The give-away pile of toys in the living room doubled in size.
Josh turned over another plastic wonder is his hand and decided to sleep on whether he could give it away. In the morning, the toy was always there, placed proudly on top of the mound like a Christmas tree star-a shining token from a boy who couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of his gifts.
What he could grasp was that the gifts would be given to children not unlike himself: they were all fatherless. But to get the toys into the hands of other children, Josh accompanied his mom on a trip far away from their home in New Zealand to Uganda, where they volunteered for three weeks last March. Despite the stark differences in culture and language, Josh and his mom used their understanding of loss to connect deeply with the women and children in the village of Ndejje, and created a bond that would last longer than the toys and balloons and chewing gum they had brought.
Erin Cassidy was married to her husband Paul for two years when she became pregnant with their first child. Three months into the pregnancy, they discovered Paul had bowel cancer. As Erin fed life to her son, she watched her husband dying. Only five months after Josh emerged into the world, Paul left it. Erin was alone with her infant and Paul’s seven-year-old daughter. The world, it seemed, would never spin the same direction again.
Four years later, Erin was working as the office manager for a company she loved-the Global Volunteer Network (GVN), an organization based in New Zealand that helps connect volunteers with communities in need throughout the world. Erin had watched as hundreds of other people signed up to volunteer through GVN. The more she thought about volunteering herself, the more she couldn’t get one particular program out of her mind: the Widows’ Empowerment Project in Uganda.
When Erin made an off-handed remark to a friend at church about the project, he told her to book the flight and bill him. When she realized he was serious, she did just that, but she didn’t go alone; she took her five-year-old son, Josh, with her.
“I wanted to show him that even though we think we don’t have a lot, and that we struggle here, we have more than others only dream of,” she said.
As for Erin, the trip was a sort of homecoming in a foreign land, where she could offer her knowledge of sorrow for others to lean on.
“I was aware of what I was dealing with from watching Paul waste away,” she said. “Most of the widows in the Widows’ Empowerment have all lost their husbands from AIDS and would have watched their spouse get sick and die.”
AIDS has devastated Uganda. As of 2003, there were 530,000 adults living with HIV/AIDS, and 2.2 million orphans out of a population of 24 million who have lost one or both parents to AIDS. The strain this has created on communities and families has been hard to bear. As the husband is the traditional breadwinner in the Ugandan family, his death often leaves the family in a severe financial crisis.
The Widows’ Empowerment project works to give women choices about their financial future, and provide a way out from making hard decisions between food and education, water and medicine, body and home. The project was started by a local organization in Ndejje, and with the help of GVN, employs international volunteers to help teach mothers and widows practical skills to earn a living. For Erin and Josh, that meant helping to build pig pens for women to raise and sell pigs for profits.
“As a widow, I know how hard it was, and is at times, for me and my children,” Erin said. “And I live in a society where I had social welfare help, I had friends and people at church help and I had support organizations where I could go to talk. I know how I so did not want to accept anyone’s help. And yet here were these very proud women being so gracious. I’m ashamed to say that I probably wasn’t as gracious in accepting help on the scale that I received. It was very humbling.”
A Language of their Own
When Josh was interviewed about his trip, he talked as if he was the spokesperson for alleviating the plight of the poor; what he had to tell was important, and he tapped the tape recorder to make sure it was rolling.
When he’s asked what the hardest thing was about his trip, rather than saying the food, or the heat, or the cold showers, he answered, “The hardest thing was to let them go. I wanted to stay there longer to help them.”
For a boy whose eyes have seen a lot, Josh started out with only a vague sense of what “poor” actually means. When he walked the city streets in Uganda, he gave beggars high-five’s, not realizing that their outstretched hands were asking him for something more.
“It’s one thing to say to kids-and every parent has said it, ‘You eat that up, because there’s people who have nothing.’ But it’s just words until you see for yourself that there are children who really do have nothing. He thinks it’s tough when we can’t afford McDonald’s.”
Josh quickly became a celebrity in the village, and not only because of the toys he was handing out.
