It is easy to become focused on the commercial side of the holidays — the gifts, elaborate parties, decorations, and other grand gestures that seem to go along with the season. But when you really think about the holiday moments that stand out in your memory, chances are they don’t revolve around anything that money can buy.
Last Christmas, the Knip family of Lacombe, decided to give up their usual holiday celebrations in favour of creating some lasting memories. Rather than exchanging traditional holiday gifts, Fred and Dita Knip and their four children Julie (20), Ellis (18), Corban (17) and Judah(15), decided to spend Christmas in Uganda volunteering at the Noah’s Ark Children’s Ministry, a home for more than 100 abandoned or orphaned children.
Christmas in Uganda proved to one of the most special experiences the family has shared. “Every kid likes to get presents, but in the end not having big presents didn’t really matter to any of us,” explained Judah. “The experiences we had with the children at the mission are something we will never forget. It’s hard to imagine what these kids have gone through and it’s amazing to see them healthy and happy.”
Noah’s Ark Children’s ministry was founded by Piet and Pita Buitendijk, a Dutch couple who began working as missionaries in Uganda in 1996 and adopted their first abandoned Ugandan child in 2000. Uganda is the third poorest country in the world, and some estimates put the total number of orphans at just over 3 million, or 10 per cent of the total population.
“There are many children in Uganda who are orphaned or abandoned to live in terrible conditions and situations,” said Fred. “Piet and Pita started adopting the children that nobody else wanted and give them a loving home environment, good food, health care, and an opportunity to attend school. It started with one child and now they have over 130. They just can’t turn a child in need away.”
During their stay in Uganda, the Knips volunteered in the laundry area of the children’s home and spent as much time as possible interacting with the children. “We were told that they don’t usually get younger volunteers helping at the mission, so it was new for the kids,” said Julie. “The children were on a break from school, so we helped to put on a vacation bible school. We taught them how to play lacrosse, played games, did crafts and taught them bible stories. Each day was different and we really enjoyed being with them.”
Christmas Eve was a particularly exciting evening at the mission, because Piet and Pita received a phone call from the police asking them to come into the city of Mukono to pick up a one-week-old baby that had been abandoned on the street. While Fred and the children babysat the children in the mission, Dita travelled with Piet and Pita to pick up their new arrival. “The traffic was terrible, but we were driving in an ambulance that was donated to the mission by a Rotary Club in Minnesota and cars cleared out of the way when Piet turned on the siren,” said Dita. “Sometimes babies and young children are in poor condition when Piet and Pita get them, so they try to get there as quickly as possible. This particular baby was about a week old and had been left on the street wrapped in a towel and a t-shirt. Pita named him Noah.”
The next morning was Christmas Day and the excitement at the mission was tangible when the mission children learned they had a new baby brother. After the Knip children opened a small present from their parents, they participated in a Christmas program at the mission, which included a re-enactment of the nativity by the children at the mission. The phrase: “For unto us a child is given” took on new meaning for everyone present with the addition of a new baby on Christmas Day.
After lunch and a Christmas movie, the children opened presents that were donated from Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. Since there are more than 130 children at the home, individual shoeboxes were often split between several children. “Watching the excitement on the children’s faces as they opened their gifts was the best part of the experience for me,” said Corban. “They were so happy with so little. A tiny toy car or a ball absolutely thrilled them.”
After the gifts were opened, the children enjoyed a special Christmas feast of barbecue burgers compliments of Chef Fred Knip. “It took a long time to cook enough hamburgers for everyone, but the kids thoroughly enjoyed the burgers, so that made it all worthwhile,” remarked Fred. “As a special treat, each child enjoyed a can of soda with their burger.”
Even though the Knip children didn’t receive many gifts last year, their Christmas was one they will never forget and the effects of it are still being felt. “I have learned to be a lot more grateful for what I have,” said Ellis. “The children at the mission have so little and yet they are so happy. I think it’s because they realize that they have each other and that’s what really counts. You don’t need expensive stuff to be happy. The best gifts are the ones that come from your heart and those are the kinds of things we’re giving each other this year.”
If You Go:
• The Noah’s Ark Children’s Ministry of Uganda is based near Mukono, Uganda and is run by Piet and Pita Buitendijk, a Dutch Couple who began adopting abandoned and orphaned children in Uganda in 2000. The family now has more than 130 children in their care and have built a medical clinic and an elementary school and are working on a high school and vocational school. For more information on volunteering at the mission or donating to it, visit: http://en.nacmu.org/. Local tax deductible donations may be given to Zion Christian Fellowship, Box 15, site 7, RR #1 Ponoka, AB T4J 1R1.
• In addition to volunteering at the mission, the Knips spent a couple of days enjoying both a land safari and a river safari to see the animals of Africa.
Writer’s Note: Voluntourism is a hot trend in the tourism industry, but you don’t have to travel far in order to volunteer as a family. There are many organizations right in Central Alberta that need volunteer help. Where meaningful service is provided, children can learn the joy of giving and realize how blessed they truly are.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story that we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.