25 Faces: Katie Schinnell
For as long as I’ve known Katie, she’s had a heart for serving others and a passion for social justice. This past year, Katie Schinnell spent 3 months volunteering in an orphanage and children’s ministry center in Uganda, called Noah’s Ark Children’s Ministry Uganda (NACMU). It is located about ten kilometers outside Kampala, the capitol city. About 150 children live at the orphanage, ranging from infants to teenagers. Beyond that, the center brings in an additional 350 children from the surrounding villages for school, medical services, and ministry.
Katie spent most of her time at the primary school at Noah’s Ark giving special help to students who were behind in their reading. Outside of the school day, she led two weekly Bible studies for the 30 teenagers who lived there and helped lead weekly assemblies at the nursery and primary schools, where she got to lead songs and give a Bible-centered message along with some missionaries. All of that was of course mixed in with lots of time spent with children of all ages who live at the compound.
Kate: In what moment did you decide that this opportunity in Uganda was for you?
Katie: I have wanted to do some sort of mission in Africa to work with children in poverty since high school, so the idea for it was planted years ago. At the beginning of 2013, I decided to take action and go somewhere the following fall, so I started doing research and trying to find an organization online. I gave some information to one site thinking I was only asking for more information, and a week later they emailed me to say they had a spot for me at Noah’s Ark and my place there was all ready to go. At that point I didn’t even know if Uganda was the country I wanted to go to, but God kept opening doors for this place so once I got started I never tried to stop.
K: What was the biggest lesson you learned during your time Uganda?
KS: Eternal perspective. It was something my boyfriend brought up after I had had a particularly rough day there and it simply means looking at every situation, every day, every year through the lens of eternity, not right now. Of course, none of us can fathom that, but it’s amazing what a difference it can make when you make an effort to zoom out from your own little mind in your own little world and attempt to see the big picture of the world at large, not just in the present, but for all time.
As a Christian, I know that my life here on earth is only a tiny fraction of my life in its entirety. Once I drilled that into my head, the world got a whole lot smaller for me. It’s really not as big as we so often think. We are not as big as we so often think. Having an eternal perspective is what gives me the freedom to travel halfway around the world from my family to love kids who don’t have their own family. It is what makes “to give is better than to receive” important and active in my life. It is what keeps me going as I accept that what I do today on one hand doesn’t matter in the least because it’s so tiny but on the other hand can have eternal implications for myself or those around me.
It’s hard to wrap my mind around—believe me, I haven’t done it—but going to Africa expanded my world by showing me new places and new people, and then looking at it all with an eternal perspective expanded my life by reminding me what it is we live for anyway.
K: Do you have any stories you’d like to share from your mission in Uganda?
KS: Since Noah’s Ark only takes in children up to two years old, most of the older children either don’t remember or don’t talk about their life before entering the compound, and the younger ones who came more recently are still too young to understand or communicate much. After spending some time at Noah’s Ark, the children were generally friendly, happy, talkative, healthy, and excited about life. Volunteers who visited other children’s homes before coming here said these children looked overwhelmingly more healthy and cared for than all the previous children they had seen. Because of all that, it makes it easy to forget the harsh circumstances that brought each and every precious child to this home of more than one hundred. In my last week in Uganda, however, some new arrivals reminded me of the horrors that precede this health and happiness. The following is an excerpt from the very end of my stay:
Stella is a newborn. Her mother, also named Stella, died in childbirth so her daughter was given her name. This is the absolute best way a child can come to us. It sounds awful, but being an orphan—a full orphan, as they clarify here—in many ways is better than being abandoned. She was never abused. She was never unloved. The people who loved her just couldn’t be around to do it after her birth. Now she gets to grow up fully a part of the Noah’s Ark family and even though it’s still not as good as a personal, more conventional family, I believe she is blessed by being here.
Saul is two years old. All I know of his story is that he was thrown from a car. I don’t know if the car was moving or parked. Someone saw him get tossed but they weren’t able to record the license plate number, so his parents—or whoever abandoned him—got away with it.
Noah’s Ark has named him Saul and are working with him to make him more comfortable here. He doesn’t talk. Christian said when people put him in certain places or positions he will literally not move and just stay that way. If you put him in bed sitting up, he will stay sitting up. If you raise his arm above his head, he will keep it there until you let go. After one or two days here, Saul reached out and grabbed Christian’s nose, and he said that was the first action initiated by the child himself.
