directors to buy into the idea of therapy for these children. Anxious sweaty pits. I was a stunning display of physical beauty at that moment, I’m sure.
I encouraged the seven year old to come over (keep in mind that she’s the size of a toddler), and scooped her up onto my lap. In so doing, I became painfully aware of just how distended her belly was – the result of Kwashiorkor, a condition where the lack of protein in one’s diet causes the gut to swell or retain water. It happens in cases of severe malnutrition.
I took a little spiky ball that lights up when you hit it and showed her how to manipulate the toy. At first she appeared completely unengaged - like all of the children were when we first showed them the toys. It’s hard to care about things when your mind and body have been agonized by starvation. But slowly, ever so slowly, she reached out her little hand, took the ball, and gently popped it with her other hand. The thing lit up. Then she looked up at me, and smiled.
The whole room cheered. And my heart exploded.
The Irrational Risk Worth Taking
It wasn’t rational to go to Uganda. It meant losing more than a week of salary, it meant losing sleep and spending hundreds out-of-pocket in gifts and supplies. But I knew, from the moment that Brooke invited me to go, that it was obedience to something the Lord was orchestrating. And, that irrational risk, that stepping out was necessary to put me in the place I needed to be, to meet the people I needed to meet, and to see the things I needed to see in order to… to… to hopefully one day help set up a therapy clinic within this hospital.
I would love for one day that clinic to have all the staff, supplies, and training necessary so that each child who comes there leaves not only at a healthy weight, but with a home program that they can take back to their villages that will promote the development of their visual perceptual skills, brain, sensory system, gross motor skills, and more. I just want these children to have the best possible chance to do great and meaningful things and be great and meaningful people. By coupling nutrition and therapy, I think that gives them the best shot.
I don’t know what your irrational risk is. Maybe it’s mentoring that troubled youth, or giving your car to someone in need, or taking dinner to your neighbor, or carving out time to go play Dominoes at the nursing home. I don’t know how the Lord is calling out to you to sacrifice, love, and serve. But, I can say, whatever it is, do it. It may be hard, it may push you to your limits, it may make you feel crazily uncomfortable and unqualified at times. But it will be good. And it will change your life, forever.
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