Serving Leadership in Uganda

Charli leads Women in Uganda

“By putting the needs of others first, you empower people to perform at their best. When members of the community see your passion and your commitment through your actions, they want to be connected to you.”National Society of Leadership and Success

It’s easy to define servant leadership. It is a style based on the desire to serve and give to your community. However, I knew that to truly understand the term, I needed to experience it firsthand. With a compass in my hand and a magnet in my heart, I set out on a personal quest to Uganda, Africa.

The plan was to visit several churches, primary schools, and friends in Kampala and Kasese.  I am neither a pastor, a teacher, nor a youth director. I am just a girl who loves the Lord and felt drawn to the magical people of Uganda.

Brian Winters, my high school Math/Science teacher, is my favorite teacher. I have also referred to him as my spiritual leader. We have always stayed in touch and would share meaningful happenings and local connections with each other. He shared his experiences in Uganda with me during a lunch with his colleagues, and I have wanted to travel to Africa ever since. I knew that the people of Uganda had great needs for things like water and education. But I couldn’t figure out exactly where I fit into the puzzle. “How could I possibly help?” I wondered.

Nevertheless, I just knew that I was called to show up and to serve. The Lord directed my steps, and thanks to nearly 10 years of listening to Brian share stories and photos of the people of Uganda, my desire to be a servant leader intensified.   I was able to say “YES” to the calling in my heart to serve with Brian in Uganda.

It always impressed me how Brian could call each child by their name as he told me of his missions. I felt a strong desire to meet these amazing children and the leaders in the community who took care of them.  I had once given financial support to the children, and Brian created a photo with a caption that read, “Charli’s Angels.” Naturally, I needed to meet these sweet angels whose faces stared back at me every day from the photo hanging in my office.

As I reflect on the remarkable experience, I can share many lessons that I learned along the way. But there are two that are especially important.

  1. The most significant thing that I learned from the trip was that as you serve others, your love for them grows. I could truly feel my heart overflow with love and joy to be in their presence. I especially felt this with the beautiful and selfless work of the team of pastors who served with us.
  1. I also learned that all you have to do is show up. God will instruct those around you about how to use your gifts. I had no plans when I arrived.  By the end of the trip, I had helped share the Living Water of Jesus with more than 2,500 students, twirled a baton made from a eucalyptus tree, led a bible study for women who didn’t speak English (via a translator), played with children in a poor fisherman’s village, and I led an Empowering Women conference with 25 women who were inspired to build their own businesses and create financial security for their families.  This is just a small sample of the incredible things I would like to share with you.

I know now that Servant Leadership is more than just a term. It is all about getting out of our comfort zones and showing up for the team that needs us. I hope you will all see value in serving. Here is my story…

On our way—an eventful journey

We began our journey to Uganda at 9:18 a.m. on May 5, 2022.  It took me 18 mins to get to Brian’s after he sent me a text to let me know they had planned to leave at 9 a.m. instead of 10. When I arrived, I said a quick hello to Brian’s family and Vial. I had only met Vial once before in a quick planning meeting, but I did learn he actually took Brian on his first trip to Uganda. I felt I was with the pros! We weighed each suitcase and packed them as full as we could. Brian added newly-made “The Chance Project” caps, notebooks for the conference, and vitamin supplements provided by a local doctor. My suitcase was packed full and had a unique earthy smell from the vitamins.

I was a bit frazzled after the late start, and I left my phone in my car seat.  Thankfully, I didn’t get too far away from my phone without noticing that my lifeline was missing. So, just as we were about to pull out of the driveway, I had to jump out and reclaim my phone. Then, I promised that I am not normally that much trouble.

Brian and Vial were already teasing each other.  I looked down and realized that Brian was wearing flip flops. Little did I know, he would later tell us how he could shoot a bird with his toes while we were waiting in the very long airport line. We ate at Arby’s, and I was excited for the curly fries. The men had buffalo bits, and I thought to myself that was an interesting travel choice.  I helped by holding the messy fingers and we navigated a “short cut” to bypass the stressful Atlanta traffic. We passed several horse ranches and what looked like a small town. We had to pass through many STOP signs, and I was a bit disappointed in the route I had chosen.

Finally, we made it to the airport parking garage. We parked in B2 and Brian started telling us math quizzes and talking about the square root of B2. When we got to the elevator, there was a graphic of Africa. I took it as a sign we were on the right track… Track… This is another topic we would hear a lot about from Brian, “the old track coach.” We always laughed that I would have been something if only I ran track…

The parking garage was easy to navigate, but the kiosk was not.  We all placed our documents in the right place, and it would not give us our tickets or any real instructions.  We finally gave up after about 20 minutes and went to stand in line for the counter attendant to assist us. Thankfully, we all had our documents in order, and we were approved for the trip.  We gave the bags to the attendant and prayed they were not too heavy.  One of the bags was exactly 50 pounds, which was the exact weight accepted. We received our printed tickets and headed to E18.

I immediately found a place to charge my phone, as I had let it run down when I was navigating the route to the airport.  I found it hilarious that they trusted me to navigate as I am normally always going the wrong way.  This reminds me of a story Vial told us about him directing a whole funeral procession to a dead end. Now, that would’ve been an experience.

We had time to eat some trail mix and Vial found what he called the least costly meal in the airport. A slice of pizza. I was still full from my fries and was ready to sleep on the plane.  I had downloaded the app, Timeshifter, and wanted to see if I could adjust to Uganda time more quickly by following the app instructions. It was not long at all before the airline attendants were coming around with food. I chose pasta because Vial had me thinking about pizza.

As I looked around, I could see beautiful children all around us, and they looked like they had traveled many times. They had headphones, iPads, and fuzzy eye masks. They were ready. It made me miss Karli as I wished I had brought her with me. Next time, I thought.

I decided to listen to Michelle Segrest’s book series via Audible and then switched to the movie, Stillwater. After that, I tried to sleep, but was unsuccessful. I looked up at Brian’s screen, and he was playing a numbers game. He had an impressive high score. I attempted it but didn’t read the directions, so I didn’t really know if I was doing well or not. As breakfast was served, I gave up the app and decided I had enough darkness under my sleep mask. I had hot tea and a warm egg croissant with fruit. Brian gave me his fruit too as he was only eating meat. I thought, “He is going to make me fat on this trip.” Before long, we had arrived in Amsterdam.

As we approached the time for our final descent, the father and son sitting in my row went to the bathroom.  When they came back, they were asking the crew for a bag. They sat down and then the little boy started to throw up in the bag. I thought I was going to join him. I grabbed my masks (which weren’t mandatory on the fight) and put it on to block the smell.

Next, the girl in the row to the left, projectile vomited all over the headrest and TV screen. I was freaking out. As soon as we landed… I squeezed my way forward. I could only go a few steps forward, but I had to get away from that plagued row. I was praying the whole time… “Please don’t get me sick at the beginning of this trip!” Luckily, we were all ok. After we got off the plane, we stopped to wait on Vial. He was letting others get off the plane before him. They were both such thoughtful travelers. I smiled, and it made me think about how I wished I had more men like them around me on a regular basis. I wanted my boys to see this type of kindness.

Stepping outside your comfort zone 

The Amsterdam airport was beautiful. There were shops full of fashion, food, and wooden tulips. It was three stories tall and felt very clean and comfortable. This allowed my uneasiness to pass, and I took my mask off and sat and spoke to another traveler on her way to Uganda. Her name was Melba Washington. She told me later in the conversation that her last name was “actually” Washington. I didn’t think much of it and then as we talked, I realized she was married to the kinfolks of George Washington.

She told me that she and her husband were called George and Martha at their church. She was sure the church members didn’t know her real names. Karli had recently completed a school project on the first First Lady, and I knew she would get a kick out of that story. I told her I had just met Martha Washington. I asked for a photo for my daughter as I knew she would love that I met her, especially because from Melba’s stories of being quite an empowered woman herself.

She told me she was formerly a teacher and then went back to school to get her MBA in Nursing. She had served in the NICU for many years. Karli had been there for 11 days following her birth, so I let her know that I knew what an angel she had been for people. She said her husband had died and she worked about 10 more years. She decided recently that she would retire and see more of the world. She is a leader of the Kiros ministry and served during the Covid years. She is truly a bold lady or as she said, “she had been at times.” I thought it was great definition of bold.  We have seasons in our lives that call us to be more bold than others.

