When I was about fourteen, I joined our church’s youth group. It was a joint youth group with another church and we met once a week, in the living room of the young youth leader, sitting on bean bags and an old sofa, to talk about Jesus and the bible and eat dozens of slices of buttered toast.
I was an awkward teenager (is there any other kind?), prone to wearing my dad’s oversized sweatshirts and definitely not yet quite comfortable in my own skin. There were a couple of girls my age but the majority of the group was a little older than me. There were five guys who came every week who were three years older than me, and I was a little in love with them all from day one. Andy, Jon, Will, Rob, Dave. These youth group boys were funny (I thought), clever, and friendly. And the best part was, they let me join their circle.
A year later, two of them – Rob and Jon – set off with a third friend for Uganda during their gap year before University. They were invited to join a Ugandan church as youth workers for the group of boys – the self-titled White Eagles – that the church has just taken in off the streets and into their lives.
It was before the days that email really took off for the masses, so I’d receive irregular letters and news from my friends, written on blue paper the thickness of bible pages, with wild tales of their motorcycle accidents, malaria incidents and the boys they were meeting and learning to love.
They brought Uganda alive for me. The White Eagle boys became part of my world, even though they lived thousands of miles away from me.
Sometimes you go to a country and it just gets under your skin. It did for my friend Rob. He returned every summer, started multiple fundraising endeavours for the White Eagle boys and the church’s new initiatives. When he got married, the Ugandan pastor was flown out to give the talk at their wedding, two of the White Eagle boys came and stood up as Ushers next to him. Now, he and his family live and work there in Masaka.
The River of Life church expanded it’s work in the community, opening a home for girls as well as boys, planting a farm, opening a creche, seeing their teenage football teams take win after win. And most recently working with the local hospital to open a new Baby Unit to reduce the number of infant deaths. I’ve followed their stories every step of the way.
And then three years ago I got a skype call from Rob. They’d met a young teenage girl on the streets who needed urgent support, for her and the baby due within the month. And Rob thought I was the one who should be her sponsor.
I was an intern at the time, living in a studio apartment with another intern, scraping through each month by eating pasta with knock-off parmesan cheese for dinner most days. But he told me her story, emailed me her picture. And when I saw her face, I said yes.
I’m not sure Rob knew what a big impact asking me that day would have. I’ve watched Kellen grow and listened to the stories the house mother would send back, looked forward to the letters I’d get from her a few times a year. I’ve seen her little baby grow up into a toddler and a now a boy in kindergarten who loves nothing better than playing Mario Kart when they’ll let him.
A few weeks ago I got the news on facebook that she had passed all the primary school leaver exams. And I could have burst with pride. I feel like a proud-mama, wanting to show off her photo to my friends and tell them how well she did, what a good and kind young woman she is.
For the last fourteen years, Rob has been asking when I will come out to Uganda and see the work I’ve been following, supporting, praying for. I always said, soon, not yet. And now soon has come.
In eight weeks, Rasmus and I will be arriving at Masaka, pulling up to the River of Life church. I will get to hug my sponsored daughter for the first time, tell her in person how proud of her I am, get to talk with her and play with her son.
It’s a bit of a dream come true and I can’t quite believe it’s going to happen.
There’s a long story behind how we decided to go now, that I am looking forward to telling you. And we’re not just going to Masaka – there’s a whole other adventure happening that makes my heart skip just to think of!
But today is the International Street Child Day. And so my thoughts are with a young woman and her son in southern Uganda, who today have a better life, a hope and a dream, because someone saw her and loved her.
River of Life does amazing work with the children in their community who live on the streets, working hard to reunite them with their families or finding alternative long-term solutions when that is not possible. The boys and girls, the young men and women who come through their programs are changed forever because of the love this church has for them.
You’ll be hearing a lot more about them in two months, because of course I’m taking you all with me to share the experience…!
Photo of Kellen and three friends after they received their brilliant exam results. Courtesy of River of Life. You can follow River of Life on facebook for their updates and news.