Poor kid. Given time, I’m sure he will adjust and grow to love it here. From what I have read, a lot of children have difficult starts and the adjustment period is a very hard time for them, but in the long run they feel like they belong and are able to play and act like normal children. From looking at them now, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which ones had rough starts and which ones came as babies or fit in right away. Children are children.
Silas’ story is appalling. This boy is nine years old. Usually Noah’s Ark doesn’t take anyone older than two, but this started as a clinic case and now it sounds like they are planning on keeping him here for the long haul.
Silas has been locked in a shed for the past three years. When Mama and Papa went to pick him up after getting a call from the police, he was lying on the ground, face down, with his arms stretched above him and his legs out long. He is the normal height for a nine-year-old, but this child has nearly been starved to death. When he came, they put some clothes on him. The pants were taken from the baby section. I have seen Titus and William and Seth wearing the same pants—two-year-old boys who have short legs so the pants went down to their ankles. When they put them on Silas, the pants didn’t come down to his knees, but the waist was still baggy on him.
I wonder: If you’re going to lock a kid in a shed for three years until he is within an inch of his life, why feed him at all? Not that I wish for that in any way, but I don’t understand the “caretaker’s” motivation in giving him any food. They weren’t using the boy for anything. But praise God that he is still alive and that hopefully someday we can say he is alive and well.
Knowing stories like this–seeing children with these starts–makes me wonder how I could lead a life where I cry when I’m tired and the toilet paper doesn’t rip right. Where I complain about being full from TOO MUCH food. Where some days I spend more time watching movies than interacting with people–those people who are the hands and feet and heart of God in my life. One volunteer told me that it’s okay to go home… but I’m not totally convinced that it is. Not when there are kids like this out there without a family and home of their own. Those could be our kids.How differently would we love them if they were?
It’s a hard question, but hard is good. These are hard stories to read, but knowing them is good. Please, anyone who is reading this–DON’T AVOID THE HARD JUST BECAUSE IT IS HARD. In America, we have the luxury of turning away if we want to. Don’t. Don’t skim the statistics because they are overwhelming. They are real life. Don’t plug your ears because the stories make you want to run. They are true. Don’t ignore the suffering of another because if you acknowledge it you might have to suffer with them. Do you think they want it any more than you? Do you think they deserve it any more than you? I beg of you, face it… and act on it.
K: What did you hope to take away from traveling to Uganda? Did it affect you in ways you didn’t expect?
KS: I hoped to get a better idea of whether that kind of work was something God wanted from me long-term. It had been on my heart for a long time but I had never done an overseas mission, so it was sort of an experiment. I also hoped to be able to bless the people there and not just be blessed by them. I have always heard that when you go on a mission it changes you more than it changes the place you go and while I believe that to be true in my case, I also really hoped to make some impact with my time.
I was often surprised not in what I saw or experienced, but in my reaction to it. I have never been homesick before in my life, but for much of my trip I experienced some pretty bad homesickness. At the beginning, all the little things made me cry—the toilet paper didn’t tear right. My shower was cold. That spider on the couch was HUGE and was going to eat me. But after some time there I realized I didn’t need those things I was missing. I don’t need the variety of food we get in the US. I don’t need to wear jeans everyday. I don’t need to be able to pop in a movie at the end of a long day. I don’t need chocolate everyday (although I did buy a weekly Snickers bar to get my chocolate fix!). Now that I am back home, I really miss the simple African lifestyle… but I sure won’t complain about my hot shower.
K: What’s next for you?
KS: I am actually planning my next trip to Noah’s Ark already. If everything goes according to plan, in June I will head back to Uganda for a year. If my own desire to see those beautiful children wasn’t enough, several of the staff and leaders at Noah’s Ark told me they would love to have me back and I won’t delay in honoring that request. While spending time with those kids, I learned how important relationships are in communicating the love of God and encouraging them to pursue their dreams, and the longer I am there the better I can build relationships.
Until I leave, I am collecting books to start a library at the secondary school there. The primary school has one, but once they move on they simply don’t get the reading practice they need to fulfill their potential in school and life after that. My hope is to send the books with another group or organization and set up the library while I am there.