I took a walk to see if I could find fresh water to fill my water bottle. When I returned, Brian and I had a conversation about technology and how it watches us today. He asked me if I was out at 2 a.m. and I came to a red light and nothing was coming, would I run it? I said, “Absolutely yes.”  I know this because I have done it. Then I was reminded of my childhood whereI had done this multiple times in Moundville. Our home was right next to the only red light in town, and I know I have stood in the middle of the road under the red light many times. I wasn’t worried about people watching back. It certainly didn’t have a camera on it back then. To me, it was just a peaceful moment of calm.

Vial and Brian started talking about martyrs and how it was not peaceful at all. They said sometimes the wraps that were supposed to catch fire would go out, so they would just have to wait for hours upon a stake. I found this conversation was not something I wanted to continue to learn or read about. They moved to conversations about the Unibomber and then books they would recommend. I heard Road Less Stupid and wrote it down, so I could download it for the plane.  I was writing in my journal, and they said how great it was that another traveler had typed out all their writings for them.  I thought… I may not do that. (But, here I am today typing it out 🙂 They began to talk about preparing for a sermon.  I found this interesting. I told them that I do the same thing sometimes… I make bullet lists, so I don’t forget the points I want to make.  Brian said he wrote out everything—like a brainstorming session. Then, he refines his thoughts. I was excited to hear them preach. So, I asked if I would be joining them one day. They assured me that I would.

We boarded our next plane to Kigali. I sat next to a beautiful woman with braids from Uganda, and it made me excited that we were getting closer to Africa! I chose to write in my journal and listen to the Flying High music.  I found it humorous that Top Gun’s Dangerzone was playing as we took off.

I began to think about my purpose for the trip. I keep thinking about the phrase “Finding Kasey.” I decided that I’ll keep seeking to understand this and the other one that kept coming up was “Comfort Zone.” This could’ve been from the Danger Zone soundtrack.  I have always played outside what most people would consider a comfort zone.  I laughed as I thought I have to go all the way to Africa to get outside my comfort zone. I actually found out a few years ago that peace, quiet, and calm are words that describe outside my comfort zone.  Finding peace within the calm was really what I needed to find. Covid, a leadership course, and a bit of therapy helped me understand my beliefs and helped me hear the thoughts.  I’ve learned to take those thoughts as just thoughts and then “decide” what to do with them. After all, the thought is really where the power and self-discipline comes into play.

Stay in the moment

Amsterdam to Kigali was a long flight. We were in the air all day. I watched another movie, “Marry Me” and then listened to the Road Less Stupid, the book Brian mentioned  to read. I found it on audible, and it was just the book I needed! Then, I decided to read some of my Bible. I read Ruth and some of Samuel.   It reminded me that God can use anyone to move the kingdom forward. Even me, I thought. I looked up at the map where it looked like we were almost to Tanzania. I could see Madagascar on the map and thought my kids would love that.  I was blown away that I was about to land in Africa! One more quick flight and we would arrive at our destination.

Brian and Vial were talking about being old, a lot about death, and antacids. I thought, “Are they preparing me to come here after they die?”  I hadn’t even arrived yet, but I reminded myself to stay in the moment.  I was reminded that having open heart surgery to repair my aortic valve was a good decision! My legs would’ve been swollen, and the flight would have been painful without it.  I am incredibly thankful for my healthy heart. There was a baby on the plane that looked like he was about one year old, and he slept on his dad’s lap. I was in awe of him as I made my walks around the plane. Yes, I am that person that stands and walks around the plane.

One the next flight, I spoke to an Ugandan lady about Empowering Women and girls.  She talked about how she helped disabled girls through her work at the NGO. She said she had been through a lot of hardship. She wanted to give girls skills, so that they would have opportunities to move on if they were abused.  If they were abused, she wanted girls to know they can move forward. If that happens, it doesn’t have to define you.

“God has a plan and purpose for your life, and you need to seek to find that for yourself. You will know what skills are best for you. If not, try several things. It is important to be self- sufficient and educated, so you can stand on your own if you need to. You can still plan to be married, just know that if you are mistreated and abused you can move on. If the girls are hurt, there are organizations that can help until they get on their feet.”

She encourages others to be the woman that supports others. She believed that if you share your story others can learn from it. I reminded her she needed to share her story too.

I dreamed of Africa!

It was nighttime when we landed, and it was really dark. We headed to the line to get our Visa approved and then passed through customs. It was seamless, even though it was a long wait. It was one of the airports where people are lined-up outside pressuring you to use them to help you, even if you didn’t need help. They were working for tips. Vial was determined that he didn’t need any help.  He just started loading the car, Prince’s car. Prince was a hired driver who had been on many trips with Brian and was considered family to him. He had been waiting on us to arrive and met us at the door when we arrived. The streets were busy, and it reminded me of my trip to Rome when I was tired from traveling about the same time that the city was ready to party.

We checked into the hotel, which didn’t look like the best area of town. But for many reasons, I felt safe and cared for. I found my room after a slight mix up, and I got organized for the next day. I decided to go ahead and take a shower. When I got out of the shower, I noticed that a pair of men’s underwear were hanging on the back of the door.  A moment of fear came over me, but I pushed the fear away, bolted the lock, and climbed into bed.  Thankfully the airline had given me earplugs, and I had my eye mask.

I slept for two hours and woke up at 3 a.m.. I went to the bathroom, and when I got back in the bed the sheet hit my foot wrong. I had to get up and turn the light on and make sure there wasn’t a scorpion or something weird in my sheet.  I was a bit irritated at whatever friend told me to check my seats and shoes, but I was comforted after I looked. I set my alarm for 7 a.m. and went back to bed.

I awoke to Brian asking if I was functioning. I told him I would be down shortly.  I knew they were already in the breakfast room, but I was surprised to find them waiting on me when I nonchalantly joined them. I felt bad that they had been waiting on me.  I called Anitah, a connection Vial had made who had helped me plan the Empowering Women Conference. She met us for breakfast, so we could get to know each other in preparation for the conference.  I had black tea with sugar, bread, chicken sausage with mushrooms, pancakes, and boiled eggs. It was delicious, something that surprised me.

We talked about bringing Prince and his family back to the USA for a visit. We were wondering if they could navigate the airports.  Anitah piped in and told us that Ugandans will find a way.  Even if they can’t speak English, you put them in an airport, and they will find their way!  I loved her matter-of-fact way of stating this. I already admired her! We all agreed Prince should try to come to the USA alone first then come back with his family for a visit. We exchanged gifts and then got ready to leave. We had to exchange our money to local currency.  Brian handled all this, and I personally was relieved. I didn’t have to worry about money, made few decisions, and was happy to be along for the ride. Vial was impatient about Brian sharing the money with him. “What if I want to buy a gift or something.”  They began to tease each other again.

On the drive, Brian and Vial would talk a lot about their sermons and the pastors’ conference. Prince would ask questions. He was asking many questions about his faith and the church. I loved listening to all the discussions.  I also shared a story about communion at our church and how it was a struggle for our family to agree on what the process should be. It was a good discussion.  At the end, we agreed that communion is for believers and is a symbolic act we participate in to remember the Lord and his sacrifice for us.

We passed many markets on the side of the road. There was traffic until we got outside the city and then the busy streets began to transform into a plush, green, hilly landscape. When we made it to Fort Porta, I really noticed the lushness of the trees. The villages we passed were beautiful but also looked very poor. Dirt huts and people carrying water jugs on their heads was the common scene. I wanted to stop and spend hours meeting and photographing everyone, but there was no time. We had a long journey.

After a few hours, we came to a wildlife area and saw baboons on the road. We passed banana orchards and fields of tea. The tea looked like miles and miles of connected shrubs. I was also amazed at all the people walking cows on leashes. Some of the cows had very long horns. There were motorcycles, which they called botabotas, everywhere. They carried anything and I mean everything; beds, bananas, baskets, families, chickens. You name it, we saw it!  Plans of Prince coming to America were being discussed, and I thought about how they really put plans into action here.

We stopped at a service station where we saw an officer with a machine gun. I didn’t feel unsafe there but was glad when we pulled away. We stopped and one point to check the tire and found out we had a nail in the tire.  Thankfully, there was someone there that could repair it. As they were doing that, I spoke to a few of the ladies who were selling jewelry. I felt bad that I didn’t have any money for them.

When I got back to the car, Vial got me some money from Brian, and I went to look for the women.  They had seemingly disappeared. Then, we finally spotted Naudia. Vial had challenged me to remember the names of the people that I met. I bought some gold earrings and she tried to put them on for me.  I could feel Vial tense up. I told her I would put them in.  We left and I used a wipe to clean the jewelry before placing them in my ears. It’s possible the earrings were from China not Uganda, but I just wanted to help Naudia.

