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‘Women Helping Women’

From Wheeling To Uganda, Mothers Want The Same Thing

May 12, 2012
By BETSY BETHEL - Life Associate Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

No matter where they call home, mothers around the world work hard to ensure their children are healthy and safe.

There comes a time, however, when they have to let go.

Tricia Committee of Mount Olivet is the mother of three grown children, the middle of whom - 25-year-old Natalie - announced a few years back she was going to spend a year working with the Christian group ChildVoice International in war-ravaged northern Uganda, the central African home of the infamous warlord Joseph Kony.

Article Photos

Natalie and Tricia Committee

For more than 20 years, according to published reports, Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army slaughtered thousands of men, women and children in their homeland before moving into neighboring nations, where he is still at large.

Tricia naturally feared for Natalie's health and safety. She knew she couldn't change her daughter's mind, but she had a hard time wrapping her head around Natalie's choice. It wasn't the first time Natalie had gone on a mission trip, nor her first time traveling abroad. But it was probably the scariest.

"I had just never, ever known or met anyone who wanted to do such a thing. I couldn't understand why she wanted to do it," Tricia said.

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Part of Kony's campaign of terror included the kidnapping of more than 30,000 children whom he pressed into service as child soldiers and sex slaves, according to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, which is seeking to bring him to justice. The mothers of these victims were powerless to stop Kony. What's more, he reportedly forced children to kill their own parents and siblings.

In northern Uganda, the immediate danger has passed - for now - and mothers are trying to piece their lives and families back together.

ChildVoice International is helping them do just that. At its Lukome Centre in Lokodi, near Gulu, staff and volunteers like Natalie educate them and employ them in projects such as bead- and jewelry-making. Many of the survivors are teenage girls who gave birth while enslaved in the bush. A few were among those Kony counted as wives. As young as 14, these child mothers are orphans themselves, or they have been shunned by their families and villages because of what happened to them.

"In 2008, ChildVoice International brought in 30 young mothers, most of whom had once been abducted by the rebels, providing for them to live safe, catch up on their education, and learn job skills so they can then rejoin their communities with hope and voices newly restored," said Conrad Mandsager, ChildVoice director and founder, in an online video.

From August 2010 to June 2011, Natalie - a Wheeling Catholic Central High School graduate - served at the Lukome Centre. She lived in a mud hut, slept in a hammock, showered using one bucket of water and had only a few hours of electricity a day. Natalie, who has a Master of Business Administration from West Virginia University, taught the mothers how to use their skills to provide viable products in their local marketplace, and to use what they earned to save and invest in themselves, as well as to feed, clothe, educate and get medical care for their children.

Also housed at the Lukome Centre is the ChildVoice Beads project, where some of the child mothers and village women are employed to make jewelry to be sold in the U.S. and other wealthier nations - there's no market for such accessories in their country. The women fashion beads from strips of paper they roll by hand around a needle. The paper comes from a variety of sources- for example, local political signs or fliers collected off bulletin boards at U.S. universities. Then, they string the beads to make colorful necklaces, bracelets and earrings.

The women spend a few hours several days a week rolling beads while chatting about their lives and families, and singing praise songs, Natalie said. They receive more compensation for those few hours than they would working another villager's farmland from sunup to sundown six or seven days a week, she noted.

These once-traumatized girls and young women have great faith despite what they've been through, Natalie said. Like any other mother, they want simply for their children to be healthy and safe, and ChildVoice has given them the means to accomplish their goals.

"The beads now symbolize a lasting hope for peace," Mandsager said.

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When she returned to West Virginia from Uganda last June, Natalie wanted to continue to "economically empower" the Lukome Centre women and their families. She asked ChildVoice about selling their beads back home, and they sent her a shipment. Volunteers like Natalie sell the reasonably priced pieces (from $12 to $27) at home parties, craft fairs, churches and college campuses. The money raised goes back to ChildVoice to employ the bead makers, purchase the supplies and run the Lukome Centre.

"It's a way for me to still feel connected," Natalie said.

She asked her mother, who has always enjoyed playing hostess, if she would give a jewelry party at her Mount Olivet home. Tricia agreed and was overwhelmed by the response from her friends, family and members of her church, Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in Mount Olivet, who had helped financially support Natalie's trip. The guests more than $1,000 worth of jewelry.

After hearing Natalie talk at the party about her experiences with the women and children, Tricia finally began to "get" why her daughter chose to serve them, and she felt good about helping them, too.

"It's women helping women," Tricia explained. "It's a small way that we here that take our lifestyle for granted can help these less-fortunate women survive and do what they can to provide for themselves and their children. ...

"It's unimaginable to us" the horror they experienced, she added. "I was finally able to understand."

While the beads enrich the lives of the Ugandan mothers and their children, they also strengthened a bond between this local mom and daughter.

"It definitely meant a lot to me to finally have something that Mom could get behind and was happy to do," Natalie said.

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A leopard doesn't change its spots, however - whether it's a mama or a cub.

Today - Mother's Day - Tricia is anxiously awaiting word from Natalie, who left May 3 for Malawi in southeastern Africa on a 10-day business trip with her new job as the Morgantown chapter director of E4p Inc. E4p is a not-for-profit organization based in Schenectady, N.Y., that assists impoverished communities locally and around the world by investing resources into sustainable development projects focusing on four "E"s: education, economics, energy and environment.

Natalie opened E4p's only other location. She is scheduled to return from her trip to Malawi today.

"The timing on this one was unfortunate," Natalie said.

"I worry about her going to Morgantown, let alone across the ocean," Tricia said.

Yet she knows it won't be the last time. Natalie plans to visit the Lukome Centre again soon. In the meantime, she is pleased that another Wheeling resident, Megan Cook, embarked on a year-long stint at the center about 10 days ago.

On Tuesday, May 15, local residents can meet Natalie, hear more about her experiences in Uganda and purchase ChildVoice Beads jewelry during an open house from 6-8 p.m. at Covenant Community Church, 250 Bethany Pike, Wheeling. For information or to RSVP, email bethel@news-register.net. Or to order jewelry online, visit store.childvoiceintl.org.

 
 

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