Tales of Determination and Dignity

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Ruth surrounded by love.

She rolled through the bumpy dirt roads of Nairobi, over pieces of trash and around people who looked at her with scrutinizing eyes. They saw her as cursed, as one who didn’t belong, as one who wasn’t welcome. But her smile spoke differently.

She churned the hand cranks on her donated wheelchair with a level of confidence that matched the width of her smile and showed each person she passed that dirt roads, enormous potholes and lack of assistance weren’t going to stop her. She had dignity, courage and a place to get to where she knew she belonged.

Her Young Life leaders greeted her with matching grins, hugs and extra boosts to get her wheelchair into the room where Young Life club would take place. They pushed her to the front of the room since the back corner, hidden from the rest of the kids, wasn’t an acceptable answer for any of those leaders. As kids piled in and songs were sung, leaders intentionally sought her out. They grabbed her hands and helped her dance. They spun her wheelchair and included her in the evening. And not once did I see the radiant smile leave her face.

Ruth’s 40-minute journey to Young Life club was worth every bit of it for the 90 minutes she spent safe, valued, encouraged and a part of the group.

Early the next morning, we walked those same roads all the way to Ruth’s house. We walked over the bumps and around the potholes and every person we passed looked intently at us. The difference was that they didn’t look at us with disgust but with honor, we were two white people, walking with one of their own. Little voices called out, “Hellloooo, how are youuuu?” as we passed and when we answered, a mountain of giggles followed. The same roads, the same people, the same beginning and end, but an entirely different journey.

When we got to Ruth’s house in the slums, I asked her what she loved about Young Life. After making fun of my English, she said Young Life has given her courage, friends and a place to belong. She said her favorite part of club and camp is the club talks, where she gets to learn about Jesus. And she shared with me about her desire to be a Young Life leader. Her heart for Jesus and her desire to get other kids with disabilities involved in Young Life are equally enormous. She has vision, determination, courage and people cheering her on. There’s no doubt in my mind she will be one of the best volunteers in the mission of Young Life.


Meanwhile, in Ethiopia there is a school where all of the kids are deaf and most have other disabilities as well. When the school began, teachers walked the streets to find kids with disabilities and built trust with parents so they would allow their child to attend school. Then a Young Life leader who was fluent in sign language found the school and decided they needed to have club there. She recruited Young Life staff and other volunteers and for the past two years, they have shown up every week to run club. They are each learning sign language as they go, while the head master of the school, as well as some teachers, sign for and with them at each club.

When we pulled up to the school, the kids ran toward the van and greeted us with hugs, kisses, handshakes and radiant smiles. They knew what was coming and couldn’t wait. That van was a symbol of hope, an hour of joy and the chance to rest in the core of who they were created to be. For one hour they got to be kids, beautiful kids with brilliant smiles and sweet giggles. An hour where they forgot what the rest of the city thought about them. One hour of being treated as they were: fearfully and wonderfully made.

They danced, played games, laughed, did hand motions and patiently taught us new words in sign language as club progressed. We passed out food and watched as some of them grabbed it knowing that this would most likely be their last meal of the day.

One by one as their parents picked them up or they walked home, a bit of sadness came back over them. They had to re-enter the world around them, the one they knew didn’t value them. Despite deafness and disabilities, they were acutely aware of what everyone thought, not only about them but of their parents as well.

We walked through the streets after club to end up at the home of one of the students. Their house had been torn down to make room for a new railroad. Unable to find someone willing to rent them a room because their son has a disability (even relatives refused) the family lives under a plastic tarp that’s smaller than a double bed. They are a family of five, sleeping together on one mat, surrounded by people who think their child with a disability is cursed. They are rejected, feared and frowned upon.

Not by Young Life leaders though.

Eight leaders circled around the fire that Semera, the mother, was building for a coffee ceremony — Ethiopia’s sign of welcome. As Semera ground the beans, Rahel, a Young Life staff member, talked to her about her family, her living situation and her story. Rahel looked deeply into Semera’s eyes and welcomed the woman’s tears.

Neighbors came out and stood by their doorsteps, looking in wonder at this group of people sitting with the outcast. The very woman they didn’t care to help was surrounded by a group of people leaning in to catch her every word.

It wasn’t until our walk back that we knew all she said, since she spoke in Amharic, yet we understood what was taking place in those moments we were together. This woman was experiencing dignity and friendship she had not known since her son was born. People listened to her story, soaking in every word and acknowledging the hardship of it. Though they couldn’t provide her a house or immediately change the way people viewed her, they were bringing change. Jesus was using them to meet her and her son’s hearts in ways that only He can.

As we piled back in the van and sat in traffic, I thought about the many Young Life Capernaum leaders I know who take the time to not only see the inner core of their friends with disabilities but who also lean in when a parent is speaking. They are leaders who sit and listen while the crowd looks on with disbelief.