After a long drive, we made it to Simba’s. It was such a cute place to stay.  We all had our own rooms with a key that we turned in at night so they could spray for mosquitoes (masqweetoes). When I saw my room with the nets all pulled around the bed, I was impressed and thought it was kind of neat. I tried not to think too much about malaria but just enough to remember to take my meds. I would spray myself with bug spray each day as well. We had a very nice dinner and Rachel took excellent care of the table.

We were the only ones there, it seemed.  We all went to our rooms right away as we would wake up early for church the next day.  I had been in conversations with Edrine K about joining us for breakfast, and I was a bit nervous she wasn’t getting my messages because there was weak cell service in my room.. She is a musician and activist for education for women and girls with whom I had previously met via Instagram. She and her colleague, Ibrahim, joined us for breakfast. It was so amazing to meet her. We exchanged gifts, and we were all beaming with appreciation and joy. We didn’t get a lot of time together because we had to get to the pastors to their churches. She did have time to tell me they were doing a campaign with the Winnie Kiiza Foundation.

Prince, our driver and owner of Royalty Rides, had the car ready to go for us, and we set out to take Vial to Headmaster David’s church. I got out, as well, and took a look around.  I could hear drums and singing of the most beautiful music. I met a few children. One of them, Lucky, told me good morning in English and had the most beautiful smile. I took my first of many selfies and received a hug. I was in love already, and I will never forget him. It was hard to leave David’s church, but I had planned to go with Brian to Center Ark church.

When we arrived at the church, we were led inside where there was a special place for us to sit.  Everyone was singing joyfully and in vibrant, colorful dress. The children were in the back sitting together, and it reminded me of children’s moments at my childhood church. I met Pastor Ephraim and Pastor Janet as we arrived. They both had such joyful spirits. Pastor Janet led the service with Natalie translating for her.

After what seemed to be a full sermon, they welcomed Brian to begin his teaching. He gave a plaque that said Center Ark church and But God. Brian introduced me and Vial. I was nervous because I didn’t know what to say other than that Brian had shown me all their photos, and I just wanted to meet everyone. So, I spoke about the children. I said, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” That is what I thought when I walked into the church, so I thought it should be shared. Prince later told him he was waiting on me to actually sing it.  I had only said it. That made me laugh.

Janet sat next to me while Brian was talking, and I was so glad she had preached in the church that morning.  I had been really pondering about women leading in the church and what roles women could play. She confirmed that women should absolutely use their voices in the church for more than singing. She worshiped with her whole body, and I just adored her. We were told after church that we were going to go to a prison.  So, we went to David’s church to pick up Vial and then changed clothes to go to the prison.

Car Conversations: Question: What if there is someone who claims to be a prophet?

Answer: If people are bragging that “they” are doing things instead of giving the glory to God we should be skeptical.  We also learned that Vial was a mime and peddled a unicycle in his past life.  On the way to the prison, Brian passed out.  He was asleep sitting up and bent over with his glasses balancing on his nose. I had to take a photo.  Vial appreciated it 😀

The Prison

It was a long bumpy drive to the prison. Prince and I were both a little concerned about the tire and wondered if it would make it.  The stones in the road looked sharp. Along the side of the road were fields of cattle, and there was lantana everywhere.  It was 3-to-6-foot tall and stretched along the road for miles. It was really beautiful and reminded me of my yard at home. Our lantana is much smaller, but it still made me smile.

Ephriam was leading the way on a botabota when it began to rain.  He jumped in the car with us, and we continued.  When we arrived at the prison. I was shocked to see it overlooked a beautiful lake. I thought about how these prisoners may never want to leave. After seeing their sleeping quarters, I know that was just not true. Peter, the manager of the prison, met us and led us to the office. We had to sign the visitors book and listen to him a bit longer than we were comfortable, especially in a room that locked only from the outside.

I noticed that all the papers were disorganized, and I thought that even though he had all the records for the prisoners, it would take him considerable time to find it.  He explained that they had a copy of the Bible and the Karan. I found this inclusive environment a bit shocking.  I did notice that several of the prisoners had their own Bibles.  We made our way to the front gate of the prison and were let into a yard where the men had been listening to another preacher’s sermon.  Peter introduced us to the pastor and then got the prisoners together in front of their sleeping quarters. They had prepared a song for us.

This is where I truly saw something amazing happen.  As they were singing and clapping, I noticed that everyone had a different clap. Some were clapping slow and others fast, some had their hands go far apart and others close together. I also didn’t know the words to the song and yet it was the most beautiful song. I was singing and clapping as well. I just found it so remarkable that we were all participating in this worship together, but differently.  It made me think we were all in God’s kingdom praising him, and somehow we could all understand each other speaking in our own languages. It was truly a beautiful experience in the most unlikely places.

Brian and Vial gave a teaching class next. I noticed a lot of the men nodding their heads in agreement and saying Amen. Then Ephraim led us in a song, “The Lord is Good. I will lift him higher, everywhere I go I will lift him higher.” Then, he asked me to pray for them. I was shocked but also honored and hoped that I gave the men hope and the love of Christ through my prayer. These men would only be in this prison for two years or less, so the hope is that they will be able to reclaim their life with God’s help.

As we made our way back through what they called the Cattle Keepers Land, we saw an elephant.  Prince spotted it and slowed down so we could get photos and video, but then a couple botabotas came by making noise. He looked like he was going to charge us, so Prince sped off. I think he was a little frightened. Later, he said it again that he thought the elephant was about to charge us. Brian said, “God always gives us a safari.” We then crossed the bridge and saw several elephants in the water. It was cool to watch them walk. It was very majestic.

Car Reflections

Questions: What is Faith?  Answer: We talked about putting faith into the wheel of works.  I made a note to ask more about this wheel. (I found this: https://www.navigators.org/resource/the-wheel-illustration/)

We discussed songs and activities for the children at lakeshore.  I said I was thinking about the song Father Abraham sang.  I was surprised Brian hadn’t heard of it. Then, he told me he didn’t grow up in the church, so he missed a lot of Vacation Bible School songs. Vial and I began to sing a bit of it.  Father Abraham had many sons and many sons had father Abraham, and I am one of them and so are you so lets just praise the lord. Right arm, left arm, right foot, left foot, spin around…

Embracing the culture

When we got back to Simba. Ephaim and a couple of the local pastors joined us for dinner.  They discussed ideas and guidelines for pastors to have a healthy church. I sat next to Prince, and we mostly listened to the wisdom in front of us.

  • Let God be the final authority. Prayer and Fasting.
  • Build church on things it needs to do: not what it has already done. Bow to history but focus on the future.
  • Lead the church, don’t drive it. Be its servant not its master—as shepard not a CEO.
  • Find leadership among the congregation to assist the pastor who shows signs of true conversion. Give them authority with responsibilities. Let them make mistakes.
  • Make your priority to study and deliver the Word of God consistently.
  • Establish and expand ministry by caring for the dead, their families, and friends.
  • Establish and expand ministry by caring for people who need to be married, baptized, or the Lord’s Supper.
  • Be chaste in dealings with women. Never cross this line.
  • Avoid Handling money as often as possible. Double and triple check proper stewardship of it.
  • Don’t let a building become your God.
  • Find a brother (confident) in faith to keep you committed and faithful.

I thought these were pretty good guidelines, but I couldn’t help but think of the women pastors out there who also need accountability partners and guidance.

The next morning, I woke up early to see the sunrise at the elephant lodge that was connected to Simba. It was owned by the same management but looked to be a little nicer. I was happy with Simba and our rock bottom shower, but I thought my husband, Carter, would like the lodge better. It was a beautiful morning and Vial was there too. I tried to take a timelapse video, but Vial walked through it once, and the clouds covered where the sun was rising. I still really liked how it turned out. The green mountains and shining lake were not the sites I was expecting from Africa.

The next morning, we met for breakfast which was fruit, tea, eggs, toast with jelly, and a side of small pancakes. We met at the car, and as we waited for Ephraim, Prince had the Christian music playing.  Brian’s wife, Shawn, had made us a mixed USB for the drive. It was lovely. We headed out to the school next to the church that we had dropped Vial at earlier.  As we drove up, the children met us at the car. When I got out, they were surrounding me. At one point I thought I would be trampled. I said, “ok ok” and they released their grip a bit. We made our way to the chairs they had set up for us to watch their program.

The program consisted of singing us a welcome song, “Welcome Visitors in the name of Jesus Christ.” For some reason, this took me by surprise, I just beamed with joy. My face was beginning to hurt from all the smiling. Then several children told us riddles and began to sing, “Jesus loves the little children.” This really made me smile after I had spoken about that song at the church service. Then Brian and Vial began their teachings. They used a balloon and a candle and let it on fire… so it popped.  Then, they had a water balloon and put the candle to it. It did not pop. This was because the water cooled the outside of the balloon. The teaching was that Jesus is the Living Water and can help you through life’s challenges. Brain did a few more relay races and balloon toss games.  I really enjoyed watching him with the children. Vial was sitting by me making fun of him the whole time. I have found this is just what men do.

