By Judy Schwartz, BMIS board member and Chair of Ambassador Program
In May of 2010, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a volunteer service mission in the village of Atiaba, Sudan. It all began with the 2009 Or Ami (Light Unto My People) Award winning project “Pads for Power,” sewing cotton personal hygiene pads for the young girls in the secondary school, so that they could attend everyday without a monthly break. Members of St. James’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA, developed this project based on their observation of the need for the pads during their annual mission to the village.
A Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) Wednesday social justice e-mail, alerted me of this project. My WRJ, B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, NY, and a few others in North America joined this initiative. While my group was cutting and sewing, I suggested that we try to raise funds to buy a treadle sewing machine for this village, and learned that there was a machine we could purchase, however, it was far more expensive than we thought. My contact, Dana Corsella, said that we did not have to keep our offer, but I said that we’d try. Sufficient funds were raised in only nine days- and it was enough to buy two machines!
I began wondering if the pads were the right size, being used, what about machines, etc. and I thought that maybe I should inquire about going with the Richmond group to check this all out. In October of 2009, I emailed my contact, Angie Wilcox, asking what was involved in the trip and if I could go along, (if I was not overstepping my boundary). She replied that if there was room I could go and detailed all the needed preparation. The little puddle jumper at the end of the trip could only hold 8 people with a total of 2,200 lb. (245 lb. per person).
The call came on February 9, 2010 that there were only five going, so there was definitely room for me. The feeling of knowing that I could go was totally unbelievable! I did not know these people at all, I was a Reform Jew, (they were Episcopalian) and I had to meet them at Dulles International. I told them what I’d be wearing, especially about my hot pink crocs. It was the crocs that connected me with them. When I saw a large group get out of a van with lots of luggage, I kept looking through the window at them. Finally, one woman saw me, pointed her finger towards the ground and I raised my foot up proudly with my hot pink croc! We both burst into huge grins. Everyone hugged me when they got into the terminal- we were a happy family! Angie and her husband Jody presented me with a gift- a copy of the The Tanakh, the traditional Hebrew Text and translation. It was inscribed with: “Judy, Thank you for being a blessing on our mission. Love Jody and Angie”. They were thanking ME. I was overwhelmed and burst into tears with their thoughtfulness. I thanked them for allowing me to join them.
On the fourth of my five flights- the first on the puddle jumper- the pilot buckled up, turned around to us and said, “Let us pray.” I thought, oh, no, the plane isn’t safe. On the last flight, same plane, new pilot, he too, said, “Let us pray.” It was then that I looked in the pocket of the seat in front of me and found a card with MAF on it- Missionary Aviation Fellowship, a Baptist initiative. These were retired pilots who were Baptists and volunteered to fly teams into Sudan and elsewhere in Africa.
As we were landing, I could see the children running out of the bush to meet the plane. When it landed, I put my hand on my window and a little boy put his over mine. I “lost it” and felt like I was living a PBS documentary! It was just incredible.
The village of Akot, where we lived, has NOTHING- just a burnt sienna colored dirt road with lush green vegetation bordering the road, not a drop of litter. We stayed at a Mustard Seed Medical Clinic, an initiative begun by several Christian denominations, that are located in third world countries. The compound consisted of four buildings, like a college quad-the hospital, an identical building opposite it where we lived, the clinic and opposite it the building that had our kitchen and storage rooms. The latrine/shower building was out behind the building where we lived. The roaches were huge and crawled up from the pit latrine and were on the walls. At night, we used the grass down the sidewalk from our building, as we couldn’t manage to enter the latrines. The doors on the latrines and showers were locked on the outside to prevent a large snake or other animal from crawling in to “greet” us. A rusty nail was the lock on the door on the inside. All five women slept in one large room on thin, straw, vinyl-covered mattresses enclosed in a flimsy mosquito netting. We used portable tent fans at our faces to keep cool, as the heat was oppressive- over 100 degrees during the day and not much cooler at night.
Beans and rice were prepared for our lunch and supper by women who lived in the bush - I ate that for 13 meals. At supper, I added tuna pack for variety and protein. Breakfast was a tortilla, spread with peanut butter and a cup of tea. It was all truly delicious.
We had a pickup truck for our 3-mile ride to the schools. It took half an hour- the road had 15”-18” holes, lots of bumps, goats to dodge, and people walking along. We saw a few tukuls- mud huts along the roadside, too.
I am a teacher by profession and was hoping to be able to do a little teaching in the primary school. Angie told me that the school was under a tree and that I needed to bring all of my own supplies. Much to my amazement, each class was under a separate tree; six in all, and these little children sat on hitching posts a foot and a half off the ground. There were no backs or desks in front. They had no source of water, no lunch, no building or latrine. Many had no shoes and they all walked two-three miles one way to school- a sight that stays with me daily! Music is the universal language. I was not sure how much English the children spoke and what they were learning, so I went from tree to tree teaching each class three songs- “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”, “If You’re Happy and You Know It”, and the “Hokey Pokey”. Their big smiles were beautiful and their delightful laughter was music to my ears.
The folks from St. James’s literally built the secondary school (just a quarter mile down the road from the primary) from making the bricks to its ongoing financial support, and everything in-between. The hope is to build dorms for the students, as the distances they travel each day can be eight miles and more and take two hours each way. The teachers left their families behind in Uganda and live in separate little rooms at the school. I observed the weekly debate and the topic was “Is It Better Or Worse To Have An Early Marriage?” On our last day in Sudan, we did eye exams on all of the kids and found some with serious conditions. After lunch, I participated in career day and spoke on “How an Education Can Change Your Life”. I was thrilled to be able to take part in something so important. These young people are receiving a top-notch education, all college prep courses, but their families have little or no money to send them to college. It is tragic.
We attended a Dinka Episcopal Sunday morning church service and were treated like royalty! An incredible feast served on beautiful colored glass dishes was prepared in our honor.
The good news is- the pads are fine, being used at school and also for the moms after they deliver their babies at the hospital/clinic. It was thrilling to learn of another important use for them. One afternoon, I spent time with Rebecca, the student seamstress, at the secondary school and we got the sewing machine up and running. She has the pad pattern and some fabric that I brought with me. I am hoping that she and others can continue to sew. The frustration is the limitation of supplies you can bring at one time. I had plenty of fabric to bring, but also the hundreds of pads that we had made in Rochester. The choice, of course, was to bring the pads, but I squeezed some fabric.
Pads for Power is an ongoing project and still very necessary. My group in Rochester made 50 kits this January, 2011, for our third year. We have a grand time and always stop to realize what it is that we are actually doing and what a wonderful feeling this brings over us. It is awesome to know that we are empowering a young girl and helping a new mom with a simple cotton sanitary pad!
Living with the people and helping them was an amazingly wonderful and powerful feeling. I think about it every day and my life has been changed forever by this experience. These people are totally dependent on mission relief teams coming to help them and bring supplies. I was thrilled to have had the opportunity. I urge you, too, to do it if it comes knocking.
Thank you for letting me tell my story.