Josh turned over another plastic toy is his hand and decided to sleep on whether he could bear to part with it. In the morning, it was still there, proudly on top of the pile like a Christmas tree star - a shining token from a boy who couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of his gifts.
What he did understand was that his toys would go to children not unlike him. They had also lost their dads.
To deliver the toys, Josh travelled with his mom to Uganda. Despite the stark differences in culture and language, Josh and his mom used their own loss to connect deeply with the women and children in the village of Ndejje and created a bond that would last longer than the toys, balloons and chewing gum they had brought. Erin Cassidy was married to Paul for two years when she became pregnant with their first child. Three months later, they discovered Paul had bowel cancer. As Erin gave life to her son, she watched her husband die. Only five months after Josh entered the world, Paul left it. Erin was alone with her infant and Paul’s seven-year old daughter. The world, it seemed, would never spin in the same direction again. Four years on, Erin was working as the office manager for Global Volunteer Network. She watched hundreds of people sign up to volunteer their time and often thought about volunteering herself. There was one particular program on her mind: the Widows’ Empowerment Project in Uganda.
When Erin made an off-hand remark to a friend at church about the project, he told her to book the flight and bill it to him. When she realized he was serious, she did just that, but she didn’t go alone; she took Josh too. ‘I wanted to show him that even though we think we don’t have a lot, we have more than others can only dream of, ’ she said. As for Erin, the trip was a sort of homecoming in a foreign land, where she could offer her knowledge of sorrow for others to lean on.
'I was aware of what I was dealing with, ’ she said. ‘Most of the women in the Widows’ Empowerment lost their husbands to AIDS and watched their spouses waste away too. ’ AIDS has devastated Uganda. In 2003, there were 530,000 adults living with HIV/AIDS, and 2.2 million orphans in a population of 24 million who had lost one or both parents to the disease. The strain this has created on communities is hard to bear. As the husband is the traditional breadwinner in Ugandan families, his death often leaves the family in financial crisis. The Widows’ Empowerment project gives women choices about their financial future and provides relief from making difficult choices between food and education, water and medicine. The project was started by a local organization in Ndejje, and with the help of Global Volunteer Network, employs international volunteers to help teach mothers and widows practical skills to earn a living. For Erin and Josh, that meant helping to build pens for women to raise pigs and sell for profit. ‘I know how hard it was, and still is at times, for me and the children, ’ Erin said. ‘And I had the assistance of social welfare, friends, people at church and other support organizations. I also remember I did not want to accept anyone’s help. And yet here were these very proud women being so gracious. I’m ashamed to say that I probably wasn’t as gracious in accepting help on the scale that I received. It was very humbling. ’
The decision to take Josh to Uganda wasn’t easy. But in the end, Erin knew that she couldn’t go without him.
'Josh and I talked a lot before we left, ’ Erin said. ‘We looked at photos and talked about what it means to not have a daddy. He had a lot of knowledge for a five-year-old. ’ As much as she prepared Josh for the trip, she couldn’t always put her own mind at ease.
'I didn’t know a lot about AIDS before I went, ’ Erin said. ‘I knew that a lot of the kids he would be playing with would have AIDS. I got a bit paranoid thinking, ‘What if he falls over and cuts himself while he is playing?’ That was my biggest worry. But I don’t think it even entered my mind once we were there. ’
In his interview, Josh repeatedly said how sad he was for the children.
'The saddest thing was that the kids had no parents, and no grandad or grandma. ’ One afternoon, he met an orphaned boy with Down’s syndrome in tattered clothing. Josh gave him his shirt in exchange for his ratty one. It’s a story Erin’s told before, but she still cries with its retelling.
And it isn’t the only story that makes Erin emotional. There are faces she can still remember…
Erin and Josh's story is one of many in a new book, Ripples of Difference. You can read the rest of their story by downloading Ripples of Difference FREE at http://www.ripplesofdifference.org.
The Ripples of Difference FREE e-book is a collection of unique and powerful stories written by volunteers from around the world. From refugee camps in Africa to orphanages in Asia, readers can learn about how volunteers are touching the lives of others and making a difference – a ripple of difference.
The book is not just a collection of stories; it is a call to action. Mahatma Gandhi said You must be the change you wish to see in the world. We want to challenge readers to stand up and create their own ripple and join the sea of change that brings hope to those in need around the world!
It has been launched by Global Volunteer Network in recognition of International Volunteer Day, December 5th 2009, to celebrate the thousands of volunteers who have given their love, energy, and time to help communities in need around the world.
You can download your FREE copy of the ebook at www.ripplesofdifference.org