During the presentations, Ephraim had been making me a baton.  I had mentioned to Brian that I used to be a featured twirler, and I guess he or Vial told Ephraim that I needed a stick.  Ephraim handed me a stick made from a eucalyptus tree. It was still a little slimy when he handed it to me, but I was so surprised I didn’t care. I began to twirl it and found a confidence to twirl for these children and let them know they all had a unique gift, too.

Twirling has always come easy to me.  I once had a coach who taught me one routine before she moved to Utah. I have practiced versions of this routine for about 30 years. I still have my first baton and even though I didn’t have it with me, it was a great experience to share my gift with all of them.  They sang and clapped as I twirled. Little did we know that I would be twirling for a lot more schools that week. 🙂

After that, we handed out notebooks, pencils, and lollipops to the children. They all got in lines and waited patiently to receive theirs. I loved this work. I felt like we were in a hurry to pass them out and at the same time I felt time lasted forever as I took in all the smiles. I especially enjoyed it when the children would rip into the candy so fast and throw the paper on the ground.  There was a trail of papers, which made me uncomfortable until I saw so many items made from the garbage that was around. Still, I picked up when I could in hopes that they would model it.

We met with leaders, and I recognized them and several of the children from photographs Brian had shown me through the years. It was very touching to see them in person. I met Tembo and Daphane. They said, “We want to come to your country.” I responded, “Keep working hard and you will be one step closer.”

Next, we stopped at Little Angels. It is a school and an orphanage. They also had a welcome office, welcome visitors song, and presentation.  We did another presentation with two bottles of water. One we opened and put dirt inside.  The dirt was sin and God can’t be in the presence of sin, so he sent Jesus (another clean water bottle) that took away our sins if we are willing to give them to him.

We left this place and went to Lakeshore and the fisherman’s village. We drove up close and then they asked us to get out and walk the shore where the fisherman were, so we did. I knew I was supposed to stick with Janet. So, I stuck with her. We were once again surrounded by children. There was a man selling boiled eggs, so we bought them for the children. Janet said they cost 15,000 in local currency and I was thankful I had that exact amount from the leftovers from the earring purchase. I noticed that some of the children were eating the eggs with the shell still on.  My heart broke a little. I began to peel the eggs for them. I looked down at one of the eggs covered in dirt from the children’s hands and I realized it was okay.

Janet then took off running and dancing through the streets. I have no idea what she was saying, but I joined her.  I was regretting having my backpack at that point but was unsure what we were doing so I brought it with me.  We ran all the way to a field that was across from where the men were listening to Brian and Vial.

I tried my best to help Janet with games like volleyball and signing songs to see if the children would join in. I chose Father Abraham and then did the rain dance Vial had taught us in the car. That was a good one. Everyone could do it together.  When we played with the balls, it was more of a fighting match every time it hit the ground.

It was really hot, and I was sweating a lot.  Janet was concerned for me and told me we should not overdo it. I was so happy that she said that!  We walked back to the car. Prince immediately turned on his fabulous Royalty Rides service and cooled me with the air conditioning. The men were still talking for a bit, so I got to spend some time with Prince. It was nice to be there for any questions that he had. I didn’t know whether I had any good advice to give, but I tried to listen and tell bits of my story that I thought might help him on his journey.

Car Reflections:

Vial told us he had a surprise for us all day. When he finally told us, we had given up that he actually would tell us. He told us that he only had long-sleeve shirts and he had cut off his shirt sleeves with fingernail clippers. Brian gave him a hard time and then also asked Prince to drive off when he was taking a bathroom break.  I thought to myself, “Boys are so mean to each other.” Then somehow, we got on the subject of gumbo, and I thought it was hilarious that Prince called it “disorganized food”.

We headed back to Simba’s to get changed. I was so happy to get in the shower. Apparently, I had cow “dung” on my arm and shoes after playing with the children in the field. We got changed and made our way back to the pastor’s conference. The conference was a treat as Brian and Vial were talking to other pastors about how to have a healthier church. It was good to hear. They included many good reminders for all of us about how to be good leaders. I felt like I had heard Brian and Vial talking about several of the key points that were made in their decisions with the pastors and in the car conversations.

Car Conversations: Question: If I become a Christian, will I change?  Answer: The holy spirit is with you and guides you in your decisions.

Police check. The armed drunk officer asked for Prince’s license and when he saw he had some money made him pay him, so we could pass. Prince kept his cool. I was impressed.

My thoughts were with Janet and Ephraim. I was writing in my journal how much my love for them grew each day. I could just feel my heart fill with love for them each day we served together.

After the conference, Prince stopped by Simba’s to give us an update on the next day’s activities. He said we would be going up into the mountain schools and then we could come back to Simba’s before it was time to be back at the church for the pastors’ conference. Then, he shocked me. He said, “Then Charli will speak to the women.” Women had wanted to join in the service, but it was for pastors only.

Ephraim let the women know that during the conference he would do something for the women who were not pastors.  He created a space for them outside under the shade tree.  I already knew by this point that a shade tree is all that was needed to beat the heat in Africa. At that moment, I knew why I was in Uganda. It was the confirmation of why I was there. I could see that I had been preparing for this moment all along. I had read Ruth on the plane, and I knew after some prayerful thought that I would share the story of Ruth with the women of Uganda.

Car Reflections Question: Did you see that Kelm? Answer: Yes, you have shown me all the kelms of Uganda. Do you see that Pencil Cactus? Stay away from it. Questions about Faith continued, and we made sure to let Prince know we loved when he asked us questions.  It actually really helped us refine our skills about how to share the gospel and learn from each other’s responses. And of course, showing how Christians don’t always agree… especially when we disagree with Brian said Vial 🙂

The next day we meet up again early to go to more schools. Before I met with everyone, I tried to catch the sunrise again. There were some workers cutting the pencil cactus hedges along the path, and I took Vial’s advice and made sure to steer clear.

We were going to a nearby school, but the car couldn’t make it up the hill, so we had to get out and hike a short way up to the school. It was Janet’s primary school, and you could tell she was really happy to be serving them.  She was wearing a red dress with leopard print accents that was just beautiful! I was happy to see the leopard print because I had brought a scarf for Prince’s wife that had a similar design. I thought, “Oh I think it will be perfect.”

I noticed Janet was wearing heels, and I thought that her feet had to be hurting. I asked her about them, and she said she didn’t think we would have to walk that far on that day.  She didn’t miss a beat. It was such a joy to see her at her school beaming with gratitude as she worshiped.

As we got to each school, we had to go to the office and sign the visitors’ book.  I always commented, “Jesus loves you.” We would tour the school and assess the needs. They would also give us a typewritten report. They would read the report and then the children would sing to us. “Welcome visitors in the name of Jesus Christ.” They would say Bible verses or sing songs and there would be many Hallelujahs and Amens. We would teach the message that Jesus was the living water, and if you have Jesus you can withstand the challenges/fire of the day. We did the water balloon toss game to demonstrate how we can share the love of Christ with people near and far away.

The next school in the valley of the mountain was driveable and had a beautiful field with a stream near the school. We took a moment to walk over and take a look. Ephraim wanted to show me the “African bridge.” I walked across it above the stream and did a little power pose.  The logs were still rounded, so I got a little foot massage as you walked across. The men were scared they would fall in the water, so they didn’t cross.  I found this very funny. They explained later they didn’t want to risk getting their phones wet if the bridge gave way.

As we left, we were driving along some wildlife areas. These were the areas that looked more like the Africa from TV with all the lions and tigers. I had told everyone that I did not want to see any “big cats” on the trip.  Prince joked as we slowly passed a heavy brush area, “There’s a lion.”  I responded… “WHAT? WHERE?”

Car Reflections:

Me: There was a spider on the windshield right in front of me.  Prince quickly stopped the car. I jumped out like there was a tiger in the car with us barely waiting for it to stop completely. I had given Brian the perfect ammunition, especially after I had explained the day before how women don’t need their colleagues to protect them at work. They made fun of my leaping in hopes of someone saving me. I, of course, pointed out that they did nothing and Prince saved the day. Royalty Rides wins again.

