|Grace Wood, a senior at Pope John Paul II High School and a parishioner at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville, has made two trips to Uganda, where she has forged some lasting relationships with the people there. Wood has raised money to buy goats for poor women living in rural Uganda, giving them some economic idependence. She and her family also are sponsoring an AIDS orphan’s education at a boarding school.
Pope John Paul II High School senior Grace Wood visited Uganda and found a new direction for her life.
“The first time I went over I was kind of into service but it wasn’t a focus of my life,” said Wood, a parishioner at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville.
But on that trip during her junior year she saw first-hand the ravages of Uganda’s AIDS epidemic, the orphans left behind, the poverty, and the limited economic opportunities in a developing country. She had to answer the question, “Do I want to step outside my comfort zone to find out how God wants to use me?”
The answer came back clearly. “Now, I really want to make service a focus of my life.”
During her junior year, Wood’s door to Uganda was opened by Dr. Mary Kay Koen, who has visited the country numerous times on mission trips. Dr. Koen was going back to Uganda and was taking her son Michael, another JPII senior. She asked Wood and her mother, Jennifer Wood, if they wanted to go on the trip with them. Also on that trip was JPII senior Christian Cook, his mother, Shannon Cook, and Lauren Hutchison, a student at Hendersonville High School.
While on that first trip to Uganda, Wood and the group met Mama Phoebe Sosi. When the AIDS epidemic hit Uganda, many of Mama Phoebe’s dying friends asked her to take care of their children.
“There was so much death around her,” Wood said. She ended up caring for so many AIDS orphans, Mama Phoebe eventually opened an orphanage in an area known as Ground Zero for the country’s epidemic, Wood said.
While at the orphanage, Wood said, “we were just trying to build relationships with the kids and let them know we care and love them.”
|Grace Wood assists during a medical mission in Uganda during a visit there last summer. She also is helping women in Uganda by raising money to buy goats for them, which they can use to provide milk for their families and to build some economic independence.
During a church service, a little girl named Juliette caught Wood’s eye and they smiled at each other. “I felt like I should help her, but didn’t know how or even if she needed help,” Wood said.
She saw Juliette again the next day and found out her family had been devastated by AIDS and she needed surgery for an umbilical hernia protruding from her stomach.
Wood’s family decided to sponsor Juliette and paid for her surgery. The doctor told Wood if Juliette had waited another two months for the surgery, the hernia would have ruptured and killed her.
Wood’s interest and help wasn’t limited to Juliette.
“Going to a foreign country and doing a mission project was frightening,” Wood said. “I didn’t know how I was going to help people.”
She found her answer in a goat. Wood raised $700 for a program that provides women two goats.
“A goat in the United States doesn’t mean much,” Wood said, but in rural areas of Uganda, a goat is a source of milk and their offspring are a source of meat. And when the women raise a herd of goats, they can trade it for a cow, which is worth even more, Wood explained.
Wood returned home with a new attachment to Uganda and its people. When she learned that Dr. Koen was going back to Uganda last summer, Wood started making plans to go with her.
“Uganda touched my heart, and I wanted to go back,” Wood said.
Before the trip, Wood raised another $1,800 for the goat project “just asking people I knew and spreading the word about what I was doing,” Wood said. “People here are so willing to serve and willing to help. I didn’t have to ask for money. People would hear what I was doing and offer to donate.
“A lot of teachers at JPII and students gave money. They want to know they can be a part of something,” Wood said. “Raising the money wasn’t as hard as it might sound. I really believe it was God’s will.”
The goat project has changed and grown, Wood said. The women who receive the goats sign a contract promising they will take care of the goats and will meet with the other recipients regularly, where the group can learn other skills.
The women also agree to donate one of the offspring of their goats to another woman in the community, Wood said. “Mama Phoebe said she thinks it will be self-sustaining in the next five years.”
On the second trip, Wood also was able to check on Juliette, who is now living at a boarding school established by Mama Phoebe.
“She’s kind of a celebrity in her town because of her surgery and her sponsorship,” Wood said of Juliette. “Other kids follow her to church” because they realize she found help and hope there, Wood said.
On her second trip to Uganda, Wood helped set up field clinics as part of the medical mission. At the time, she was thinking of being a surgeon and helped with some of the operations the mission team performed.
It was an eye-opening experience. The operations were performed in a third-world school house, that looks like a shed with dirt floors, wooden walls and benches for the students, Wood said. The team put a sterile cloth over a wood table. “That was our operating table,” Wood said. “We had to do the best with what we had.”
When she returned to the United States, she had a two-week internship with a vascular surgeon in Nashville. The conditions in the two places were polar opposites, Wood said.
Wood has been inspired by her visits to Uganda. She is considering taking a gap year after graduating from JPII to serve in a third-world country before starting college. “I definitely want to take time to do service,” she said.
And Uganda remains close to her heart. “In Uganda, they are the most loving people I’ve ever met,” Wood said.
While walking to church one day in Uganda, “I had a swarm of kids on me,” Wood said. One little girl fought her way through the crowd and slipped a bunch of beads and necklaces into Wood’s hand.
“It was the most loving act I’ve ever experienced,” Wood said. “She didn’t expect anything in return. It was her only possession.”
Wood wanted to return the kindness but the only thing she had was an unopened Chapstick. The girl’s response was a huge smile. “It was the best moment. … I still have the bracelet and necklace in my room to remind me of the power of love.”