As I read the final words in Kristin Barlow and Natalie Committee-Fath’s book Enduring the Night, tears rolled down my face. Grace, a former child soldier and graduate of the ChildVoice program in northern Uganda, states, “Once I completed the program at ChildVoice, I finally had the confidence to pursue my dreams of running a business and supporting my family…I trust that my God will use me and my experiences to do good somewhere, somehow. Maybe I will never know about it, but that’s okay, I am at peace.”
“I am at peace.” This very young girl endured such extreme suffering and unimaginable heartache for so many years at the hands of others, yet, through her faith and therapeutic time with ChildVoice, she found fulfillment in her life – and peace. I wondered how that was possible, knowing the story I had just read about her and other children who were abducted and forced to become child soldiers and sex slaves.
This weighed heavily on me. These events did not happen 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, they are current. I have volunteered in Africa for 11 years, in four different countries, so I was not new to the many difficult and ongoing challenges that so many people in the rural villages endure. However, I had never seen a strong long-term sustaining remedy to a problem this deep and complex. Yet ChildVoice appeared to have achieved that. I knew I needed to go to Uganda and witness this for myself.
ChildVoice’s Lukome Center is just as amazing as people had described to me prior to my trip. Set on 50 lush acres of donated land, the Center makes one immediately feel at home. The grounds are clean. The students greeted us with song and electric energy. The tour of the piggery, rabbit-breeding program, tilapia farm, and gardens began to open my eyes to what drives the success of this program.
But it is in the time spent with the girls and ChildVoice’s Ugandan staff that I came to see the real beauty of this place. As I participated in chapel with the girls, I could close my eyes and feel love coursing through my body as the girls sang their praises to God. Their singing and dancing was contagious, and I felt swept up in their playful renditions, wondering why we don’t pray at home with such open abandon.
I cried sad tears after my first time at chapel with the girls. They were unknown people to me at that time, and as they tightly closed their eyes and reverently offered their voices in spontaneous prayer, a beautiful soothing sound filled the air. I opened my eyes and really looked at these girls. And I saw how very young they are. I saw these children caring for their own children. I heard their pain pour out. They are just babies themselves, I thought. How could these beautiful babies have endured so much trauma, at such a young age? My heart deeply ached for them.
Over the next few days, I had many opportunities to get to know the girls. While their stories are tragic, I began to see how the ChildVoice program truly was holistically restoring their voices and healing them, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As we cooked alongside of the older girls (well, actually, they were the amazing cooks who graciously tolerated our attempts to help!), they talked about their children and their hopes for the future, and they laughed with pure joy. The transformative power of this 18-month onsite program glowed brightly in these girls.
But the true transformation and healing process was even more evident when we visited a few of the ChildVoice graduates – in their own salons, owning a sweater-making business, selling clothing, etc. These independent girls were beaming. They are strong business women who now are able to support themselves and their children. They spoke with confidence and humble pride. They are happy. They are content – at peace. On this day, I realized that for the first time in all of my travels, I was witnessing a truly sustainable model of success in a nonprofit which does its work from the heart, and for all the right reasons.
Visiting the South Sudanese settlement camps was heartbreaking. More than 1.3 million displaced people are living under white tarps. Food supplies are inadequate. Water is trucked in daily from the Nile River. ChildVoice’s initiative there to establish child mother clubs for teenaged girls is a viable solution to some of the desperately needed relief efforts. This program will provide the girls with a safe haven, nourish them in mind, body and spirit, and offer vocational training similar to what is provided at the Lukome Center. I have no doubt this program will be extremely successful, touching thousands of girls over time. It will not be easy – but ChildVoice has never shied away from the most difficult challenges. This organization walks the talk, with a quiet but compelling voice and humble hearts. I know that the staff there has stolen my heart after spending just two weeks with all of them. Their genuine compassion for these severely traumatized girls shines forth in the darkness that often surrounds the situations they encounter.
In the book Enduring the Night, Grace says, “When I was in the bush, I prayed for God to take me home and he did.” Home. That is what ChildVoice offers – a safe, loving home in which the girls’ wounds can start to heal and their inner beauty can be brought forth, matching their outer beauty.
As I walked around the Lukome Center grounds on my last day, I looked up into the night sky – endless twinkling stars looking down on this place. I felt the Peace. And realized that what had been created here was truly a house of peace, where His love has been planted and continues to nourish the girls and infuse energy into the staff.
Grace ends her comments with “I am at peace.” What a gift. What a blessing. Peace in a once battered and bruised girl’s heart. Two lives saved – the mama and her child. What a blessing, what a gift – ChildVoice.
Denise Stasik has worked in healthcare for many years and is an active community volunteer in her home state of New York. Travel to Africa is nothing new to her; she has volunteered in rural African villages in four different countries, including Uganda, where she traveled this past November with ChildVoice. Denise also has traveled to Haiti on numerous occasions over the past 11 years. Denise and her husband, Greg, have three children and three grandchildren.