Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat native Jessica Schlapkohl, 22, has heard the call of Africa since she was a little girl watching TV messages that detailed the plight of hungry children in the vast continent so far from the Yampa Valley. The images never let go of her heart.
Schlapkohl returns to Uganda next week, this time to spend two-and-a-half months working in an orphanage sponsored by the Steamboat-based organization Come, Let's Dance.
"There's something about Africa, it just steals your heart," she said. "It's the ability to love these kids like they've never been loved. I'm going to invest all of my time in these kids. I want to learn the name of each kid in the orphanage."
Come, Let's Dance was founded by Steamboat resident Shane Gilbert. In a Steamboat Pilot & Today article published in March 2007, Gilbert said her goal was to go beyond building an orphanage outside Kampala, Uganda. She also sought to implement sustainable economic initiatives that would support families and generate a revenue stream for aid efforts.
Schlapkohl, now a hairstylist in Steamboat, met Gilbert when Gilbert was the leader of a Young Life class while Schlapkohl was still in high school. She came to regard Gilbert as a mentor.
"She's the kind of person who acts on her dreams," Schlapkohl said.
Schlapkohl, who graduated from Steamboat Springs High School in 2005, made her first three-week trip to Uganda with Sara Bradt and Robin Crossan.
"The first time I went, I was terrified at first. I'd seen movies like 'Blood Diamond' and 'The Last King of Scotland.'"
She quickly learned that "three weeks was just not long enough" to make a difference in the little village of Nansana.
"This time, I have no fears," Schlapkohl said.
She'll be accompanied on the long airplane flight Sept. 30, first to London's Heathrow Airport, and then directly on to Kampala, by Steamboat teen Cassie Shelver, 17.
"We're gong to spend a lot of time brainstorming ways to establish a medical budget for the orphanage," Schlapkohl said.
Gilbert and Come, Let's Dance volunteers already have succeeded in helping the Ugandan people in the village of Nansana, about 20 minutes from Kampala, to operate a fleet of four taxi cabs. The approach has been to give the Ugandans control of the micro-businesses and support their efforts rather than try to lead them, Schlapkohl said.
"We walk alongside a Ugandan team, and we empower them to lead it. We try to fit in the puzzle pieces where we have experience," she said. "I'm looking forward to building relationships with Ugandans and listening to their dreams and helping them to realize them."
She expects to help the residents of the village build a sustainable hen operation during her time there.
They'll be arriving just in time for the rainy season in equatorial Africa. Schlapkohl, who is meticulous in her grooming habits in her profession in Steamboat, already knows to expect a landscape of low hills and unrelenting red dirt along with air that reeks of diesel exhaust. She also knows she will be lucky to indulge in a few showers every month.
Come, Let's Dance is faith-based, and she and her colleagues will be considered missionaries during their time in Uganda, Schlapkohl said. However, their mission has nothing to do with converting people to Christianity, she added.
"I just want to love them hard," she said.
She already has learned from experience that she will be a changed woman when she comes home for the holidays. She also knows that re-entering 21st century American society will present its challenges.
"Africa is such a different world," she said. "You can't bring everything you've learned back home. You just have to use your wisdom."
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