Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Visiting my kiddos in Uganda

2 years later, it’s time for me to bring this blog full-circle.

Re-wind to June 2009.

After 10 months of being on tour with the Children of the World (COTW) kids…after 39,000 miles of driving on a bus together....after visiting 160 different cities/churches...after thousands of priceless memories, it was time to let them go. It was time for them to return to their children’s homes in Uganda and Nepal.

The months to follow were extremely emotional for me, as I missed them so much. This is an excerpt from an email I wrote to a friend:

"I keep expecting to look out the window and see the kids running around....or to hear their laughter and footsteps as they come running toward me. But that's not reality, unfortunately...my heart aches as I miss the kids...my heart literally hurts (to the point of actually being able to feel it...)"

But this story has a happy ending! Little did I know that God would lead me to Uganda THE FOLLOWING YEAR to be a missionary for 1 year…and get this, my apartment was only one hour from Destiny (the children’s home where 7 of my COTW kids live!)

I visited Destiny twice. As I look at these photos again, I am blown away by how God has blessed me with the experiences I had with these beautiful kids. They have taught me so much about loving people, joy and laughter, and God. And if you scroll back a few entries on this blog, you can see how much they’ve grown up since 2008; it’s crazy! They’re now about 11 and 12 years old.

I hope you enjoy these photos from both visits to Destiny. (And sidenote: the purpose of the US choir tour was to raise money for Destiny. I got goosebumps when I saw the new dorms, etc that were built at Destiny because of people’s generous giving during the choir tour! Wow.)

August 2010: Unfortunately, Martin was in class so he’s missing from this photo. But those are the Destiny kids who were on my COTW team 2008-2009!

As we drove away, these faces wished us farewell.

April 2011:
My friend, Josh, traveled on a different COTW team.
He came to Uganda for a week to visit his kids at Destiny.
silly gooses! (Jimmy and Gift)
Lincoln has grown up so much. He is a true gentleman and so sweet.
Are these girls the cutest or what?! (Zurufah is top row, 3rd from the left. Rose is bottom row, 2nd from the right.) It was amazing for me to see how close the kids at Destiny are. Truly like family.
Martin is incredibly bright. He wants to be a doctor one day. He was definitely the “leader” of the choir tour…love him.
Zurufah…doesn’t she look so much older? Precious.
Random kids took a break from washing their clothes to pose for my camera

I truly do hold out hope that I can return again to visit them one day.
So until then...

Friday, August 28, 2009

Letters across the ocean....

I wish I could describe to you the joy I experienced last weekend during the two hours I spent with Prava. I went down to Virginia for the weekend; part of the reason was because Prava is doing another year of the COTW tour as a chaperone, and I knew she was in VA. She has been working with the new kids for the past month of "training camp"--teaching them the songs, dance motions, etc.

Early Saturday morning, I walked into the church where the staff/kids are staying....the same church where I spent a week in June with my Central team staff/kids. What an eerie, sad feeling to walk into the room and see little cots set up just the way it was in June. Except this time, the little bodies stirring in their beds were not children named Zurufah, Suresh, Martin, etc....this time, I looked into the faces of beautiful children. Yet they were unrecognizable. I had to remind myself that my kids are across the ocean, back in their children's homes....that was tough, and I'll admit that I blinked back tears (the memories flooded every part of me.)

The moment I saw Prava, she leaped up, and we nearly squeezed the life out of each other!! What a blessing to spend the morning with my Nepali "sister"--she is so wonderful and has such a servant's heart. I know God will give her the energy and stamina for another year of touring....and I think He is adding jewels to her heavenly treasure each day ;)

Of course we talked 13843 miles a minute! First thing's first--"how are the Nepali children??" [She spent a month back home in Nepal this summer.] Yeshoda is adjusting well to her new children's home and has some older girls looking after her, like sisters! Suresh has started school and is doing well. Neha is growing up still and has started school as well (and she's an auntie now!! Their sister had a baby.)