We made our way back to Simba’s to rest and change before the conference. On that day, Vial would lead the discussion.  It was fun to watch Brian want to say something.  I could tell because that is how I get sometimes. I always want to add to the presentation. We decided that we would eat with the people at the church. We had been discussing whether Brian should say, “Ladies first,” and I asked Janet.  She said, “YES, it’s the BEST way.” I had to agree. So, even though we had dinner at Simba’s waiting for us, we got in line and ate with them. That was a great  experience. I had motake (boiled bananas), rice, and slaw and a side of goat or pork. It was really tasty, and I enjoyed eating with my hands as the locals did, but all I could think about was so many people telling me not to eat their food.

The next day, we traveled further up the mountains. We had to get out several times to help the car make it up the steep inclines.  At one point we had to leave the car and get a botabota to take the notebooks, pens, and suckers (sweets) to the schools. I twirled my stick that was actually turning harder and more like a real baton each day. I said hello to the locals as we passed them. We saw many school-aged children who should be in school but were at home, because they didn’t have school fees for registration. They were home all alone.

I know we passed many children under the age of 10. We passed banana trees and biles of bricks, kelms.  Vial would point them out. We made our way to the school and did the regular routine of signingthe visitor book. I noticed there was an electric switch to a light outlet. There was no bulb, but I wondered if it had ever worked. It was connected to a muddy brick, and I was deep in thought about how that could even work.

The children performed for us, and Ephraim led us in a prayer. Natalie, Pastor Luke’s wife, was the interrupter for the day. She was such a great speaker, and I loved her energy as she translated. Janet led the music, and I just loved how she uses her whole body to worship. I also really loved the drummer boy.

At dinner the night before, Brian had told me the story about the first boy in the Chance project. He was a drummer boy.  That is probably why he stood out to me so much.  When we were passing out the sweets, I gave him an extra one.  I thanked him for playing the drum while I twirled my baton. I was feeling so good from the music that I did a one turn.  I also led the children in the message about how sin enters our lives and keeps us from God, but when we accept Jesus, the living water, we can exchange our dirty water for the pure water of Christ, and we will be cleansed.

As we were leaving, one of the teen-aged boys let me know I had given him double sweets. It was an accident, but the boy was happy about it and asked if I would stay there for “two days.” I said I had to get back to the U.S., but I said I would try to come back one day. I blushed a bit as we joked about the two days comment.

That evening we went to the pastor’s conference, and I led the women of the Center Ark Church in a bible study of Ruth. I had some time to prepare my thoughts, to pray, and to make some notes. I decided we needed to read the whole story of Ruth in their own language, so they could really understand the story. That was where we would start. Once I felt ready, I dressed up in my best red dress from Ivy House Boutique (woman-owned shop in Tuscaloosa, AL.), straightened my hair, and sprayed myself down with mosquito repellent.

As we approached the church, I could see the women sitting under the tree. I realized the magnitude of this moment and prayed for the Lord’s guidance. They welcomed me in a way that made me feel honored. Every time I felt unworthy of the honor, in the moment I would say, “not for me Lord, but for you.”

The Book of Ruth

I asked Janet to read Ruth from their Bible. I followed along and thankfully they told me where they were chapter by chapter, because their words are much longer than English words.  I made a few points as we went along. Naomi set out with her daughters-in-law, and then she changed her mind. I think she began to have doubts. Naomi told the ladies they should go back to their mom’s home.

The daughters wept and didn’t want to leave, but Naomi pressured them by explaining that she would not be able to give them a husband.  She was old and even if she did remarry and had a child, it would be too long to wait to have a husband.  This convenienced Oprah, but Ruth CLUNG to her. She would not leave her. She explained to Ruth that she would be with her. “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people, will be my people and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you from me.”

Naomi saw that her mind was made up. Ruth knew Naomi needed her and she wanted more than anything to be there for her.  Just before we got to that part in the story, a pastor from the group stood and tied her baby on her back. She walked over to Janet and offered to read the book for us. Janet was doing a great job, but she could tell that help was needed.  I made a point that just like the pastor, Ruth knew Naomi needed her help without Naomi having to ask.

The story says the town was stirred when the women arrived, but Naomi didn’t want any of the praise as she left the town with much and came back with nothing.  Naomi focused on Ruth. She let her know about Boaz, a worthy, Godly man. She instructed Ruth about how to work the fields. It wasn’t long before Boaz noticed Ruth. He asked her to not go to other fields and to stay close to the other woman so she would be safe. He instructed his men to leave additional items in the field for her.

It goes on to tell the story about Naomi telling Ruth how to go to Boaz in the night. As they were reading in their language (I followed best I could), I noticed all the women smiling and giggling. It was because it was going over how she would lay at the feet of Boaz at the end of the night. This was one of the most special moments.  I could really see their feminine energy shining through.  It made me smile and reminded me just how great it is to talk with other women.

We closed our service with a prayer, and the Women of Center Ark Church asked us to continue to pray for them. They also told us they could use our support for a salon and fabric shop.  I asked them who would run the shop. A hand went up. I asked them who would assist her. Two hands went up. I asked them who would buy from you. Another hand went up, and she said, “We would all be their customers.”

I told them I’d see what I could do, and we made a photo and video together. After that, they called us into the pastor’s conference.  I wondered if we had been making too much noise outside.  I was also glad that I was able to hear Brian close out the conference.  We also ate together. I was getting brave about eating the food there, which I think that was a bad choice looking back. I just wanted to be there with my sister.

Janet told me of her vision that she would be talking so wonderfully with a white woman before I had arrived. I encouraged her at every possible opportunity. I had really started to have a deep love for her and every day as I watched her serve that love grew.  As we sat and talked, she shared that she really wanted to go back to school and be able to speak better English. She has a dream of speaking to multitudes. Janet’s English was very good already, and I encouraged her to go for it. I told her that she is already good enough to speak to anyone!

The next morning, I was really tired. I was quiet, which is unusual for me.  Prince looked concerned and asked if I was okay.  My stomach was a bit upset, and I wasn’t feeling my best energy. I thought the activity was just catching up with me, and I hadn’t been sleeping well.  Luckily, we had a lighter day. We went to one school and taught. We stopped close to where Ephraim grew up.  We were lucky enough to meet his Mom, who greeted us with gifts and a smile.  I was so honored to have my photo taken with her. While they were inside, I asked Natalie to braid my bangs. She had many braids, and I just love them.

Then, we went shopping for a few things we needed to play games with the children that Brian sponsors. When Brian and Vial were shopping for toys for the students, I asked Janet to help me find out how much it would cost to get a hairdryer and sewing machine for the women to start their business.  She took me to two shops, and we discovered it would be 600 local currency for the hairdryer and 500 for the singer sewing machine.  They looked to be 1970 models similar to those that I see in the thrift/antique stores all the time. I told Brian that I’d like to support these women and help to get this started. They seemed like they had put in a lot of thought and that isn’t very much money to help that many women learn a skill that could provide for their families.

Special Needs School

Next, we visited a school where there was a classroom for children with special needs. I loved how the headmaster called the children “learners.” We gave them gifts, and Brian talked about how much he loved them and that God made them very special. He explained that his wife, Shawn, has cerebral palsy, and she became a chemical engineer. She has been there before, and he reminded them how much she loved them.

Brian told them that when we all get to heaven, he hopes to prepare a meal for all of you that is filled with lots of MEAT. That is Brian’s gift of service.  He loves to cook and eat 🙂 meat.  As we were leaving, we invited Joel to ride in the car with us. I know all those children had to be a little jealous of Joel at that moment. A little sadness washed over me knowing we couldn’t take all of them.

When we got to Simba’s, I sat with Joel while Brian went to his room to get some things for the evening activities. We sat and watched soccer, the safari channel, and some cartoons.  We colored a picture together, and I was amazed how determined he was to complete each section of the page with a different color.  Then, he really surprised me.  We were blowing up beach balls and he was able to kick it back to me HARD. Joel also has cerebral palsy, and it is remarkable how much he has improved since Brian met him.

The rest of the children arrived, and we all played with balls. When the kids arrived, Prince also came down to help. He was always there to support our team. It was pure crazytown.  Balls were flying everywhere.  We were all there and playing with the children.  I was still a bit tired, but I pushed through.

There was a piñata of candy which Daphne took down in one shot.  We discovered she could see through the blindfold in BANG. Thankfully, we had other games as we prepared for dinner.  All the games had a message from the Bible, and I thought Brian and Vial made them all fun. There was a food coloring experiment, making mummies, cutting paper activity, soccer, twirling, bubbling water tools, and coloring. Sam asked if he could have the soccer ball with the pump that I brought.  I don’t know how I could ever tell him no. I also gave Daphne my scarf, the faulty blindfold, as it had all of her candy winnings in it.  They all got a gift to take home, and we got the wonderful gift of spending time with them.

