Monday, June 30, 2014

My Friend, Jenny. A tribute.

The first time I saw her was in Uganda.  She pulled into the fields of Amazima's feeding program and bounced out of the van.  Double braids, bright pink headband, large flashy earrings, with a neon pink skirt,  matching shoes and toenails to boot. I honestly didn't know what to think.  She blew in and began chatting up a storm.  That was about all I needed to know at the time....she was probably not going to be someone I'd have a lot in common with.

Little did I know that through my friend, Colleen, she would become our housemate during our last week in Uganda.  Jenny was there adopting her 15th child.  That's right, 15.   She was adopting a special needs 6-year old girl named Esther and needed a place to stay while they transitioned out of the orphanage before their flight home.  We said 'yes' because we had the room, but were hesitant about what it would be like to be the transition home for a child who had never been out of the orphanage.  I prepared my girls.....there could be lots of crying, screaming, wailing, tantrums....I had no idea, but we were going to bear through it.

How could a person know that saying yes to a small request could change your life?  Not only was Esther a jewel to behold, but that week with Jenny changed my life. Our life. My family witnessed so many events that week that to this day, I can NEVER say I haven't seen a miracle.  We stayed up late, late into the wee hours of the morning talking life, theology (really my husband and Jenny talked theology....I listened), parenting, marriage.  I quizzed her on her awesome 15 year old son, who was there and showed her the utmost love and respect all the time. I asked questions about her marriage.  On what it was like raising all those kids.  On cooking for all those kids.  But it wasn't just the intrigue of a life so unlike was her answers. Every single answer shocked me. I had never heard such FREEDOM in parenting. Such FREEDOM in loving a husband. Such FAITH in God and His plans.  Some of it shocked me in ways that made me practically spit out whatever I was drinking at the time, but that was who she was.....shockingly honest and refreshing.

She introduced me to major players in my life whom I still listen to on podcasts regularly - Bill Johnson, Danny Silk, Graham Cooke. She infused me with life-giving words and spoke right to places inside of me that I had yet to even acknowledge needed attention.  She challenged my husband and I with the type of marriage-building-honesty that is hard to find.   She made me aware that it's okay as an adoptive momma if those "bonds" don't happen immediately and "fake it until you make it" is totally appropriate love language until God brings unity to the relationship.  I learned that coping with many, many kids may mean hiding in your bathroom with a ciggy....even when you don't smoke....just to gain a bit of release...and it's an honest reaction that's real and lame and hilarious all at the same time.   I learned that modeling a "hot marriage" (Jenny translation: a marriage full of passion and love and fun) is the best way to show your kids, especially your 15-year old son, what happens when you wait for the one God has for you.   I learned that everyday is a day to speak goodness and life and identity in Christ into people, even more so on the the days they are at their worst.

I learned that God will use any and all resources to cover the path of the one who is obedient to the call to care for His special children.   The miracles we witnessed while watching Jenny navigate the challenging government hurdles to get visas, passports, and paperwork for Esther to leave the country (in one week, mind you!) in a time that usually took months were simply amazing.

Even as we returned home after our "one week with Jenny", she never quit infusing us with wisdom and counsel.  She was always an email or phone call away to give advice, encouragement, or just some spiritual cheerleading.

I  pray for her husband and children who now have the honor of carrying on her legacy.
I will never forget my mentor and friend.
She was beautiful.

"I am a testimony to God being able to do FAR greater than we could think to ask for. I spent a lot of time depressed and discouraged as a young mother so it is hilarious and redemptive that God would use me now to shout out: motherhood is a really, really JOYFUL thing. Not a picnic, but leading to a banquet. You CAN be a joyful mother of children. Traumatized children, sick children, goof-ball children, less-than-perfect-but-each-delightful children. Children need mothers, strong and joyful mothers who know who their God is. I am not much of a 'how to' girl but more of a 'Who to.' Follow the Lamb wherever He goes versus 'How to fix everything in your life in 100 easy lessons.'"
- Jenny Groothius

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Sixty Feet and Me. The Story.

Many people have asked how I got involved with Sixty Feet.

For those of you who have followed along on these journeys of ours...or perhaps just this'll be interested to know that I had no plans to live abroad, and I did not want to come on my first trip to Uganda.