Prava slipped something into my hands....my heart skipped a beat as I looked down at two envelopes labeled "Auntie Ashley." Letters from Neha and Suresh!! I am so grateful to Prava for delivering this mail to me.....these letters alone are worth the 700 miles I drove last weekend!

I hope you enjoy the creative touches I added to these notes. Notice the adorable word usage and phrasing....and cute hand-writing! I don't deserve their kind words....I wish they knew how they've impacted my life forever. In heaven, I will remind them.

[Click to see full-size picture.]
Excerpt from Neha's letter:
"I always pray for you that you will get nice boyfriends [haha! hey, it can't hurt]....we've had fun memories together. When we played laser tag....I miss your hug and kisses so much."

Excerpt form Suresh's letter:
"I can't forget the love that you gave me. Thank you for taking [me] to the six flags and water park....You have taken [me] to the ocean too. It was the first and last that I have ever visited the ocean in my life...I always remember you in my personal prayers...Your loving child, Mr. Suresh Tamang."

Sunday, July 5, 2009

For them....

I've enjoyed writing in this blog, and many of the tour's memories and stories are preserved here. But this blog must come to an end, considering our kids returned to their countries two weeks ago. This is my last chance to brag on these amazing children, so I plan to wrap this up with a bang. [I will warn you that I may get somewhat sappy during parts of this entry.]

These pictures capture their personalities; I took the photos on a beautiful Virginia day several weeks ago (when all three teams were reunited at the end of the tour.)

My heart skips a beat when I stare at their faces--and all their personality traits and quirks flood my mind. Last week I sat down at a coffee shop to finish photoshopping these, determined not to get nostalgic and sad. No such luck: as soon as the first picture-- Jimmy's smiling face--popped up on my Macbook, the tears started welling up. It took everything in me to blink back the tears.

I hope these photos somehow touch your heart and bring a smile to your face. Consider where the kids come from and the hardships they've endured--yet, look at the peace and joy on their faces! We can learn so much from their humility and their experiences.
This final blog entry is dedicated to our thirteen kids. I wish they could see how much we (central team staff) love and miss them. More importantly I wish they could comprehend how much they changed us and touched our lives.

Suresh. I miss your bear hugs. That ever-present smile of yours! The way you worshipped on stage, holding nothing back. Your confidence in who you are...not afraid to go off and do your own thing when you needed some solitude. The love you gave us every day.

Zurufah. Your silly, dramatic facial expressions. Your fake laugh you forced when you wanted extra attention ;) Your heart which bursts with love for your friends/aunties/uncles on the team. Your vulnerability when you missed your family. I will always treasure the many, many notes you wrote and pictures you took the time to draw. 

Sarah. Watching you transform in the 10 months--seeing God work in your life after you accepted Him as your Savior. Your sarcastic attitude. Your dry and hilarious sense of humor. 

Rose. That enthusiasm and smile which can light up any room. Your continuous kindness and encouragement to those around you. Your compassionate heart.

Martin. A blossoming leader. That intelligent mind of yours which doesn't miss a thing! Your desire to do the right thing. That grin which stretches across your entire face. Being able to count on a hug from you every single day. 

Neha. Your gentle (yet feisty at times!) spirit. That laugh of yours which I could hear from the opposite end of the bus. Not afraid to let loose and let your personality shine through. What a privilege to watch you mature and evolve into a young woman.

Lincoln. Servant's heart. Always willing to help out--not because it was convenient but because you desired to be a blessing. Your goofy side. Willing to take the leap and ask God to be your Savior.

Jimmy. That contagious smile of yours. Your unique and hysterical sense of humor. The five phrases you repeat constantly, such as: "ah! I 'ate that!" and "Who told you?" Your incredible athletic skills--and getting the hang of things right away. I actually miss you almost knocking me over from behind when you'd surprise me and jump on my back. 