We sat down for dinner and all chose a soda of our choice.  They all used their utensils, and I helped one girl flip her fork around to cut her meat easier.  It made me think of teaching my daughter that trick. I missed my kids and knew they would have loved playing with these children.

I felt closer to Prince every day. I found myself looking over at him and just smiling. We had talked a lot about him choosing Christ, and I found that I really grew close to him as I prayed for him each day.  I hope he does choose to be a Christian and raise his son in the church. I also hope he continues to serve the Lord because he has the most amazing spirit. He is super reliable and caring. He loves worship music, and it was fun to see him playing soccer. I kicked it with him a few times while we were playing with the children, and I could see a little competitive side to him there. Anyway, I just love him.

At the end of the night, Ephriam and Janet joined us.  They had been transporting her father from the hospital to her home. I thought they really had a full week, and I hoped that they would take time to rest after we left.  We ended our time together by asking if any of the children wanted to follow Christ. It was wonderful to see a couple say yes.  I wondered if Prince had said the prayer… would he also take the step forward?

The next morning we set out, and it was a bit sad to leave. Telling the Simba staff goodbye was like leaving family. I was going to especially miss waking up next to Rachel’s smiling and fabulous service. I was glad I still had the Empowering Women conference in Kampala to look forward to, so I wouldn’t be too sad. Before we left town, we drove by Queen Elizabeth’s National Park to explore. We did catch an elephant walking off in the distance. As we looked down the hill, I thought, “This is where I am going to see that lion.” I was ready to go 🙂

We were going a different route back, and it really looked like the Safari lands you have seen on TV. We stopped to take a photo there and then again at the Equator before making our way back to Kampala. We passed tea plantations that stretched for miles and miles as well as bananas and eucalyptus tree groves.

Car Conversations:

We passed a hotel named “B-Plus Hotel,” and we all had a laugh.  Vial was giving Brian a hard time introducing himself as a former math teacher when he runs a highly successful computer business.  Those two always had me rolling with laughter.  They shared a Vial story about meeting Andre the Giant in an airport. They seemed way too excited about that to me.

We arrived in Kampala before rush hour and Prince had once again parked us safely at Hotel Sojovalo. We checked in and took a quick break. We would soon meet Prince’s family for dinner! I was ready early, so I went downstairs and ordered a Sprite. I had my gifts wrapped for everyone. I had gotten Prince a tumbler, Hun a scarf, and Shayan a batman car. Brian had Shayan with him and as they got his gifts from his room, I went ahead and gave Prince and Hun their gifts. I was surprised how much they liked their gifts, especially when I didn’t know them before.

Brian and Vial came down, and we tried to get a larger table.  Brian gave Shayan a backpack full of cars. It was those cars that you have to pull backward and release. This was a great idea, but Shayan didn’t have the patience for them to roll by themselves 🙂 He was running 90 mph. I understood what Prince meant when he described him as a “little tornado” after only a few minutes. It took forever for dinner, and I took a turn to walk around with Shayan. He walked me up five flights of stairs, tried to run into the street, and really wanted to eat the fish out of the aquarium. Having said that, I loved every second.

We finally got dinner, but I wasn’t really hungry. Brian’s plate contained a whole fish. The head was looking straight at me. Vial had pizza, which I tasted, and I didn’t like the way the cheese tasted. Shayan LOVED his chicken and ate a couple pieces of pizza too. The next day was the EW conference, so I went straight to bed.

I slept in a little and then went down to have breakfast with Brian and Vial. They were going to do a pastors’ conference at a church while I did the Empowering Women conference. They left, and I finished getting things set up for a 10 a.m. start. Anitah was supposed to be there at 9 so I decided to go ahead and set up the room. I was glad I had because the air condition was not on and I was really doubting if I would be able to present in that room, especially in my red jacket. So, I got the staff to turn it on and it was cooling off by the time everyone arrived. Anitah was having breakfast and then she joined me in the room around 9:40. People arrived every few minutes until about 10:40. We all had tea and I got started with my presentation.

Empowering Women

We all introduced ourselves, and I had them write what their intentions for the day were. It was a five-minute journaling exercise.  I played the song HUMAN from our Leadership 2.0 playlist and then had a few of them share.  It was wonderful how in alignment everyone was to empower each other.

I shared from Chapter 3 of Power Up Power Down by Gail Ruldolph. It was on Mindset, and I explained the Growth vs Fixed mindset.  We went over the exercise where we turned Can’t into CAN!  I shared the story about the Junkyard Orchestra and then told them my experience from Kasese where the children had made toys from bottle caps and a stick.  I decided to read them Psalm 46:5.

It was a mixed group of religions, so I made sure to tell them I was a woman of faith and that I felt this would really help all of us. It talks about God is within her, she will not fail. I told them they needed to spend time on their values and beliefs.  We need to know what is within us leading us. We also went over the prayer cards that were in each bag. I talked about how important it is for us to think about, reach out to each other, or simply pray for one another.

At the close, I asked the women to share about themselves, their business, or just give a word of encouragement to the other women. This is really where the magic happened. So many great nuggets of wisdom were shared. There were two women who actually brought their products to share with the women. I was amazed at the women buying from them. It was beautiful, and it was a tangible empowering experience. After that, I went to the room and rested. Brian had texted that they had a few hours left. I was thankful because I was pretty beat and needed to recharge.

When they returned, we had to make our way to get our rapid Covid test. Thankfully, we all passed. That was a weight lifted as we all mentally prepared to return home.

No place like home

The next day I packed everything in one suitcase so that Brian could have room for purchasing gifts. That made me a few minutes late for breakfast, so I let them know to go ahead and start without me. We were going to church that morning and then we would go shopping. I brought my bags down from the 3rd floor and apparently, I didn’t have to pack up before church. After church, we stopped to pick up gifts and then went to pick up Hun and Shayan for dinner.

We drove to a restaurant close to the airport which was on Lake Victoria.  As we arrived, you could see monkeys running around the parking lot and a vendor selling fashion hats.  It was a really nice restaurant, but I still wasn’t feeling my best. I drank a pineapple juice, but that didn’t seem to help. I barely ate, but Vial and Brian both had the giant fish and Shayan had a pizza, so I felt we supported the restaurant well even though I didn’t eat that much.  It became dark, and it was time to head to the airport. I was thankful because I could see the mosquitos circling the light.

We made it to the airport. We had to get out of the car and walk through security and then get back in. It was different and gave me a bit of fear as they again all had large guns. As we got our luggage down, Prince gave me a bottle of the pineapple soda, Novada. He said he couldn’t give much but wanted to give me something. It was so sweet.  Then we all said goodbye.  When we walked off, I could hear Shayan screaming as they put him in the car. I was glad Brian was in the front, and I hoped he couldn’t hear because it was brutal. We were all going to miss Prince, his family, and all the Ugandan people we had met.

There were so many emotions. We were filled with love. We were exhausted. We were changed forever.

Flying back seemed like it took a week. The extra flight through Paris was confusing but uneventful. Until we got to ATL and found out my clothing bag hadn’t made it back… It decided to stay in Paris… exact location still unknown.

We made it back to Brian’s and all went our separate ways.  We continue to share photos and every now and then Vial and Brian will tease each other on the thread.

It was an amazing life changing experience and I have made friendships that will last a lifetime. I can describe the impact like this…  As I was driving my Jeep back in Alabama, I listened to my daughter, Karli, unprompted tell her friend,  “My mom went to Africa, and she shared the gospel with prisoners.”  Just her saying my mom “shared the gospel” was a moment I will remember forever.

This impact was confirmed as I showed Karli and my mother-in-law this video her cousin, Helena Lewellyn, edited for me.  Her eyes had a bit of pride in them as she watched. Then she said, “And one day I can go there and tell the people I am the daughter of an empowering woman that visited Uganda…”

Now that is the legacy I want to leave.

Facebook Photo Album

We all Heal Differently – ZipperClub

Charli K Matthews - ZipperClub photo

Last July, I became a #zipperclubmember. This is not a club that you would strive to be in and probably don’t know exists until someone in your family joins it. I joined as an #openheartsurgerysurvivor … Those words still sound strange saying them aloud. I was born with a bicuspid valve instead of a tricuspid valve. Over time the valve began to leak due to increased stress and lack of caring for myself mentally and physically. I started having several unrelated symptoms, and it took us about 3 years to figure out was what was causing the problems. After a MRI found that my valve was leaking 30%, we realized I wasn’t getting enough oxygen mixing with my blood. This can obviously cause other organs to have problems, so I went to a surgeon to discuss options. I still hadn’t really processed surgeon = surgery, so when the words “open heart” surgery was mentioned it took me a minute to follow. I heard the words you can choose a tissue valve or a mechanical valve. I was then sent to make an appointment for surgery. I was alone and as I sat with the lovely nurse who was explaining this I was thinking, “Is this really happening? I mean is this a real option for me…” She asked me to pick a date and I picked the very last day available. I was just giving myself as much time to get out of this as possible. Surely, there was another option. I started to cry. The nurse prayed with me and that seemed to calm me down enough to get to the car. I sat and stared out of the parking garage in downtown Birmingham. The world turned blurry. Surgery was not something I wanted to do. I almost walked in there and said, “You should just cancel that appointment… I will just wait until it gets worse.”

