Trinity alumna Elyse Sullivan (BA ’08) has a God-given passion for Africa that led to the start-up of the organization Roots, a non-profit organization that connects those living in North America to those living in Zimbabwe, specifically the students and families of Lighthouse Christian Academy in the city of Bulawayo.
Sullivan’s interest in Africa started in high school but came to fruition through her undergraduate studies at Trinity. As Sullivan was not raised in a Christian family, the idea of world missions was somewhat foreign to her. She took the opportunities given at Trinity to research more about issues in Africa through flexible research papers, class projects, and also became involved with Missions Cabinet.
In the fall of 2006, an adjunct professor told Sullivan about an opportunity to go to South Africa for a month in January 2007. While the trip was originally scheduled so that Sullivan would miss the first two weeks of the semester, it was moved and Sullivan was scheduled to miss the first month. She said the professors at Trinity were incredibly helpful in allowing her to go on the trip.
“I went back and spoke to all the professors who had previously agreed to let me miss two weeks and explained that I would now be missing one month, and I would understand if it was no longer okay for me to be in their class this semester. They continued to support me and encourage me to go, saying they would help me as I needed it…while I was there I realized that Africa was very much apart of my life for the rest of my life,” she said.
During her senior year at Trinity, Sullivan was again supported by Trinity staff to do an independent study for her degree in psychology by researching the effects of war and trauma on refugees and internally displaced people in a few African countries. This experience increased her passion for Africa and she has increasingly been researching more and more about the issues there since then.
In 2010, Sullivan was connected to Mennonite Central Committee that had a program called Serving And Learning Together (SALT.) At this point, Sullivan had given up on going back to Africa with an organization because she had not found one that she wanted to invest in, until she heard about SALT.
“I was exploring connections to missionary families in various countries but when I read about the SALT program I immediately felt like I wanted to be apart of it. The program was enriched with values of considering the host culture and life-style integration, meaning living among the people and like the people as much as possible,” Sullivan said.
After Sullivan was accepted into the program, there were various job options and locations available, depending on experience. She was most interested in the Zimbabwe program, but did not feel qualified enough for the position and put it on the bottom of her list of preferences. Surprisingly, the Zimbabwe position was the only program that contacted her. After a Skype interview with the local Zimbabwe organization that Mennonite Central Committee partners with, Our Neighbours Ministry, Sullivan felt immediately connected to the work they were doing there and wanted to be apart of it.
In Zimbabwe, Sullivan began working with Our Neighbours in a squatter camp area called Trenance. The camp area was filled with families and individuals who for various reasons had nowhere to live and squatted on the land, most of them making their homes from scrap materials, walking a long distance to collect unclean water and relying on donations for food. Sullivan was asked to collect some information on their families and backgrounds in order to begin discerning which individuals were in the most vulnerable circumstances.
Our Neighbours felt called to start assisting children more directly and started the North End Home, which currently consists of 6 boys ages 13-20 who were living on the streets of Bulwayo. North End Home decided it would be best not to send these children to mainstream schooling but instead to form a home-schooling based program to meet each student. The school, now called Lighthouse Christian Academy, took on 13 students and continued to grow. Sullivan said the small size of the school has allowed them to interact closely with each student.
“We want to take more kids because as we become involved deeper with each student, we meet their friends, their siblings, their neighbors,” she said.
Initially, the students were walking nearly 10 kilometers to school and 10 kilometers home. The school provides one meal a day of porridge for each student, made by one of the older girls at the school. This girl has many brothers and sisters, as well as a mother involved in prostitution that unfortunately taught her daughter to do the same. Since this girl would lose family income by attending school without working, the school agreed to pay her for the meal preparation partially in cash and partially in groceries for her family. In partnership with EdGE Foundation in Australia, set up by Megan Jaworski, the children all came to school on scholarship, a new building was purchased, and each student has a school uniform. Jaworski and her husband fundraise for many of the school’s expenses by speaking in various places around Australia.
At the end of Sullivan’s time in Zimbabwe, she was able to meet with Jaworski. They kept in contact and continually discussed how to “share the load” of this fundraising and this is how Roots began. In partnership with Our Neighbours Ministry in Zimbabwe and EdGE Foundation Australia, Roots is for North Americans who want to get involved with the students at Lighthouse Christian Academy.
“While we aren’t always knowing where the money is going to come from, we are trusting God to continue moving forward. We’re looking into taking another class of students this coming year… It’s a really tangible thing that I had the pleasure of seeing first hand…we all know the research that explains how education breaks the cycle of poverty. Sometimes in places of such poverty, it’s hard to see how that would actually work. But in Zimbabwe, while unemployment is extremely high, there are opportunities for these kids to really break free from living in the squatter camp,” Sullivan said.
While Sullivan is currently in the United States, she still has a passion for Africa and a desire to help the children she has met there.
“I never really knew why God put Africa so deeply embedded in my heart. I know things that I am compassionate about, things like HIV/AIDS issues, refugees, etc… but I never imagined this. I never imagined feeling so attached to these students. It’s a love different than other experiences I have had. I’ve taught kids in Korea, worked at the children’s home in South Africa, worked in a group home with traumatized teenagers in Chicago, but this…. these kids, these people …. I spend most of my day with them in mind. While I’m happy to be here in the States right now, I very much still want to be apart of their lives and the work being done currently through Our Neighbours and EdGE, that’s why I started Roots. It’s been such a blessing so far in my life,” she said.
Tags: alumni, missions, missions trip, Trinity College
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