“Everywhere he went, he was touched, poked, prodded, and he was so cool with it,” Erin said. “They had never seen a white child before, so there was a lot of staring. The children would run up and grab him and hold his hand.”
He said he made a best friend in the village, but can’t immediately recall his name; he can remember, however, teaching him how to play rugby and Duck Duck Goose.
“I think for children, they just have a universal language of their own,” Erin said. “It really didn’t matter what they looked like or what they had. They were just kids together, running down the street and carrying on.”
The Saddest Thing
The decision to take Josh to Uganda wasn’t easy to make. But in the end, Erin decided that she couldn’t go without him.
“Josh and I did a lot of talking before we left for Uganda,” Erin said. “We looked at photos and really talked about what it means to him not to have a daddy. He had a lot of head knowledge for as much as he could as a five-year-old.”
As much as she prepared Josh for the trip, she couldn’t always put her own mind at ease.
“I didn’t know a lot about AIDS before I went,” Erin said. “I knew that a lot of the kids he would be playing with would have AIDS. I got a bit paranoid thinking, ‘What if he falls over and gets cut and is playing with these children?’ That was my biggest worry. I don’t think it even entered my mind once we were there.”
Despite their relative safety and Josh’s adaptability, Erin wouldn’t recommend the trip for every child.
“I think it depends on the child,” she said. “It would be really hard for some children to even see those conditions. Josh is very sensitive.”
In his interview, Josh said how sad he was for the children in Uganda more than a dozen times.
“[I was] quite unhappy,” he said. “I thought that the place was going to be okay, but it wasn’t. The saddest thing was that the kids had no parents. And no grandad or no grandma.”
One afternoon, when he met an orphaned boy with Down syndrome dressed in tattered clothing, he gave him his shirt to exchange it for the ratty one. It’s a story Erin’s told before, but she still cries with its retelling.
And it isn’t the only story that makes Erin emotional. There are faces she can still remember, and perhaps they will always shadow her life.
“At one point, Josh got a bit wheezy and I had his puffer,” Erin said. “I only had the one. A lady saw that I had it and she wanted it for her child. And it was awful because I couldn’t give it to her. That’s something that sticks in my mind. Did I do the right thing? Goodness knows where I would have found another one. Imagine not being able to – the one thing we had in common was just the love for our children. You want them to have the health and the basics, and no worries.”
There were some moments of the trip when it was difficult for Erin to keep her composure.
“The first week, I was a cabbage,” she said. “The culture shock was just terrible and overwhelming. I felt like it didn’t matter how much money the world had, you would never fix these problems. But once the jet lag wore off and I got used to the heat a little bit more, it was like, well, whatever you can do to make a difference, you do.”
Never Regret It
It may be a small thing, but Erin’s family doesn’t run the water when they brush their teeth anymore. At work, when someone calls with a question about GVN, Erin can convey with her voice the urgent need for a volunteer’s help.
“When you volunteer, it just impacts you positively on how you live the rest of your life,” she said. “Regular, everyday people can go and help someone. No one can ever prepare you for it. I’d seen pictures, watched videos, but in the end, the reality was so different. But after those first few days, when you get over the change, I can’t see how you would ever regret it. I just can’t.”
From their small corner in New Zealand, months after the initial excitement of their trip could have worn off, Josh and Erin are still making the choice to do whatever they can to make a difference.
“This Father’s Day, we didn’t have a dad to get a present for,” Erin said. “So instead, we bought a goat from World Vision for someone. I’m so much more aware of the little things. You think, ‘What is that going to do for someone?’ Now I just know the huge difference it can make.”
For Josh, that difference was in the hands held, the games played and even the toys given.
“[The toys] were all special to me, but I knew I had to give them away,” he said. “[The kids] felt a little bit happier. They didn’t feel really sad about their mom and dad. They felt happy.”
Perhaps he’s heard his mom say it, but he repeats it with all the conviction that a six-year-old can muster: “I think this will stick with me for my whole life.” He says he wants to be a volunteer when he grows up.
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