A mechanical valve sounds cool and all, but I did not want to be on blood thinners at 40. I also didn’t like the idea of making my family go through the surgery again if I chose the tissue valve that would wear out in 10 years. I also knew my brothers would be making the sounds of whatever animal it was every chance they got.  These were not good options for me.  There was a chance he could repair it. That’s what he said repair OR replace… I held out hope that they could repair it. It was the best case scenario and I prayed for that.  As I posted to social media and told friends and business partners about this, I received a ton of support and encouragement. There really are too many to mention here. Let’s just say… there is no way my subconscious can ever trick me to think no one cares about me again. I have the proof that many people love and care about me.

I will mention a couple people who’s words still ring in my ears. 

Andre Davanzo. Thank you for telling me I shouldn’t wait that I should do it sooner than later. Thank you for saying, you need to take care of yourself and putting it in a way I could understand. “Do it now because your family and friends are going through this with you, and you don’t want them to have to wait and worry.” I took that advice and called and changed the appointment to an earlier date.  Andre… Thank you also for video calling me to make sure I was ok when I still had a tube in my neck. I will never forget it even if I was on some heavy drugs then

During this time, I would daily question if my family would be better off if I didn’t’ make it. I mean I had good life insurance. These were the mental battles that no one likes to talk about, but I struggled with these type of internal thoughts. Then, I received a card from Amanda and Matt Hoffpauir. At the very end it said, “The world needs you Charli!” My daughter was actually in the car with me and because I was driving she read it to me.  In that moment, something clicked and I know there was only one Charli and my family needed me… Just me to be there for them. 

The next person changed the way I showed up for the surgery. Mike Griffin aka Griff. He is also an open heart surgery survivor. He told me his story, welcomed me to

My ZipperClub Hero!!!
My ZipperClub Hero!!!

the #ZippperClub, and showed me his scar. Next, he told me to go into the surgery with a warrior spirit. He told me how he went into his battle determined to win and get out of the hospital in record time. It was a little bit of a competition, and it was exactly what I needed to hear. I immediately pictured Gal aka Wonder Woman headed into battle with bullets flying at her… she was unstoppable in a battle only she could win. I was ready for battle. I had a warrior mindset.  I would win.

I woke up from surgery with the breathing tube still in. I motioned for a pen and wrote, PIG? Carter said, “No, they repaired it! I am still amazed he knew what I meant.  In that moment, I knew everything was going to be ok, because I knew without any doubt, God had answered my prayer and was right there with me through the surgery guiding the surgeon’s hands. I mean how does a valve just start again after 40 years being soldered together. It was a miracle. I was incredibly thankful! I relaxed… Then, I heard my mom tell me to breathe. I remember thinking ok yes, Breathe Charli… Yes! I want to breathe on my own. Mom had told me how important that was before I went under. I took a couple breaths and out came the tube… Now, it was time to get to work recovering… This was the real battle.

That first night was awful. I was nauseous, and I could not get enough pain medicine. I got sick over and over until this Angel gave me a sponge bath, and I was finally able to calm and go to sleep. The next day, I moved to a room where my mom and Carter could be with me. I was given instructions on how to breathe into a spirometer or what I liked to call the lung capacitor, a Back to the Future reference… It was a struggle to take a deep breathe, but each time I did it I felt like I really did something. Each time I could take a deeper breather or more reps, I felt I had made it to the next mile marker in this marathon. Seeing how I couldn’t do much else, I focused on breathing. There were fluid tubes everywhere: A tube in my neck, two coming out of my lungs, a catheter, two that filled up these air wraps on both legs, and an IV. Let me just say… I was barely able to say the word tube before my surgery without getting nauseous, and now they were all around me. I have never cared much for medical talk and the nurses in my family who love all those details know not to talk about that around me! I knew this was going to be hard for me, so I literally told myself over and over before surgery… Tube are good. They save lives… Tubes are the best thing for you. Just to prepare my brain for what I knew would send me spiraling if I didn’t prepare.

So, I set out to master the deep breathe. I did it! Then I got to move from the bed to the chair. I realized that if I did one task, I would get to try another. So, I kept taking the next step… I went from the chair to the bathroom. Then, I went down the hallway. I still remember seeing another woman that came in the same day I did for surgery, and I thought, “I am doing better than her. Keep fighting warrior…” I took a larger walk. The first day I walked I was scared that I would not have the strength to make it much around the corner, I would turn around. I could just see me fall laying with all the tubes, gown open, butt shining… The next day I decided I would walk the full hall, and if I passed out with all these tubes and my gown open so be it. I would at least know my limits. I did it… I made it down the hall and back. I was able to take all the tubes out.  The tubes that were in my lungs were the last to come out.  I was a wake for this. They literally just told me to take a deep breath and then blow out.  While I blew out, they pulled the tubes out… It was the most amazingly awkward rewarding feeling I have ever experienced.  My reward… a shower! Even though it was sitting down on one of those medical chairs with a handheld sprayer, it was heavenly…

It was time to go home. The battle continues…

I kept this mindset once I got home and pushed myself to do “one more” each day… one more walk to the mailbox, one more 5lb weight rep, one more bite of chicken casseroles… It was a process, and I was prepared for that. I was not prepared for the mental struggle that would take place next.

My scars. One LONG scar down my the middle of my chest and two “tube” scars just underneath.

Each day, I was a little stronger and would continue to do my walks around the house. I would wear my robe pajamas that wrapped and allowed my scar to be open and heal. It was on display. I saw it constantly with all the mirrors in our home. It made my children uncomfortable. So, I would try to hide it with my robe pajamas as best I could when they were around. But there is not hiding this scar.  As it healed I was instructed to put oils and lotions on it to help the scar. I did this everyday. Everyday, looking to see if the scar had changed. Was it fading? The answer was NO. I would get in the shower to clean it and cry.  I cried a lot in the shower.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like having a scar.  I think scars are cool, and I already had a C-section scar so I was use to that.  It was that every time I got out of the shower, the mirror was there to show me the scar and remind me how WEAK I was… 

My entire wardrobe seemed to be some sort of V-neck collection to showcase I was injured. I went through my clothes throwing out my favorite items that I no longer felt comfortable wearing. I would look through my photos and see my chest in my favorite V-neck shirt or dress without a scar and think… Well, that is no longer me. My favorite dresses and styles would need to change. All I could think is who am I. The way I expressed myself through fashion had changed forever.  I didn’t know how I wanted to show up.  I am not one to hide. I was so uncertain. Should I be hiding this scar? I know it makes people uncomfortable. Hell, it made me uncomfortable! I didn’t know what to do… The strong lady I saw in my photographs had disappeared for me. She was lost. I was sad. So, I grieved. I gave myself space to do this. Three months later after binge watching Chicago Med and watching all the up-close surgery action I could find (part of my healing I suppose), I began to see my scar as a symbol of my courage. 

I have to thank my coaches Susan Hobson and Rob Kalwarowsky for allowing me to share about my surgery on the Leadership Launchpad Podcast. I just recently listened to it, and I know that was a turning point in my journey.  I was then able to share it on the stage at the American Heart Association’s Worksite Wellness event. I had done the work to get myself back physically and on mission. 

You can listen to it here:

In September, I had made it to 3miles walking with intervals of running just in time for the Grundfos Water for Water.  This really was my motivation.  I wanted to be

Made it 3 miles!!!
Made it 3 miles!!!

able to post that I had done the virtual 3 miles.  This was an eternity on a treadmill for me back then… I was bored after 1 mile. I learned that if played my cardio pop music and did more of dance walk. I could make it. It was a mental test.  I finally passed it.  This also allowed me to be ready for the Empowering Women stage in Chicago in Oct. This was my ultimate goal.  I wanted to show up with energy as myself.  The whole conference was themed #BeYourself.  I was there and I felt I had won the battle!

In reality, it took me a few more months and a hysterectomy to work out all my health issues. Today, I feel that we have uncovered the energy I have been missing for decades, but I still felt I wasn’t fully healed.

