'Joni and Friends' Bring Hope to Disabled Ugandans

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U.S.-based ministry Joni and Friends is sending its interns to Uganda so they will become better advocates for people with disabilities.

The special needs of children with disabilities are often ignored in developing countries. They are the discards of society.

It is a sad reality that college student Katie Dickey wants to change with her own story of hope, courage, and determination.

Dickey, an Arizona State University undergrad, suffers from spinal muscular atrophy. But that hasn't kept her from competing in wheelchair soccer or working on a college degree.

And it didn't keep her from going to rural Uganda. Dickey traveled to Africa with a small group of interns organized by the Joni and Friends ministry

"When the children see me in a wheel chair, see me, even though we look different, we have the same way to get around. And I truly believe that God has opened up so many doors for me to connect with these children on a heart level," Dickey said.

The team connected with more than 100 children at a special needs school in Uganda's capital, Kampala. They encouraged, taught, and worked with children in the classroom.

The volunteers came to realize that these kids are the fortunate ones, as students told them of other children living in far more difficult situations.

"And they talked about the children with disabilities in the villages that are sometimes locked away or killed for their disability, and they realize how blessed they are and what an impact God has had in their lives," Dickey said.

As the interns ventured out to rural areas, they met with Francis Munyiga, whose family was killed by rebels. Munyiga lives alone in a dark hut and repairs shoes to support himself. 

Disabilities Employment Specialist Tommy Kesseler said it was really heartbreaking hearing Munyiga's story. He was isolated because of his disability and lost his entire family. 

The ministry interns gave him a battery-powered lantern to light up his home. They also connected him with a church that cares for disabled people.

"And being in a church where he was welcomed. And people, I mean, they welcomed him in and celebrated him. I think that was life-changing for him to see God's people loving on him," Kesseler said.

Many Ugandans with disabilities have been told they are worthless, a shame and burden to their families. But the visiting team brought a different message: That every person has value.

They prayed for them and loved them. They also shared practical care-giving tips with family members.

At the school the volunteers spent time one-on-one with students and taught them bible stories and songs.

"The children here are just like the children back home. They just want to be loved and just to spend time together," Amy, a ministry intern, said.

"I really loved when the school for the deaf came and visited," she said. "There was one little boy who I got to talk with. And he was telling me how his parents just left him by the side of the road. And he asked me if I could look for his parents when I went back home to America."

Special Ed Teacher Amy Esposito shared her own story to bring hope to Munyiga.  

"I told him that my parents did the same thing and I didn't know my parents and it was okay because me and two other friends who were with me that we loved him and Jesus loved him, and everything was going to be okay," Esposito said.

Joni and Friends hopes that taking interns overseas will motivate and equip them for missions and for advocacy for people with disabilities around the world.

"They always say that, you know, we want God to break our heart for what breaks his, and that's what's happening up here in northern Uganda," Dickey said.

"I see these families and these grandparents, and they have not taken the easy way out," she said. "They have decided that their child means something to them. Their child with a disability has value in their eyes and in God's eyes."

Joni and Friends ministry plans to return to Uganda this year with another Cause 4 Life  missions team, and also will take groups to China, Romania, and Haiti.

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Heather Sells

Heather Sells

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