We arrived back in Virginia the second week of June, and we were all so excited to see the other team leaders and children! We spent about eight days with everyone together, and it was definitely a bittersweet time for all of us. The last Sunday we were there, we woke up at 6:00 in the morning to say goodbye to our Nepali children and Prava, our chaperone. This was the only goodbye I would have to say in America, because Jay and I knew we would be saying goodbye to our Ugandans while we were in Africa. This was, by far, the most difficult goodbye we had. Several factors contributed to this, but mostly I think it was because that was when the realization hit that it was actually over. When we first started out, it felt like it would never end. But like most things, when we look back now, it seems like the time flew by. The realization of "THE END" hit me like a ton of bricks, and I don't know that I've ever cried so hard in my entire life. I know these children aren't ours in a physical sense. But in every other way, they are OURS. We belonged to them. They belonged to us. In this short and precious season, we belonged to each other. We fought, we bickered, we got on each other's nerves. But most of all we LOVED. We cherished each other. We were a big, well-tuned, functional, but very unusual family. And then, we watched an extension of ourselves get on a bus and drive away. We had to let them go.
I think the Nepali goodbye was also more difficult because we were not able to gain comfort from visiting their home country and see where they lived, like we did with the Ugandan children. In addition, our Nepali children are, by nature, more emotional and affectionate than our Ugandans. They were so available to us in every way, and we felt a very special closeness with them. As I have mentioned before, Jay and Neha had a particularly close bond. She has said before that she considers Jay as her father, just as Yeshoda considers me her mother. To disentangle myself from these children and let them go out into the world, surrendering them to God's total care was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Lastly, I dreaded the goodbye with Prava. I came to cherish her as a sister in every way. We leaned on each other this year through thick and thin. Although she was planning on coming back next year as a chaperone, they were having unseen difficulties with her Visa, so we didn't know for sure if we would see each other again. (Thankfully it has since come through and I will get to see her this next year!) We clung to each other and she was the most resistant to get on the bus. I miss her so much... I want her to come live with Jay and me and be an auntie to our babies one day!
A couple of days later, Jay and I flew fourteen of the Ugandan children from Washington D.C. to London, London to Nairobe, Kenya, and then Kenya to Entebbe, Uganda. In London, we had a ten-hour layover, the definite low point in the trip. We were not allowed to leave the airport, and Heathrow is probably the coldest and most uncomfortable place to try to sleep (no carpet, only freezing tile floors, and arm rests on all chairs so you can't lay down!). Not fun, but the kids were troopers and didn't complain one bit. Once we finally arrived in Entebbe, we drove about an hour and a half to Destiny Children's Home in Kampala (the capital city). By this point, we had been traveling non-stop for two days without sleep and we were all exhausted. But it was morning in Uganda, and we had such an exciting welcome at Destiny that it wasn't difficult to conjure up some energy!
There are over one thousand children at the home, and we were thrilled to see that it was a very well-maintained facility. As we drove up to the gates, we saw that all the children were lined up one both sides of the "driveway," and everyone was singing worship songs and clapping for us. We got out of the van, and saw that there was a marching band, praise team, and drummers there for the big welcoming ceremony. Our kids were surprisingly shy at first, attempting to hide behind us, but they quickly embraced their celebrity status! Later that week, we returned to Destiny a couple of times to work with the children who are going to be in the choir next year, and to just play with all the other children.
The most eye-opening experience on the trip was a visit to the slums in the city. Almost all of the Ugandan children on our team were from these "neighborhoods," and the small glimpse we had into their lives was devastating. Like anyone else in America, I have seen images of living conditions like these on television, but seeing it first-hand and imagining our children living there was heartbreaking. Thousands of people live in these tiny villages, just struggling to survive from day to day. There is a real sense of community, with everyone depending on each other for supplies and resources. They live in "homes" that are broken up into tiny rooms that are no larger than a half bath in our own homes. They cook their food on fires made from trash laying around on the ground. There is no running water. Babies toddle around with no clothing and no diapers. Small children wander the paths in between the scrap metal buildings (very haphazardly put together) without anyone watching them. Goats, cows, and chickens roam free looking for something to eat. The smell is overwhelming, because sewage runs through ditches on either side of the narrow pathways.
