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Going to Gulu

In some ways, Miriam Yoder is just like any typical Holmes County girl. The bright-eyed 20-year-old is into snowboarding, softball, and photography. She hangs out with her boyfriend and loves her family. And when she talks about the airline ticket she just bought, you can see the excitement. She’s like a teen ready to vacation in Sarasota.

But Yoder is not your typical young adult. While she’s heading to warmer weather, she won’t be on vacation. In January, Yoder will venture to Gulu, a city in northern Uganda, Africa that, for 20 years, was held hostage by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, killing and kidnapping thousands of Gulu’s Acholi people, forcing children to serve as soldiers, and driving millions out of their homes. The town, Yoder says, is recuperating from that era, but access to clean water, medical treatment and basic necessities makes it a slow recovery. War, poverty and AIDS, have left thousands of children without family, home, and with very little hope. 

Yoder showed a photo she took when last in Uganda, a snapshot of five kids in tattered clothing, begging for a sip from her water bottle. Many in the area have no access to clean water unless they’re very wealthy. They walk to their drinking water source, where they wash their clothes and their bodies and water their animals. Those five kids, she says, just wanted a drink of clean water. 

“But how could I possibly choose which I would give my bottle to?” Yoder says. “People here can’t relate. We’re so used to turning on the faucet and there’s water, or using a toilet with water, instead of going in a hole in the ground.”

The first time Yoder traveled to Africa, she was 19. She’d been working full time as hostess at the Farmstead Restaurant in Berlin. She knew she’d have no work in winter, when tourism in Holmes County slows to a trickle. She didn’t want to sit around, she says, and do nothing. She had a heart for missions, which she’d had a taste of with short-term trips to Costa Rica, New York City and North Carolina through her church, Grace Mennonite in Berlin. But she felt there was something more tugging at her this time. Something bigger. 

“I was raised Amish, one of seven children, and I’d lived in Charm my whole life,” says Yoder, daughter of Barb and James Yoder. The family left the Amish church when Miriam was six. “For me, it was more of a chance to grow up, see the world, get outside of Holmes County. I wanted to change things up and see what’s out there, other than horses and buggies.”

Yoder had friends who’d served with Watoto Childcare Ministries. Knowing she wanted to work with children, Yoder wanted to spend three months working in a babies’ home, where abandoned infants are given the love and care they need to grow into healthy children and future leaders. Yoder didn’t tell anyone of her plan--not her parents, siblings, co-workers or friends. She simply filled out the online application and waited anxiously. She was ecstatic to get word of her approval. Others--not so much. 

“I knew I was going to experience negativity,” Yoder says. “People didn’t understand why I wanted to go to Africa when there were needs right here in Holmes County. But in Gulu, they don’t have neighbors to help them, like we do, because their neighbors are just like them.”

Because pregnant women in Gulu are often abandoned and unable to get jobs, they, in turn, abandon their babies. If the babies are lucky, they go to orphanages and babies’ homes. While Yoder was serving with Watoto, she cared for babies found in a toilet, pulled out of a dumpster, and dragged in by a dog. These are the lucky ones, the ones who will receive care until age three and raised by carefully selected African women who will oversee their education and upbringing.

Being in Uganda was hard for Yoder. She was 19, far from home, and away from her family and boyfriend, Lavern Yoder, during the holidays. She had a close call with a van while riding on a boda-boda, or motorbike taxi, and another when a friend unwittingly saved her from an imminent mugging.

“It was terrifying,” Yoder says, remembering the boda-boda incident. “I thought that was it. But God was with me through my whole trip.”

Yoder also found it challenging caring for infants and toddlers day after day, feeding, changing and bathing them at all hours. Once her time in Uganda was over, she felt fairly sure she’d never go back. But then, the day before Thanksgiving this year, she knew it was time. 

“It’s amazing how God has changed my heart,” she says. “I want to go back next year, and the next, and the next. I want to see things change and grow there.”

Yoder now holds two tickets to Uganda--one for herself and one for older brother Joe Yoder. Together, they will travel to Gulu on Jan. 10, this time spending three weeks working with pastor George Jabulani of Gulu Community Church. 

“Our goal is to do as much outreach in the community as possible,” Yoder says. “Whatever God puts in our way, that’s what we’ll do.”

Yoder believes that if every individual would do one kind act to bless someone else, they’d be so overwhelmed with joy, they’d want to do it again. 

“I want people to realize there’s more to this life than self,” Yoder says. “People are dying every day because they don’t have food and water, or moms or dads to care for them. 

“We have wealthy people here,” Yoder continues. “We’re supposed to help the widows, children and orphans, and I think God wants to use this community.” 

Yoder points to the photo of the barely-dressed children begging for water. 

“Why don’t we help them? Why don’t we give them a chance?” she asks. “That’s what I want. I want this community to rise up and make a difference.”

Yoder insists it wouldn’t take much.

“My heart was telling me to love these children, so I went,” she says. “You don’t have to change the world; you just have to start with one person at a time, and then they’ll bless others.”

If you’d like to support Miriam Yoder’s trip, send your contribution, noted “Miriam Yoder, Africa Trip,” to Grace Mennonite Church, 5850 County Road 77, Millersburg 44654.

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