Going through this trauma and listening to others stories has taught me, everyone overcomes obstacles in their own way. I know for me I must tell my story to heal… I must show my scar… I must not hide to live in my truth. 

Life goes on and we must keep moving as well.  Take the Deep Breath, Take a Walk, Benge some random TV, do whatever it takes to walk in your truth!

My truth is… I am a survivor. a courageous warrior who went straight at the problem and I happy to show off my victory scar with all my fellow zipper clubs friends. 

Cheers to all of you bold beauties! #scarsarebeautiful #zipperclubmember #openheartsurgerysurvivor #mentaltoughness #selfdispline #nationalzipperday #empoweringwomeninindustry #empoweringwomen #wonderwoman #charlimagic 

Leadership and Personal Branding

Charli's Events and Workshops

I’ve recently shared Lessons Learned in Ten Years of Business and wanted to continue to build on that. We all know that being a good leader is important no matter if you are the head of a large corporation or temporarily in charge of a small team. They want to know who they are working with and what you stand for. Below, I will show you why personal branding is important to leadership.

  1. It allows you to be authentic.

In the past, we only had our name to rely on. Now we have our own personal branding. The bad news is if you aren’t creating your personal brand, others are. You show your commitment to your work by defining a clear leadership style as well as if and how you live it. You must go beyond having a developer design a logo, create a mission statement, etc. A leader is a mentor, role model, trusted colleague, expert in their area, and an overall authoritative voice in their chosen field. This goes whenever you make an appearance on social media, in person, in the office, on the field, or even in a podcast. Your personal branding is authentic when you live it every day and others pick up on it.

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The World Needs You… Yes YOU!

Charli at Model Call

These were the sweetness words read to me by my daughter as I recovered from surgery. I don’t know if it was the confirmation I needed to heal or just the emotions that anyone feels when they are told they matter, but it did the trick. I saw this phrase in several letters I received as encouragement and it made you wonder, “The world needs me for what?”

When my daughter read it to me, I immediately thought “Yes, to be your mom!” But, each time I read it in other places, I would think of a different reason. I remember thinking about the engineer who wrote this in his letter, and I thought “Yes, to bring the excitement!” I could give more and more examples, but the main theme was… The world needs you… Because no one else can be you!

This is what I want all of you to know! The world needs you to bring yourself to the table. The world needs your ideas, your creativity, your strategic mind, your critical thinking, and yes your voice. We need to hear from you and learn from who you are!

I encourage everyone who reads this to look into themselves and wonder not “the world needs me for what?” But What can I share with the world that is unique to me? What are my strengths, gifts, and talents? Now, let me settle your doubts right now… YOU HAVE THEM! You were created to be a blessing to others and you are!

As I understand from the outpouring of love I experienced during my recovery from heart surgery, you are loved whether you feel like it all the time or not. Accepting that love or any help from others has been hard for me in the past… Gratitude practices really helps with this. Learning to love and appreciate yourself as the creation you are also helps with accepting love and understanding others motivations.

I am confident that I am loved by God, myself, and others. I say “others” because I could feel the love from strangers as well as friends during my recovery, and it is truly incredible. What strangers’ love did you walk right past and not notice? I challenge you to make it a point to notice. Love comes in so many different forms, and it is an honor to get to know your love language! One of my favorite ways to share love is to mention someone online and include a picture of them (with me if I have it). I like to do this, because I also like to receive that kind of love as well. Bethany Womack picked up on my love language without me telling her. It really made me smile when she mentioned it in passing because I felt like she understood me. Similarly, Bethany captures my soul in photos. Like the one featured here, she captures the things that make me… well ME!

The hundreds of people who posted on my heart surgery and recover posts can not have known how much their comment would really mean to me. It helped me understand that I was loved, in a way I could understand and valued. If this was you, Thank you! I truly felt the virtual embrace!

If public shoutouts aren’t your thing, I’m curious, how do you show love? You can private message me 😀

Ok… I know that is a lot about love on this “professional network” so I’ll get back to business. The world needs you! Know it and shine your light within your industry. We want to hear your voice, we want to learn from your story, and we want to see what you will innovate next!

Don’t know where to start, message me! I’ll listen!

Lessons Learned in 10 Years of Business

Charli and Lessons Learned

Let’s start with this…Double Digits!!! Can you believe I have been a business owner for 10 years?!! It’s a huge milestone for an entrepreneur, and I am so happy to celebrate with all of you!

As I look back on the last ten years, I have so much gratitude for the journey. I have had some huge celebrations and some disappointments and have learned great lessons from both.

Leadership

To be an entrepreneur, you must be a leader. You can’t pass this role off to someone else. Even if you have a team to help you, you must understand your responsibility within the organization to lead yourself and your team. When things are hard, it is your responsibility to share the vision toward improvement. As an activator, so many times I am ready to pass off a project to someone else to carry on. This is not possible for your company. It must be a reflection of you and your values as well as taking into account the views of your team.

I love the work around leadership and developing others. I’ve learned that it takes the individual (me included) deciding to do the work to grow. It really must be their idea. You can suggest and recommend things but a leaders must believe in themselves and their abilities. Sometimes that isn’t natural and sometimes there are limiting beliefs that are keep you from moving to the next level.

Team

When I started the company, it was so that I could have a job. I quickly realized in order to grow I would need help. I wasn’t sure who I needed but I knew I needed some help. I needed people around me that had strengths that were different than mine. I also needed someone that could stand in when I wasn’t able to be there. Each person that has worked for us had a significant influence on what the company is today and I love sharing this accomplishment with all of them. I will add, my team that navigated the pandemic and came through to now navigate my absence is showing remarkable abilities beyond my expectations! I am so proud of what we have built at Empowering Brands.

The Hard Stuff

I was a mom of three (under 6 yrs old) when I started my company. This was no doubt a challenge for our family and the business. My kids have seen me at my best and at my worst. What I know today is that I am glad my children are independent like their mom and know how to work hard. They also know that rewards come with challenges and the good ones usually come with a lot of hard work. Navigating family life and work commitments for both me and my husband, Carter, was a source of conflict especially when his job would ask why I couldn’t watch the kids every-time they were sick. I would get so angry as I was also building my business and there was no one else to do it. These were tough days… But I am so glad we made it through it because now, if my child needs me, I can be there. I can be there because we built a successful business and it allows me and my team the flexibility to work and have a wonderful family life. This is so important to me and one of the most rewarding parts of my business today.

Passion

You must be passionate about your work! If you lose that passion along the way, you must find it or adapt your business. Burnout is real and you must have purpose alongside the work to keep from tiring too quickly. For me, it’s my passion for water and empowering women! I wake up on mission each day and that makes no challenge to overwhelming.

Growth

Moving forward is essential. When you get complacent, you will soon see yourself or your team falling backward. There is a good way to see this forming… it starts with unresolved conflict. Is there something that keeps coming up but isn’t getting addressed? This is a sign to look for a root cause. Problems are often not related to the obvious.

Being Present

The best thing I implemented when Bekah joined our team is a weekly meeting and a Friday email check in. This has allowed us both to grow. It gives her access to me at an uninterrupted time as well as a way for her to keep me informed. There is a trust and accountability for each of us to be there for each other and accomplish our goals along the way. This system has allowed me to fully trust her and her abilities because I know her. I know her because I spend time with her and I believe this makes all the difference.

Entrepreneurship

Yes, I had to learn about cash-flow and credit lines. I still think I need more knowledge of investments and finance even if it was my college major. Having said that, these business tips and tricks are the easy part. The tough part of entrepreneurship is believing in yourself. You must have the courage to take risks and believe that you can accomplish your goals. You also need to be able to adapt and move on when things don’t work out as planned. This is all much easier with a network of encouragers! I am lucky to have such a diverse network. It has been key to my understanding in business and company culture as well as benefited me personally when I needed a good high-five !

So the best advice I can give if you are considering starting a business…Find you a cheerleader, a side of grit, and a list of all things that make you uniquely you. And know…You got this!

Vision

I think the role of the person creating the company has to be vision. They must have a clear vision of where the company is headed. This can change over time but I think it the owner doesn’t know what they what to accomplish then it will be hard to get their team to buy into the work. I do believe that each team member can have input into the vision but the responsibility for vision must stay with the creator as the final say. I say this because I believe the team looks to the entrepreneur for confirmation on next steps. I don’t believe real success is possible with a hand off approach unless the creator steps away completely. This is why staying involved with the people, products, and processes is so important for our leaders. We must understand the work we are asking others to accomplish.

Finding Your Voice

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