While navigating through the maze of shacks, children would chase our van, squealing, "Mzungu! Mzungu!" which means "white person" in their language. We definitely stood out over there! Many of the children had never seen a white person except on television, so we were glorified celebrities! Once we got out of the car, we were immediately surrounded. They all wanted to touch us and have their picture taken... the digital cameras fascinated them, as they could see themselves afterward on the screen. Many of them had never seen their own reflection before! We spent a few hours wandering the paths and talking (as best we could) to the people who lived there. They were very welcoming and friendly, and took pride in having us in their homes.
When we got back in the car, I broke down. This was the most humbling experience I have ever had. I just kept thinking about how much I have complained this year about living in the RV (see previous posts!). These people would die to live in something that nice. They would trade places with me in a heartbeat. I was beyond ashamed and so very thankful that the Lord opened my eyes. These people have little to no hope of ever changing their situation. They have no education, most don't have a job, and they make about fifty cents a week. Because of this, they will never be able to leave the slums... and their children will share their fate. The more I saw, the more I understood why our children were taken to the children's homes. Now they have a hope. They have a future. That is the greatest gift those parents can give to their children. And for the special few that get to come to America to be in the choir, the parents are eternally grateful.
The goodbyes in Uganda were extremely painful as well. Those children will always have a piece of me. I feel as though an extension of me is gone. Upon returning to the States, I had no idea what emotional state I would be in. I didn't know if I would cry all the time... if I wouldn't be able to talk about it... but in the end, it was neither of those. Jay and I talk about the children often, and are reminded of them a hundred times a day. I am still figuring out how I am "supposed" to feel. I cry at very strange times, I guess when I let my feelings float to the surface. The first time was upon passing the children's shoe aisle at Target, knowing that I would never buy thirteen pairs of those little shoes again. I sobbed when the song "I'm Already There" came on the radio (for those of you who are familiar with it, it's not hard to see why). I cried when Jay and I stopped to fill up the car at the gas station, aching to yell over my shoulder, "Ok, bathroom break! Line up fast!" I felt like my heart was broken all over again, knowing that they would never be riding behind me again.
Zurufah and I on the plane, getting ready to leave America
Exhausted after two days of traveling
The welcome we received upon arrival to Destiny Children's Home
Practicing music with the new COTW kids for next year
Martin and me, at Destiny
New kids for next year... more BEAUTIFUL faces!
Smiling for the camera!
Fighting for Jay's affection
In the slums, this little girl never let go of my hand.
The little girl with her baby sister
One of the "houses" we went in
The sewage running through the "paths" on either side
Children in the slums
Chapel service at Destiny
At Good Samaritan Children's Home, where three of our kids live. This precious girl didn't want to leave my side!
Jay and I feel so blessed to have been able to go to Uganda. We are comforted by the fact that our children are safe and loved. They really do have a hope and a future that they would not have had in the slums. God is teaching me daily to trust in Him... trusting that He has our little children under His great arm of protection. I pray for them daily. I pray that Isaac, Suresh, Gift, Ezera, Jimmy, Lincoln, Martin, Zurufah, Yeshoda, Rose, Maria, Sarah, and Neha will know that they are loved and cherished. I pray that they will embrace their education. That they will look back on their time in America and smile. That they will never feel lonely. But most of all, I pray that they will choose to seek Jesus every day, shining His light in all that they do. I will love them until the day I die. I hope that I will see them again someday, but if not, I know that we will be reunited again in Heaven. We will spend eternity together, loving each other and worshiping Him with all that we have. I couldn't ask for anything more.