Wesley Steeb was a sophomore in high school when she first watched the documentary "Invisible Children" about the human rights abuses inflicted by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.
The 2009 Cedar Park Christian School graduate and Woodinville native was so moved by the orphaned and abused children affected by the brutal army’s actions, that she knew she wanted to find a way to work in Uganda someday.
That someday came in June when Steeb, freshly graduated with a history degree from Michigan’s Hillsdale College, landed a job as an administrative assistant for the administrator at New Hope Uganda. She lives about two hours north of Kampala, Uganda.
"In Uganda, an orphan simply means that the child does not have a father. A lot of our kids actually do have a mother, or aunts or uncles that could care for them, but in the eyes of society they are orphans. They are without an identity. They are worthless," Steeb explained at a presentation she gave recently at Woodinville United Methodist Church while home on Christmas vacation.
New Hope takes the neediest of these orphaned children and places them into family groups of up to 22 children in their compound. A Ugandan mother and father raise the children with the help of many community members. "I’m attached to one of the families as an auntie," Steeb explained.
Steeb lives at the Kasana Children’s Centre. The compound includes housing, schools, farms and gardens. "Walking to work is one of my favorite times of the day. Seeing the kids, seeing the community and just getting to interact with them," Steeb said.
The organization’s mission is to raise the children as Ugandans. Most Ugandans are responsible for producing a large percentage of their own food. At New Hope, they learn how to raise and grow their own food. Depending on the family group in the compound, they raise about 50 percent of their own food themselves, Steeb explained.
New Hope also tries to work quickly for children who are under the age of two who come into the program to get them adopted or placed into foster care rather than having to live at New Hope. Their goal eventually is that no children over the age of two will be living at their facilities because they will be adopted or put into foster care.
Many of these children have physical disabilities or are mentally scarred from abuses they’ve suffered. Right now, both Ugandans and Westerners are adopting the children, according to Steeb, but they are advocating for more Ugandans to help their own country’s children.
They also have a classroom, called Treasures Class, for special needs children in the community. "People with disabilities are very ostracized. They are separated even if their mental faculties are fine. If you’re physically deformed in any way, you’re shunned from society," Steeb said. New Hope is trying to reverse that practice, and they are starting to see the community’s perception of these children change.
Steeb spent the first five months in Uganda as a student in the New Hope Institute of Childcare and Family. Part of the organization’s ministry is to train missionaries both within their own culture and cross-culturally, Steeb said. "Every single day was an exposure to ‘worldviews’," she said.
A good example she gave was the popularity of owl images in the United States. One of the daughters of a missionary family was wearing a T-shirt with an owl image. However, in Uganda an owl, especially one sitting in a tree, means someone in your family is going to die in your house that night. Discussions then focused on whether or not that perception was true.
In her short time there so far, Steeb has experienced the rainy season. "It pours! Everything shuts down, and the red dirt roads turn to mud and then you’re slipping and sliding for the rest of the day," she said.
She’s also had to deal with snakes. There are cobras and even a black mamba, the deadliest snake in the world, living in the woods behind her house.
That doesn’t seem to bother her, though, because to her the main reason why she’s there is to interact with and mentor the girls. There is one young girl there that Steeb just knows is the reason why God brought her there to help. She is slowly opening up to Steeb about how people hurt her. "It has been a really special gift to see her opening up. She’s been a tremendous gift," Steeb said, adding, "I can’t wait to get to know her more."
One lesson Steeb says she’s learned with the kids is that she has to open her heart in order for them to eventually open theirs to her. So, she shares with the children some of her struggles with moving to Uganda or living as an ex-pat and having visa issues. "It’s to show we’re family and family needs to know what is going on," she explained.
New Hope also had a four-month art therapy program to help the children work through issues. Steeb said even the 17-year-olds would stay at the table and draw and participate and work through different issues through art.
Steeb talked at length about the beauty of the country. "It’s beautiful there. I never cease to be amazed by just the beauty I get to see every day on the walk to work and how it changes," she said.
When she returns in mid-January, she’ll be handling more of the communications side of what New Hope does, including writing New Hope’s newsletter that goes out to their supporters and the community and doing more with the website. But, she’s really there also for the kids and is looking forward to seeing how her relationships with the children in her family group will grow.
Steeb is committed to stay at Hew Hope Uganda for two more years, coming home only at Christmas.
To learn more about Steeb’s experiences, read her blog, wesleyjeansteeb.wordpress.com.
For more information about New Hope Uganda, and how you can help their mission, visit newhopeuganda.org.
Courtesy photo. Wesley Steeb with one of the young children living at New Hope Uganda. Steeb, who grew up in Woodinville, moved to Uganda in June. Home for a month-long Christmas break, she gave a presentation recently in Woodinville about her experiences in Uganda.