Yeshoda. A ray of sunshine that brightened our day. Your crazy giggles. Looking out for the well-being of those around you. Strong yet vulnerable and loving. Faithful. Loyal.

Maria. Your own person, not easily influenced by peer pressure. Genuine laughter. Sweet and gentle spirit. 
Isaac. Your questioning mind, always curious about living for God, eternity, Jesus, etc. Your passion for the things and people you love. Comic relief when you did anything and everything (dressing up... ;) 

Gift. I've never known a child as witty as you, continuously striving to throw in smart-alec comments or funny jokes. God-given intelligence. Fast learner (a good fisherman--even if you harassed me for my lack of skill.)  

Ezera. Sensitive and kind. Easy to get along with. So glad you weren't afraid to show us your entertaining and silly side once you felt comfortable. Loving. 

Thank you for being my family on the road!

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Thank you, kids, for being ambassadors on behalf of your friends and family back home who don't have the opportunity to raise awareness of AIDS and poverty. Thank you for working hard. But more importantly for living and loving to your full potential.

The other teams...

Throughout the tour, our kids frequently talkd about their friends on the East and West teams...since I was not with them the first month they were in the U.S., I wasn't able to meet the other COTW kids until several weeks ago in VA. I had a wonderful time hanging out with and conversing with East's and West's team leaders, chaperones, and road crew guys. Everyone was awesome. Of course I took some snapshots...

Suresh and Suresh! These two are buddies from the same children's home in Nepal. (Suresh on the left was on my team...Suresh on the right was on East.)

Suresh (East team) stole my heart immediately. He's such a lover--always willing to give or receive hugs.

Boys will be boys....no matter what continent they're from!

Josh (road crew for East) and Blanca (from Guatemala)

This just makes me smile every time....all the Nepalis that were on tour

Making grass chairs (oh, the creativity!)

All the chaperones with Ugandan girls from a particular children's home

Tiffany (East team leader) with two of her adorable kids


Blanca (Guatemala)
Depesh and Suresh (Nepal)

Friday, June 19, 2009

They're home...

Our thirteen children (and Prava) have arrived in their homelands (Uganda and Nepal.)

This will be one of my last blog posts on here....what a wild and crazy (and wonderful!!) adventure this last year has been. I can't thank everyone enough for their encouragement and prayers along the way. It really kept us going! I'm in awe of God's protection...sure, we had some reaaaaaally annoying times where our bus broke down on the road, but it could have been much worse! Sicknesses were even minimal.

I'm unsure how I can even attempt describing the emotions of this past week. Here's an excerpt from an email I wrote earlier:

"I'm sitting down--completely alone--for the first time in a while. I keep expecting to look out the window and see the kids running around....or to hear their laughter and footsteps as they come running toward me. But that's not reality, unfortunately. While it is wonderful to be "me" again, my heart aches as I miss the kids. There has only been one or two times in my life where my heart hurt (to the point of actually being able to feel it...) and that's what it felt like when I said goodbye on Sunday and Tuesday."

All three teams (Central, East, and West) spent approximately a week in Virginia before the kids headed home. During that time, I really enjoyed interacting with the other team leaders/chaperones/road guys. We could all understand the frustrations--and amazing aspects--of road life! I had never met the kids on the other teams, so I loved that as well! We slept in a building that USED to be a school---so we spent every hour with each other before the kids left to fly home.

Last Sunday at 7am, I watched our precious Nepalis pull away in a bus....Prava (chaperone) has become like a sister to me, and I miss not having her around. And of course Suresh, Yeshoda, and Neha are incredible and have impacted my life more than they will ever know. Later that day, I was saying more painful goodbyes to six of our Ugandan children (Martin, Lincoln, Maria, Rose, Sarah, and Isaac.) I was drained, yet I managed to summon every last bit of energy to let them know how much I love them and will miss them. I'll be honest: the day was painful, and I don't cry very often. But I believe I cried harder on Sunday than I had in two or three years.

