Last December, Joliet Central High School special education teacher Betsy Murray couldn’t wait for winter break.
That’s when she was heading to a special needs orphanage in Uganda – again – bearing holiday gifts for children at Noah’s Ark Home: inflatable balls, toys with Velcro to play catch and Slinkies.
That was in addition to the extra services she provided through her fundraising efforts.
Those services included the construction of a new medical/nursing building to house a full-time nurse, medical necessities and a space for ill children; six months of vital medications and medical equipment for all 70 kids; three months of food and other necessities, such as soap, diapers and detergent; the ability to take the children to a pool; the purchase customization of two walkers and three new wheelchairs; payment of a hospital bill for a boy who became ill unexpectedly and required immediate medical attention; and vitamins, toys, coloring books, school supplies and instructional materials.
Murray also raised enough to donate $750 to Chrystal Children’s Center, another orphanage for young children in Uganda.
“The increasing rate of abandonment for children with disabilities in Uganda is rising, and the expenses to care for these children are ever-growing,” Murray said in her “Thank you” letter to donors. “The impact we have made would not have been possible without the abundance of kind messages, donations, thoughts and prayers we received.”
Steve Locke, assistant vice principal at Joliet Central, said he learned about Murray’s service in Uganda only because he came across it on social media, not because she told people at school. The fact that Murray used her break to serve orphans in Uganda speaks volumes about her, he said.
“She’s remarkable, so full of love,” Locke said. “Everything she does is so heartfelt, very nurturing. She goes above and beyond for all of her students and her peers, for that matter, and she’s only been with us a couple of years.
“I can’t think of the last time Betsy was asked to do something that she turned somebody down, whether it was her peers in the educational world or her kids in the classroom. I wish we had more Betsys. She is phenomenal. She is an asset to Joliet Central and the kids we serve. And we are extremely lucky to have her.”
As a child, Murray dreamed of going to Africa. She loved the landscape and “all that embodies Africa.” She recalled middle school service projects that benefited children in Africa.
Murray didn’t want to vacation to Africa. She wanted to make a difference there.
So in 2018, Murray reached out to Michaella Johnston of New Lenox. Murray had attended high school with Johnston, although they weren’t friends at the time. Johnston had worked with special needs children in Africa.
Murray reached out for more information and learned that Johnston was returning to Africa that summer. She asked whether Murray would join her, which Murray said was “like hitting the jackpot.”
“Being a special ed teacher, one of my great passions in life is helping kids with special needs,” Murray said.
‘Amazing little people’
Johnston said she became connected with Noah’s Ark orphanage in Uganda in December 2015 through a nonprofit and served at the orphanage for three weeks that winter.
Johnston returned for another three weeks in July 2018 through the same nonprofit, and Murray went with her.
“The kids are why I keep going back. I just want them to have the best quality of life possible,” Johnston said. “They are the most amazing little people who deserve to know that they are loved and cared for. I want them to know they are precious just the way they are.”
Murray and Johnston stayed at a two-story, cockroach-infested house with 10 other volunteers from different parts of the world who were working with different organizations in Africa.
“Somebody rich had owned the house,” Murray said, adding that “rich” in Uganda wasn’t the same as “rich” in the U.S. “The floor was all cement. All the walls were bare. It was a two-story structure with very little in it. Our bunk beds didn’t have mattresses, but pads we slept on. Same thing with pillows. They were like rocks, not really pillows.”
But the volunteers did have an outdoor shower – a spigot out of the wall spraying ice cold water, she said.
Volunteers ate lunch at the orphanage and dinner, usually chicken and rice with vegetables, at the volunteer home.
“For breakfast, you were on your own,” Murray said, adding that breakfast was mostly bread.
The orphanage consisted of several run-down buildings with dirt floors, Murray said. One building had bunk beds. Another was for education. And despite the outhouse, some of the students simply relieved themselves wherever they were, she said. The orphans’ breakfast was a vague white slurry, not porridge, that most likely contained meal enhancements, Murray said.
The classroom had a few donated desks, a couple of benches, a wooden table and bare walls except for some charts of numbers, shapes and colors. Although Murray and Johnson were “technically there to teach,” the language barrier and the students’ lack of basic skills, such as counting to 10, made actual teaching almost impossible, Murray said.
So they worked with employees, giving them insight on how to teach 25 students of a broad age range and varied special needs, including Down syndrome, autism, behavioral disorders, ADHD, epilepsy and cerebral palsy, as well as “a lot of limb deformities,” Murray said.
For instance, Murray had brought communication boards for children who couldn’t speak and showed staff how to use them.
Although every child had a file, many files were slim with little to no information. Sometimes the police brought abandoned children to the orphanage, so in many cases the exact disability was unknown, Murray said.
“There was just an impression that children with disabilities are not worth a lot there,” Murray said. “They don’t have a purpose or don’t really do anything, and that it takes a lot of resources to know about disabilities and to take care of disabilities. And it’s really hard for their able-bodied people there. So just adding a child with a disability on top of that, it’s a lot for them.”
Murray couldn’t wait to return. She planned – and then canceled – several trips due to the pandemic. When she returned in December 2022, the trip was more intimidating. This time, Murray and Johnston went on their own.
“The first time, I had gone with five other special ed teachers,” Murray said. “There was a special path, and there were other special ed teachers. But I think going back this time, I knew what was waiting there – the hardships and the risks I was putting myself in. I was more aware this time.
“This time, I only went with one other girl. So it was really just two white girls in this completely African culture. We did not go with a volunteer organization this time. It was just on our own, trying to figure everything out.”
‘Lovable bunch of humans’
David Kibalama is the founder and executive director of Volunteers 2 Uganda, a volunteer hosting program, as well as Chrystal Children’s Center, an orphanage and transition center for abandoned babies, to which Murray also has donated, he said through a Facebook message.
Kibalama said he met Murray several years ago through his Volunteers 2 Uganda, a former partner to the organization who hosted Murray and Johnston on their first trip to Uganda.
After taking a break for two years due to the pandemic, Kibalama decided to open his own home to any of the 3,000 volunteers who wished to return to Uganda and revisit their past projects, he said in the Facebook message.
“I have never seen greater joy and happiness than the day I saw Betsy meet the children and youth she worked with many years back,” Kibalama said through a Facebook message, later adding that “Betsy and Michaella created a great impact in the development of the projects in Uganda. They both share big hearts that are only God-created. Words can’t express our gratitude, but may God bless them and their families that donated toward the fundraisers they set up.”
This time, when Murray left Uganda, she said she “left part of her heart” there. In her thank you letter, Murray called orphanage staff and children “the most deserving, resilient and lovable bunch of humans.”
“It has been a whirlwind of emotions sharing laughter, tears, celebrations and heartache with these children, and the gratitude and love I’ve felt in return is unexplainable,” Murray said in her letter.