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University’s Emma Williams gets life-changing experience on mission trip to Kenya

MORGANTOWN — Growing up in Appalachia, University High track and field junior Emma Williams always thought she understood what poverty looked like. It took a trip of over 7,000 miles, to the small town of Bungoma, Kenya, to help her realize she was mistaken.

For Williams, her journey starts with her mother Jenny, a pastor at Avery United Methodist Church in Morgantown. Years before arriving in Morgantown, Jenny Williams learned of an institution known as Living Hope High School, in Kenya, which was providing an education for orphan and poverty-stricken children.

After Jenny was inspired to share the story of the school with her congregation, two members of the church — a youth leader and WVU civil engineering professor Karl Barth — came together to plan a mission trip for the church youth. Living Hope was discussed, and it turned out Bungoma — the community where the institution was centered — was in desperate need of a bridge.

Emma’s world was about to be changed forever.

From Appalachia to Africa
Marilyn Uhl, founder of Living Hope High School,took the risk of her life while teaching in Tennessee.

A West Virginia native, Uhl was quite settled with a relatively new job when she claims she heard a voice instructing her that someone was in need, and she had to go help. Soon after, the funding for her program was cut, leaving her without work. She gave up her belongings, sold her house, and traveled back to Africa, where she had recently spent time in Uganda.

“She volunteered at an elementary orphanage closeby … and she met an eighth-grade class who was about to be turned out into the street, and decided to start a school,” said Living Hope U.S. coordinator Helen Markwell.

Uhl rented a building, took 24 tennaged students, and opened Living Hope. She returned to West Virginia in later years as the school began to attract more children to its doors, collecting donations from local Methodist church branches.Fast forward to 2019, and Living Hope has graduated over 100 students – eight students have advanced to earn college degrees, with another 57 currently enrolled in colleges.

The school provided an educational opportunity for orphans and raised the standard of living in Bungoma significantly.

“All of our labor we have had to hire is from the community. We buy all our materials we use and food stuff we don’t grow locally. Their veterinarian comes and inspects our animals,” Markwell said. “We’ve put a ton of money and influence in that community and changed it. Our vehicle is the ambulance for this community — no one has a car.”

“Every one of our kids our first-aid trained. All of our kids can help people right on the spot. We get our kids free vaccinations, and disease has gone down considerably. It’s just making them more healthy all the way around.”

For a community like Bungoma, it’s hard to overstate what Living Hope’s work means. Williams called the poverty striking, especially for those who have lived a developed nation.

“I learned what real poverty looked like. It opened my eyes and my whole worldview. I feel like I’ve had a relatively sheltered view living in the U.S., and going to another part of the world, and seeing the very real conditions that some people live in every day was mind-blowing. I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

A bridge makes the difference
While in Bungoma, Emma Williams helped build a bridge that created access to clean water for the town, as well as opening a route to previously inaccessible parts of the region.

The bridge crosses a stream that becomes a raging, snake-infested river during high-water season, which causes life-threatening situations. According to Williams, it “opened up a lot of their world” for the residents of the town.

In place today, the bridge is an example of what philanthropy can achieve. Yet Williams said there is more work to be done.

“Honestly, I feel guilty that I couldn’t do more. I don’t feel satisfied,” she said. “Just knowing the situations they were in, they’re still in, and there’s nothing I can really do at this time in my life to make an impactful change.”

The Williams family continues to sponsor a student attending Living Hope, and Emma plans on encouraging others to join her.

“If you have the means, it’s absolutely something everyone should try to experience in their lifetime. It’s really eye opening, and will absolutely change the way you think about the world,” she said.