Regular readers of A News Café will recognize Alicia McCauley from her warm, funny blog, Pedals & Pencils, in which she shares both light and deeply poignant stories from her life journey. Alicia teaches first-grade at Boulder Creek School and is a teacher consultant for the Northern California Writing Project.
During the past two summers she traveled to Uganda to help children share their stories in writing. Out of that grew a desire to also help Ugandans with what she calls “vigilante acts of kindness.” As Alicia prepares for her third trip this summer, A News Café asked her to share—in her own delightful words—about her work there and its impact on her.
How did your love affair with Uganda begin?
At the end of 2011 I was feeling called to do more with my life. I love teaching, but growing up I’d done some short-term missionary work, and I missed it. Let me be clear that I am not a missionary — that’s a high calling, one that I don’t feel is for me. I also love to travel, and so when I saw a YouTube video of a school in Northern Uganda being built for students who are former child soldiers, orphans, or children who simply wouldn’t be able to afford school on their own (because there aren’t public schools in Uganda), I emailed the organization.
I told them that I’m not much of a builder—that in fact children should never be in a building that I had any hand in constructing—but that I’d love to come and teach creative-writing classes. People tell me I have a gift for allowing children to tell their stories. I don’t know that it’s a gift, but I do know that when you tell a child, “Your story matters; you matter,” they can sense if you believe it, and if they know you believe it, that you believe in them, they’ll drop their guards and write incredible stories cut straight from their hearts.
So six months after sending the email, I found myself on a plane to Uganda to teach writing at a school in the bush.
Describe what you did on your first two trips to Uganda and what you will be doing this summer.
During my first trip to Uganda I taught writing workshops to senior high students. Last summer I taught writing workshops at the same school, but also found myself committing what I now call Vigilante Acts of Kindness, like buying a mattress for a student in need, buying pigs for a village recovering from war, buying textbooks for a school library, buying medicines, providing shoes for young children who walk long distances to school, and a host of other wild adventures I never imagined for myself.
This summer I’ll continue teaching writing workshops. I’m excited to work with Educate for Change, a non-profit started by two American teachers dedicated to helping kids in Northern Uganda receive an education. They have a wonderful writing project already underway.
The senior high students are collecting oral Acoli fables that have been passed down through the generations but have never been recorded in writing. The students are writing and illustrating them so they can be used as readers for the primary students. There aren’t any Acoli books for young children, so this project absolutely thrills me. I get to come alongside Educate for Change and help them see that project to publication, and I’m hoping to teach some other writing workshops, too. There’s even a possibility that I will bring in some of my student writers and artists from the previous two years to write with us.
Solar lights: Another project I’m excited to see to fruition is bringing solar study lights to my students. This is on behalf of my fellow Vigilantes of Kindness in the U.S. who have so generously donated for this project. Many of the students live in villages where there is zero or sporadic electricity. The senior high students I’ve worked with go to school from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday.
After pumping water to bathe and do laundry and after eating dinner, they’re left in the dark to try and study. Solar lights make studying a whole lot easier. Many students last year asked for solar lights, but I couldn’t find any there that wouldn’t also be fire hazards with the mosquito bed nets that are so critical in protecting them from malaria, so I’m excited to return with lights for them. I admit, there’s something really thrilling about bringing actual lights to dark places.
Village treasury: The final project I’m working on is helping the village of Bungatira strengthen its treasury. Bungatira is a unique village in that they have a democratic community group complete with a constitution and elected officials. They allow both men and women age 12 and older in the group. Each member pays dues into the treasury, and they can take out microloans for medicine, to pay the school fees of their children or to pay for needed items to further production of their crops.
Last year I had the distinct honor of being invited to sit in on their group meetings, a rare privilege for a mzungu (white girl) like me. I even worked with them to revise a part of their constitution that discriminated against people with mental illnesses and mental disabilities. I still can’t believe I got to be a part of that change.
Last summer on behalf of my fellow Vigilantes of Kindness, I bought pigs for the village and was able to grow their treasury. Right now I’m working on buying them an ox on behalf of my parents. Other than those projects, I’m going to show up and listen for what I feel God is calling me to do. l love what entrepreneur Ernesto Sirolli says regarding what philanthropy should look like. We should go in without our own plans or agenda and say, “What do you need and how can I help?”
Then we should do a divinely hard thing: shut up and listen. It’s that philosophy that has provided me with incredible opportunities to partner with Ugandans to see their vision for their communities and their future come to life.
What are you most looking forward to about returning?<
In 2012, three of my student writers who were orphans asked if they could consider themselves my sons and if they could think of my as their mother. It was an obvious answer for me. So I’m looking forward to hugging my sons. I’m in regular contact with them, but seeing them in person is going to be wonderful.
I’m also looking forward to seeing my other students. At the end of my first visit, one of my writers said to me, “You’re coming back?” I responded, “Yes, I’m coming back.” He looked down at his shoes and said, “People always say that, and then they don’t.” I told him, “Then I look forward to the day when I can prove my promise to you.” The kids I work with there have lives built on so many broken promises, and I want to be careful not to be one of them.