Tuesday afternoon we said goodbye to the remaining four (Ezera, Jimmy, Gift, Zurufah.) Little Zurufah gripped me around the neck, and I picked her up and just held her, not wanting to let her go. Kory and I were the ones that stayed behind; Alan, Taylor, and Jay accompanied the kids to Uganda. Saying goodbye to my team-mates was an odd feeling :/ As the bus pulled down the road, all I could think was, "I should be on there with them....like I have been for the last 300 days.)
I have thanked God for giving me strength to get through the past few days. Though I'm sad and miss the kids greatly, I am not someone to lock myself in a bedroom and be anti-social. Sure, there is a time for mourning--but then you have to find strength to continue on. It helps that I'm in VA, surrounded by dear friends this coming week (not to mention, busying myself with several photoshoots.)

"So what's next for you, Ashley?" is the all-important question I've been getting :) My heart STILL longs to spend about a year doing missions in Africa, so that will probably happen by early 2010 I hope. But until then, I have a neat opportunity that has recently come into play. Since it is not completely for sure yet, I will explain it in detail in the near future.

Sometime next week I plan to photoshop and upload beautiful portraits of the children. I pulled each one aside last week when we were at the park. I'm sure you'll enjoy them, so feel free to check back.

Monday, June 8, 2009

For those of you who love numbers....

The end is near. As I type this, we're headed back to Virginia to meet up with the other two teams (I am excited to meet the other kids for the first time!) We'll all be together for several days, and then the Nepalis (including Prava :/ ) leave THIS Sunday. Several days later, the Ugandan kids leave, and then I'm officially done on Wednesday.

I'm just enjoying these last moments with our team....we have grown to be like a family, spending every day of our lives together since September. We've laughed a lot, cried, and have seen each other through many frustrations. 

Yesterday was our last full concert (the Nepali kids won't be in next Sunday's concert, since they'll be gone.) Prava, Taylor, and I definitely shed some tears...I was quite emotional, but I held it together as best I could--for the kids' sakes. Some of them had eyes filled with tears, but they were troopers and did a wonderful/enthusiastic performance. 

I'd like to ask for your prayers during the next 9 days. I'm praying that God gives all of us strength during this emotional time (ESPECIALLY the kids, as I know it will be tough for them to say goodbye to us and return home).

I'll leave you with some interesting information. This was stolen from Taylor's blog....she calculated these numbers to her best ability. 

During the tour:

39,000.... miles driven

60,000... adoring audience members

195... concerts

160... different cities/churches

160... different host families that have spoiled the children (and me ;)

way too many (for me, at least 200)... meals eaten in restaurants (blech! From now on, I'll probably only eat out five times a year.)

440... different gas station visits

70... games of Phase 10 the Aunties have played

20... bottles of Dramamine purchased for all our kids who throw up regularly on the bus

50... number of times the Dramamine hasn't worked and children have thrown up into plastic bags on the bus (always pleasant!)

800... children who have gotten sponsored (food, clothing, medical care, Christian education until they're 19 years old!) by our team

560... bathroom trips with all 13 kids

40... fried chicken & green bean dinners churches have provided us with

5... the longest time (in days) we have spent in one place

130... different parks we have visited for the kids to play

4... broken bones (all Ezera's fingers)

240... hours spent watching kids' movies (I usually read my book ;)

1,000,000 number of times someone has asked, "So, how did you get involved in this?" 

1,000,000,000... number of times someone in a gas station/restaurant has looked at our group and said something like, "Now, what exactly IS this??? A fieldtrip or something?"

5... children on our team who have prayed to ask Jesus to be their Lord and Savior!!!

Some of these things have been far from wonderful (all the fast food!), but we've made lasting memories with 13 precious children. Which of course is PRICELESS! 

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A detour through Lancaster Co!

