Like most college students, Becca Luttinen looks forward to summer break. It offers a change of pace, perhaps time for some recreational reading. A summer job can be fun: lifeguard, camp counselor, even flipping burgers.
And like some college students, Becca used summer break this year to participate in an internship program. In fact, she landed her dream internship: eight weeks in a village in Eastern Uganda, lots of rain, nearly sliding off a muddy road into a bottomless ravine, trudging miles to remote locations and spending a couple weeks sick in bed with a touch of bacterial infection.
Becca can hardly wait to go again.
Becca is a 2016 graduate of Everest Collegiate High School in Clarkston, MI, a school affiliated with the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi. During her time at Everest, she participated in several mission trips to Mexico and the US, as well as local mission activities in the Detroit area. She also was a summer Regnum Christi Mission Corps participant in Ireland.
Today, she is attending Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA. She is pursuing a bachelor of arts with a duel major in international relations and economics – with a minor in sustainable development. She received her summer internship from the university’s Iacocca International Internship Program (sponsored by Lehigh grad and car magnate Lee Iacocca). And she was thrilled to receive the assignment she most wanted: a position with Pathways Development Initiative (PDI) in the village of Bubiita in the Budada District of Eastern Uganda. (Google maps can find the Bududa District, but Bubiita is off the map.)
Annette Zaale Champney founded PDI with the help of her parents, David (Papa) and Elizabeth (Maayi) Zaale, and her sister, Olive Zaale Otete.. The organization is dedicated to working with communities, individuals and families to build sustainable livelihoods and invest in education as a means of fighting extreme poverty and transforming their lives.
David and Elizabeth live in Budada and host visiting interns, providing the heart of the programs run by PDI. Annette works for World Education Inc. in Boston. Olive is a lawyer in Kampala, the Ugandan capitol.
Back home in Michigan, Becca sat down for an interview about her experience in Uganda…
Q – What exactly did you do?
A – PDI helps local villagers learn how to save and invest in micro businesses. Villagers have to create a board to pool their resources and give loans because there are no local banks, no real financial system. I helped by visiting a number of the villages and helping the people to tell their stories and build the relationships that support development. I also helped at the local school, with the PDI Sports Clinic and social activities.
Q – How do you think you were most helpful to others?
A – I know it sounds simple, but simply being with people and building friendships was so appreciated. I really focused on the successful village organizations, gathering data and best practices. I worked in the mornings at the school and was popular because I offered the students (and teachers) the opportunity to practice their English.
Q – Was there a time when you were disappointed or frustrated?
A – Well, my biggest frustration was getting sick and not being able to help others for a couple weeks. Fortunately, there were five other interns on our team, so the work continued. I also was disappointed by the limited resources at the school. Many parents don’t pay their tuition and teachers often leave suddenly.
Q – When did you feel the most joy?
A – Ugandans are generally happy and relaxed and lots of fun to be with. The Zaale family was incredibly inspiring. They built a successful business, then created PDI to give back to the community and help others.
Q – To most North Americans, you were in a terribly remote place. Did you ever feel insecure or scared?
A – Arriving to Bududa was quite ominous because a storm was about to begin, which made it all the more memorable. When we finally got to Zaale compound, we were greeted so sweetly, in juxtaposition to the weather. It made me feel so full. Papa and Maayi ran to us with pure joy and hugged us all. I couldn’t stop smiling. Their compound is impressive, but they’re more impressive.”
I never felt insecure, but as a young foreign woman, I was cautioned not to travel after dark. On one occasion, I was traveling by car with a small group after a terrible rainstorm. The road was muddy and on the edge of a deep ravine, so we decided to walk because the car was slipping. That was a bit scary.
Q – Who inspired you the most of the people you met?
A – Definitely David Zaale. He gave us motivational talks, but mostly is an example. He is successful, but continues to live in the local area and help the people. He is a former teacher and he and wife Elizabeth made sure their daughters got a strong education – not always common for Ugandan girls.
And he does the little things, like chopping up little hot peppers and adding them to the bland beans until they were just the way I liked them. And whenever things were challenging, suggesting we just have a cup of tea and work it out.
Dezz Zaale also acted as a really important role model for me during the summer. He currently lives in Kampala, but comes back to Bududa whenever possible to help out at PDI. He is the one who started the sports clinic, as the marriage between his personal love for soccer and passion to help his community. I really look up to Dezz.
Another important person that I spent my summer with was the trip leader, Mark Noble, a visiting professor at Lehigh University. One of my colleague, Zachary Sokol says it best “Mark is effortlessly brilliant.” He was not only fun to be around during the summer, but he also advised nearly all the projects that the interns worked on. Having visited Uganda on this program many times, he really knows what he’s talking about. He also kept me sane when I was in poor health– driving me hours to the hospital some days, cracking jokes when I had to receive an IV, and always checking up on me.
Q – Can you tell us about the living conditions?
A – First, I want to stress that we were comfortable, graciously cared for and well fed. By American standards, Uganda is certainly undeveloped: no electricity, latrines, lots of beans and rice to eat.
Q – What role did you Catholic faith play in the experience?
A – Faith and prayer are key to an experience like this. I assumed there would be challenges, that something might go wrong, and prayed for the ability to weather the storm. In my case, it was being sick for a couple weeks – lots of time to pray!
The Catholic faith is so vibrant in Uganda. When I was sick, without my knowledge, Papa and Maayi arranged to bring me to church. During the offertory children danced down the aisle and it was really refreshing. After mass, Maayi took me to receive anointing of the sick. The priest was very warm and carried out the sacrament in the most comforting manner.
Q – It sounds like you enjoy the experience despite some bumps in the road…would you do it again?
A – Without question or hesitation I would definitely do it again. This is the sort of work I see myself doing for the long haul. PDI is the sort of organization that really is going to change the world. The Zaales are not wealthy people, just people putting everything they have into educating others.
I do not want to be one of those typical people who goes on a trip to an underdeveloped country and leaves feeling fulfilled. I think that minimizing an experience like this is wrong and many people tend to take away the dignity of those that live in poverty doing so. However, here I am. I have learned, I have worked, I have gotten sick and I have had the time of my life. I have had to admit what I do not know plenty of times this summer. What I wanted to personally accomplish, however has fallen short. I guess that is because accomplishing something big was not the point of this experience. In fact, each singular experience I have had here have really meant the world to me and I will carry them with me forever. The people I have met here have also taken my heart and made a home for me here. I am not ready to leave it.