But how this year in Uganda with Sixty Feet came to be is a beautiful, unplanned story.  For you see, I was happy right where I was. Three years ago, my pastor's family was in the process of adopting from Africa.  Jenna, my friend and pastor's wife, asked if anyone wanted to join her on a Visiting Orphans trip to Uganda.  I did not.  But weeks went by and slowly, there was a nudge in my heart that I could not say "no" to.  I had little girls (Sophie was just a toddler), I had a household to run, things to get done, and I hated - let me say that again - hated the thought of flying that far and something happening to their momma.  I've traveled a lot in my life thanks to my family...Thailand, Jamaica, Italy...but for some reason, flying alone to Uganda scared me.  But again - my heart.  So I said "yes" in an email that said something like, "Jenna, I'm (gulp) in."

The Nine Of Us Who Went on that First VO Trip
Needless to say, I came back from Uganda with my heart and mind devastated.  In two weeks, we visited about 5 different organizations that were meeting so many needs.  True needs. Starving children. Street kids. Feeding programs. Sixty Feet was one of those.  To even think of a prison that held children was impossible back then. But when I saw it for myself and talked to them and heard their stories, it grabbed hold of me.  Sixty Feet was just getting its feet on the ground then, serving in the remand homes with medical support and counseling.  But the incredible need I saw Shattered. My. Heart.   I came back home and fell into a deep, dark place for nearly six weeks or so.  I just couldn't shake it.

Seeing First Hand Kids Who Have So Much Joy!!

So I started regular life again. I taught that next year and still had no idea what to do with what I saw.  All I knew was I needed to contribute financially. My husband saw my heart and was all in, too.  So I began to refinish furniture and give some of the profits to Sixty Feet.  It wasn't much, but it was a start.  Around January of that year, I had a prompting from none other than God, and during my conference period at school, I decided to email the wife of the Sixty Feet President.  I had her email address because she had emailed me personally to say "thanks" for donating.  All I asked was if Sixty Feet had any needs for a family (two teachers) to come over during summer to volunteer.  LITERALLY 5 MINUTES LATER, I received an email from her. She, at the exact same time, was searching for my email address to invite me to a premiere of the new Sixty Feet movie.  It was, as she said,  "a God thing" and about one month later, we were planning to go as a family to Uganda for two months.

Summer of 2012  - Uganda with my Family

Making Sweet Friends at the Remand Homes

That summer was amazing. Sixty Feet was being blessed and growing.  Their area of work was spider-webbing out in different directions and their small team on the ground was amazing! We met the heart of the organization in the form of a pastor and his wife with their street child ministry that was "their life".   We lived with a family we did not know who became some of our sweetest friends (still!).  It was truly a wonderful time. We learned so much, loved on so many kids, saw miracles happening through the hands of servants on the ground, my kids experienced life in another culture, and my husband saw that his God-given skills lined up with so many of the organizational needs here, whether it was changing tires, cultivating relationships, or being a rock during stressful times.  We loved our time that summer, but were equally excited to be home.

SO once we were back we had no plans.  We went back to work. We taught at school. We planned on taking a vacation to Wyoming that summer - But God.  (Doesn't every good story begin with "But God"? ) I will tell you this - my husband and I were sensing something. God was working on our hearts to be prepared for change. We could not figure it out...though we tried and fussed (with each other mainly).  We wrestled within ourselves -  was it a career change? was it opening a running store? was it ___?  Nothing seemed to fit.  So we started getting up early together and listening to devotionals, praying together, and otherwise trying to get closer to God TOGETHER.  And then one morning, while we were up early together, we got the email asking for us to consider moving to Uganda to work with Sixty Feet.  Boog's leadership skills were needed and would we consider.  Needless to say, we knew at that moment - against my "wants" (believe me, I was not convinced) - that we were going.
So we did.

The remand homes now look quite a bit different than they did when I first met them three years ago.  Years of regular medical care and counseling by our incredible Ugandan staff has proven to be a life source.  Kids look healthier. Major sicknesses and hospital visits have decreased.  The remand homes are beginning to be places of opportunity for children, not a dead end. Resettlement and diversion (helping street children avoid being sent to remand homes to begin with) are a huge part of Sixty Feet's ministry. There's a large staff of Ugandan counselors, nurses, teachers, office administrators, and other important parts of the chain that help this machine run...and run well.  Us? We have been ENTIRELY blessed to be part of and a witness to this ministry.  We advocate for these children because of Him. Helping children who otherwise would not have resources to help themselves.  