The month of May could hardly get better! (Oh, it's June now, isn't it? Oh well, you get the point....) After hearing all about East team's and West team's multiple trips to beautiful beaches, WE finally got a turn to take the kids to the ocean. I realize the Atlantic ocean can't even compare to the Pacific's beauty, but we take what we can get.... :) Sunday evening's concert was held at a church in Ocean City, NJ. My host family lived in a house that was practically on the boardwalk....so after the concert, we took an evening stroll on the boardwalk which was quite lovely. 

Brett and his sister, Ashten, live in Jersey. So they drove to see our Sunday night concert. The kids (and tearing down product) obviously kept me busy, so I didn't have a ton of time to chat, but it was great to see them again. And we ran into them later on the boardwalk which was an added bonus. 

Monday was windy and frigid (if I'M wearing a sweatshirt on the beach, you know it's gotta be c-o-l-d!)...it warmed up SLIGHTLY, but the air was still chilly. Did that stop our kids from frolicking in the waves? Definitely not. In fact, for a long while they were the only ones in the water. Our whole team had a fun afternoon at Ocean City. We got a delicious lunch (I'm not a big fan of french fries, but boardwalk fries are delicious!) on the boardwalk, took lots of photos, relaxed on our beach towels, and all that fun stuff.

That afternoon I made the following phone call to my dear mom: "Hey mom, um....apparently we need housing tomorrow night and Wed night, and the office is wondering if the team could come to Lancaster (on our way to Pittsburgh)." My mom's amazing. She didn't want to miss this opportunity, so she scrambled to prep the house and grocery shop (if you know my mom, you'll understand that this last-minute stuff isn't ideal! :) Several wonderful host families came through, and I appreciate all of you!! Thank you Bjaneses, Mershons, Acebos, and Newhards--you were a blessing to the kids.

The next morning our tour bus pulled in to the church parking lot (next to my house), and as we stepped off the bus we almost fell over---we were greeted by the smell of cow manure. Welcome home! The kids were like, "ew! Pennsylvania stinks...." thankfully the smell passed :) 

I can't even describe how wonderful it was to spend two days at home. A huge smile spread across my face every time I looked out the kitchen window to see the kids racing on bicycles or swinging on the swing-set my dad built. During the day, the whole team hung out at our house....the kids happily played outside for hours at a time. My mom made a spaghetti lunch for 24 people yesterday (some kids ate three plates. Where do they put all the food??) Then we went to the theater to see Up in 3-D (animated movies aren't my favorite, but I laughed all the way through this movie....) which the kids of course enjoyed. 

We were home such a short time, but it was packed with non-stop action. It was wonderful to see friends and neighbors who I haven't seen in one or two years. I appreciate all the host families and of course my family--who welcomed the kids with open arms on such short notice. I'll never forget the last few days. I've taken numerous photos the past few days and will edit them soon, but for now here's a glimpse of the week.

Isaac (why the pink headband??), Ezera, Jimmy, and Lincoln cooking breakfast this morning. They made eggs--the Ugandan way. All by themselves. And let me tell you, they were the best eggs I've had in recent history!

Siblings (and Laura on the end, who was a great help)! With some uber cute Africans. The kids wanted to watch home videos of when I was a baby/toddler! 

Making a video message for Jay's dad, so I snapped a photo of all the kids on our couch....

Val with Lincoln and Isaac. Val called me Tues night: "I saw Chelsea's Facebook status. Where ARE you? I'm coming over right now!" It was great to see her....we've been friends since our softball days (8 years?) 

I wish our dinner table looked like this every night

Ocean City, NJ: with Yeshoda and Jimmy. It was chilly, but I eventually got brave enough to wear my bathing suit

Look at our crazy boys...their new thing is taking jumping pictures. I'm afraid that's my fault.

Brett and Ashten came to see us in Ocean City (here on the boardwalk with Sarah and Zurufah)