If you know the ministry of the Village of Eden in Uganda at all, then you have heard the names of four incredibly special ladies; Dr. Brenda Kowalske, Jessica Matthews, Claudia Acuña, and Heather Oliver. There are many people who serve with the ministry of Helping Hands, but everyone will agree the heart of our ministry is made up of this special group. Who are these ladies? Where did they come from? What keeps them going as they serve full-time in a remote part of Africa? They have access to very few of the comforts of home, and they face overwhelming needs every day, yet the call of God on their lives compels them to love children, make disciples, and advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Take a minute to learn a little about these amazing women. Please use this as a prayer guide for the missionaries of the Village of Eden.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: Cordele, GA (Watermelon Capitol of the World!)
Q: What is your favorite Bible verse?
A: I Thessalonians 5:24
Q: What is your favorite book of the Bible?
A: I don't really have a favorite book, but Romans 8 is my favorite chapter. One day, I am going to memorize it.
Q: What is your favorite food?
A: Mexican - give me ALL the queso dip and chips!
Q: What is your favorite movie or TV show?
A: The Greatest Showman
Q: What book (not the Bible) has most impacted your life?
A: "Mile Markers: The 26.2 Most Important Reasons Why Women Run" by Kristin Armstrong
Q: What is your favorite hobby?
A: Reading and playing games
Q: What is your favorite game?
A: Settlers of Catan: Cities and Knights, Scrabble... this one is a little hard to play when you live in a foreign country and serve with people from multiple countries!
Q: How long have you served with Helping Hands Foreign Missions?
A: 5 ½ years (since 2016)
Q: How were you called to the Village of Eden?
A: I first heard about Helping Hands because of the Esangalo Children's Choir! In 2013, our church called a new pastor, Robby Foster. Robby was from Gainesville and friends with Stan, Director of Operations at Helping Hands. So when the choir came in 2014, Robby got us on the schedule. He knew my heart to serve in Africa one day and I was thrilled, to say the least, to know children were coming to our church, and that I would even be able to host some of them in my home! When they came and I heard about all that HHFM was doing, I immediately started asking our missions committee when we were going to go to Uganda. My church helped send me in the summer of 2015 for five weeks. While I was there, I spent a lot of time in prayer asking God if this was the place, if I was to serve full-time or bring teams on short-term trips, and many other questions. One day, after a long day out in the villages going hut to hut, we were coming back to the VOE and I saw the roof of the church. I immediately felt so much peace. I knew right then that this was the place God had been calling and preparing me for, for over 16 years. I returned to the States in August, filled out my application in September, and began meeting with the office in Buford in January. In April, I turned in my resignation, sold my house in June, and moved to Uganda in September. God opened so many doors and knocked down so many obstacles to make my moving here smooth and possible.
Q: What do you do at the Village of Eden?
A: My responsibility at the VOE is Director of Education. Currently, we have a Primary School (Preschool to 7th grade) and this is where I spend the majority of my time. Before coming to Uganda, I was a teacher for 16 years. When God called me into missions, I did not want to work in a school. I know that sounds crazy, but it is the truth. Even when I moved to Uganda, I thought I was going to be over women’s ministry, sitting under beautiful mango trees with women in long, flowing skirts, teaching them the Bible. But God had other plans. God never wastes anything that He does in your life. He had been preparing me, professionally and spiritually for what I was to do here. I now can say that I am SO happy that I am in the school. He has given me new eyes to see so many things about why He has me here. One of those main reasons is to help teachers teach reading. Reading is so very important and cannot be overlooked. Our children hear so many things, from so many people. We are teaching them all about Jesus and the Bible here at church, at children’s programs, at school, etc, but then they go home and into the community and hear so many other things being taught. My desire is for ALL of our students to become fluent readers, who can read and understand the Bible on their own and not ONLY rely on what they hear from so many sources. Once they are reading the Bible and allowing the Holy Spirit to help them understand, they can discern what is right and wrong, what is truth and untruth. God has also shown me another gift from Him by serving in the school… He did not just dismiss that seed He planted in my heart about women’s ministry. He just had a different picture of it than I did. He has given me 15 female teachers to pour into each week in Bible study, as well as personally discipling 4 of them. God is so sweet and so caring to us! When I see children reading the Bible on their own and asking questions, and I see my teachers read and comprehend a scripture that maybe they have heard many times but not understood, it makes my heart swell with joy and my eyes overflow with tears of happiness!
Q: What is so special about the Village of Eden?
A: To me, the most special thing is hearing about what is going on in all the departments. I live and work here every day, but when we have our staff meetings on Mondays and I hear what is going on in all the departments, I am really so amazed. JESUS is proclaimed, taught, preached, and modeled in so many ways and so many times EVERY DAY. I hear about different people that are being discipled and how they are growing and how many of them are now discipling other people. It is so encouraging, especially on hard days when it seems we are just hitting a wall.
Q: What is your favorite memory at the Village of Eden?
A: I have had countless memories already and know that I have many more to come. One of my favorites was when I was in discipleship with two of my teachers. We had been doing an inductive study on the book of I John. One of the activities was to give a paraphrase of a passage of scripture. This was the first time they had ever done this type of activity. When they read their first assignment of paraphrasing, it was almost a copy of the scripture. Most of the wording was the same and there was not a lot of personal understanding put into it. However, by the time we finished I John, I sat back amazed at the last assignment of paraphrasing. I told them to get out the first one and read it and then read this last one. In the final activity, there was so much understanding of the Scripture and what the book was all about. It wasn’t just another copy of all the verses. Seeing them absorb so much understanding and watching them live it out in their lives (and teach others), has been something I will never forget!
Q: What do you wish people knew about missionaries?
A: Serving in another country can be physically challenging, but the mental and emotional challenge is so much more. There are some days when you deal with a situation(s) and it physically takes all the energy and brainpower out of you.
Q: How can we pray for you?
A: That our school would continue to move forward as a Christian school and our teachers would continue to grow in their walk. That our children would become stronger and stronger readers and be able to read the Bible and comprehend it for themselves. As many of you know, I am fostering a beautiful daughter, Mercy. We have been awaiting a visa appointment since 2020. We have had multiple appointments rescheduled or canceled. Please pray that we can get an appointment soon and that we can actually go to the interview and get her visa for travel. We are both ready to go home for a visit and we are both ready for her to meet the rest of her family! Being a mother is not for the weak of heart! Pray that I will model Christ for her and guide her to know Him.