The other exciting thing about my trip is that my mom is coming with me for the first three weeks. She loves to travel but has never been to Africa. I’m looking forward to introducing her to the land and people who I love so dearly.
How has Uganda changed you?
I never felt called to be a mother. Now I’m a non-traditional mom to three amazing young men.
The other amazing thing is that through the stories I’ve written about my time in Uganda, my friends and family here have fallen in love with Uganda and her people. My friends and family have been with me every step of the way of this surprising journey, and that’s something I’ll always treasure. To have the people I love here take the people I love there into their hearts is an incredible gift.
One thing I’ve really enjoyed following your blog is watching adventures unfold in your life as you stay open to things. Do you have a kind of life philosophy that guides you?
It’s nothing so eloquent as to be called a philosophy, but I try to listen hard for God’s direction and then do what I’m called to do.
Last summer there was a night when I was sitting in my room in Gulu and there wasn’t electricity. Everything was quiet and dark and as I looked out my window, in the distant sky above South Sudan I could see evidence of some of the conflict going on there. My trip wasn’t going at all like I’d planned, and I prayed an honest and desperate prayer: “God, what am I doing here? Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”
I got the answer to that prayer in an email from friends here who were inspired by a story I’d written about a man in Bungatira who was raising pigs to go back to high school at the age of 27. They wanted to help him by buying him more pigs. Buying pigs certainly wasn’t the answer I’d expected from my prayer, but I meant the prayer, and buying pigs for Bungatira is what eventually led to coming alongside them to revise their constitution to include people with mental illnesses and mental disabilities, which is by far the most amazing thing I got to be part of.
So I’m learning to listen, really listen, for what I’m supposed to do and then do it, even when it seems completely strange, and I find myself carrying a sack of pooping, squealing pigs on the back of a motorcycle to a remote village in the Ugandan bush.
Regular blog readers will recognize your “Thankful Thursday” entries … how did those get started?
I wanted to have a consistent practice of gratitude in my life. Writing down small and large things I’m thankful for seemed like the right vehicle for that. I have so much to be thankful for, and I don’t want to lose sight of that. Psalm 50:23 says, “The sacrifice that honors Me is a thankful heart.”
If I’m being honest, my relationship with God is sometimes just a big old mess, and it’s all I can do to pray simple prayers, listen for what I’m supposed to do and then be grateful.
The “pedals” part of your blog name refers to the fact that you are a cyclist. How did you become a cyclist and what has cycling taught you?
I was born with a heart defect, and 11 years ago, I was fortunate to have corrective surgery that made my heart better than new. After that surgery I wanted to find a way to express gratitude for my healthy heart and also to help others who didn’t have the gift of health. So I took up cycling and raised money for causes like the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease, and the Lance Armstrong Foundation. My greatest moment as a cyclist came when I crossed the finish line of a 208-mile bike ride I did in honor of my grandmother who died of cancer earlier that same year.
What I love about riding my bike is I get to see the beauty of the world up close. It also gives me much needed doses of humility. There have been hills I’ve been able to climb and ones I failed miserably at. I’ve lost my pants on a ride, been chased by a wild turkey and have encountered many things that make me laugh.
If you can find a hobby that adds beauty, humility and humor to your life, it’s worth keeping.
How have your Uganda trips had an impact on your teaching? Speaking of teaching, how long have you done that and where?
Education is a privilege in Uganda, but something we take for granted here. So now I feel a responsibility to educate students here about students in other places who aren’t as fortunate. The seventh-grade students at my school are studying Africa right now. They are, along with my class of first-graders, raising money for the Solar Light Project and the Fable Project.
The seventh-grade students are taking their homes and their neighborhoods by storm by committing Vigilante Acts of Kindness and in return collecting donations for the work I do in Uganda. It’s thrilling to see them embrace service for others with such a passion. My sweet first-graders are collecting change and donating it. Some are even donating money they received from the Tooth Fairy, which just goes to show that even very young kids can and want to make a difference when given the opportunity.
I taught preschool when I was in college and was fortunate enough to be hired by Enterprise School District right after I earned my teaching credential. I’ve been teaching first grade ever since.
Any final thoughts?
One question that I’m asked all the time is what does my husband think of all of this? Women often say to me that their husband would never let them go so far away for such long stretches of time. It’s a statement that takes me by surprise because my husband and I are independent people. The idea that he would or wouldn’t ‘let’ me do something is completely foreign to me, and for that I’m grateful.
He supports me unconditionally, and I try to do the same. It’s our marriage that serves as my solid foundation, and it’s only because of the love we have for each other that I’m able to put on my brave girl pants and go out into the world. I know that at the end of each day, no matter where I am, Terry is my home.
Alicia will be sharing about her time in Uganda on April 15 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Community Room at the Redding Library. She would love to see A News Café readers there.
KRCR-TV News Channel 7 recently did a story about Alicia and efforts by students at Boulder Creek School to raise money for her projects in Uganda. Click here to view that video.
View the “wish list” for Uganda projects and donate online at Vigilante Kindness for Uganda.
Candace L. Brown has been a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor for 20 years. She lives in Redding and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.