This experience has been a literal threshing floor in my life. In our life.  We laid out the little we had to give - our time, our heart - and over time saw how God used people and experiences to strip away the parts of ourselves that we tended to overlook and keep the fruitful seed.  God used Uganda to bring fullness to my give me a chance to see His work and be humbled and awed. I love looking back to see that this story, this perfectly woven story for our family, would not be this story if it weren't for obedience to a call...even when we were scared to say "yes". 

I will say this. If you've been affected at all by these blogs or pictures or if you've gone to the Sixty Feet webpage  to see what in the world they do (, please consider contributing to this organization.  100% of your donation goes directly to the services I mentioned above. 

 It is not hard to start small....and just like have no idea where that small donation will take you.

Friday, June 6, 2014

5 Things

Since we are nearing a close to our year in Africa, I asked the girls a few questions.

To Sophie, I asked: "What are 5 things you like most about Africa?"
She replied:
1) Our dogs Crusket and Cocoa
2) We got to have teams come over and make new friends with them
3) Sissy & I get to play a lot
4) I got to ride a horse
5) I learned how to spell and write my name

In the eyes of a 5 year old, I can imagine these things WERE a pretty big deal.  Sophie has adjusted the easiest to living here out of all of us.  Youth is on her side because, really, wherever we are is home.  So "home" was here in Uganda. She can't even remember what her bedroom at our real home looks like!

To Grace, I asked two things.
First, "What are 5 things you did this year that you never thought you'd do?"
She replied:
1) Get to stand on the Equator
2) Go serve at Loving Hearts Babies' Home
3) Take care of turtles (we have two)
4) Swing on awesome tree swings
5) Have my own personal library

Then I asked, "What are 5 things you'll miss about Africa?"
She replied:
1) Mama Catherine's food (obviously!)
2) All the babies I take care of at Loving Hearts
3) Our cool house
4) All the animals at our house (dogs, turtles, chameleons, birds, etc.)
5) The new friends I've made

So Grace, as you can tell, loved Wednesdays so much. Me, too, actually.  That was the day we went and worked at a babies' home here in Kampala.  Precious, precious, precious...we both will miss those dear hearts more than we know.   She learned how to feed a newborn, change diapers, handle crying/fussing babies, and keep little ones from hurting themselves.  When we were there, oftentimes, the "mamas" would use that time and take a few moments to rest and take tea....a much needed break during their long days.  We didn't mind at all & were happy to help.

I know there's NO WAY Boog and I can make our "5" list.  It's crazy to know that I will actually miss getting our vehicle haphhazardly checked for bombs everytime we go grocery shopping, or people calling both my daughters "babies" wherever we go, or the insane traffic that I love to drive in, or that I will actually miss having to prepare every meal from scratch.  But we will miss so much....a lot of it will simply be the sweet times we've had with the 60 Feet staff and the community we have with them.  It's pretty amazing how God designed this year - full of sweet times, tough times, times of nourishment and times to nourish others.  Feeling a little sad to leave it.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

My Grace, at 10

My Grace turned 10 in May.  Ten.

My firstborn.  I remember strapping her into the johnny jumper while I tried unsuccessfully to cook dinner before she started crying.  I remember how I used to lay her on the changing table and step back to look at how long (and pretty!) she was.  I remember when she would get sick and how desperate I felt to make her feel better.  I remember the mommy & Grace dates we used to take...movies, sno cones, the park.  I remember May birthday parties with family and several "little girl" friends.

This time, it's still the same....but it's different.  Gone are the little girl parties and pin the tail on the donkey. We're in Uganda, so the birthday option list wasn't long, but she asked to take a few girls to get pedicures and have a sleepover. And carrot cake (so grown up)!  All of the girls clamored into the car and sang Frozen's "Let It Go" at the top of our lungs while Grace made quick sideways glances at me to make sure I wasn't singing  too loud....mommy can't embarrass her, right?  An American Girl movie was watched, future home plans were sketched out on paper at our table, dogs were chased....glimpses of "little girl" were still there.

But My Grace.  She's growing up.  She loves taking care of the babies at the babies home we served at this year, she loves animals (especially horses and dogs), she loves to laugh, and cries when she thinks she's disappointed you. I plan on taking a deep breath and plunging into this uncharted "big girl" territory with her (although I explored it many years ago).  I'm going to hold fast to the hope, encouragement, and wisdom we give her and pray that people come alongside to nurture and mature those seeds. When she falls, I'm going to sit there with her and tell her to get up and try again. And when she succeeds, I'll be her biggest fan.  I'm going to do all these things because I love this girl with all my heart. She is our first gift.

We love you, Grace Ryan.  Always have, always will.

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