This Time is Enough
Let go of your expectations.
Sheri had heard the instructions many times during her preparations for her first trip to Africa. Despite her experience working with children with special needs in America, she walked into the Special Needs Camp in Malawi, Africa with an open mind, knowing that the experience would be different than any expectation she could have come up with on her own.
However, about 10 minutes into the first day of the camp with which the Summit team was helping the Children of the Nations staff, one of her team leaders walked up and put that open-mindedness to the test. With a simple question, he changed the course of her week.
“When he came up to me and asked me how many [American Sign Language] signs I had, I had a moment of panic...what am I going to do? I think because [the team leaders] had prepped us that the kids at [this] camp with special needs would look different than they do in the states, I just wasn't thinking about sign language or brushing up on that or having that readily available,” Sheri describes.
The team had just found out that this year, there would be several new girls attending the camp, along with their teacher, who are Deaf and use ASL to communicate. Though there is a sizable Deaf community in Malawi, the use of a common sign language is still relatively new in the country and there is still a sizable communication barrier. And Sheri was the only one on the team with any amount of ASL experience.
The bond was instant. Despite Sheri’s hesitations and fears that her limited signs would not be enough, the smiles on the faces of the girls upon finding they had someone to communicate with easily were radiant. One of the first signs Sheri needed to work to remember was “slow down” as the girls immediately began to share their thoughts and feelings at top speed. It was mere minutes before the group was dancing and laughing together despite their vast differences in background and culture.
As the day went on, she saw that she was actually able to communicate with these girls more than the rest of the team could communicate with any of the other children. Chichewa is the predominant language spoken in Malawi so the majority of the friendships built with the other kids were through smiles, hugs, translators, and charades.
As the week progressed, this undertone of friendships independent of language or abilities seemed to seep into each and every heart. The girls in Sheri’s little group started making friends with other girls at camp their age.
“When I saw other kids playing with the girls and trying to learn signs with them, and then them really not needing me or [their teacher] to be around them, it was awesome,” Sheri explains.
As the week went on, Sheri’s new friends faced a difficult decision. On the last day of camp, the teenagers planned a play to perform in a nearby village. They would be telling the story of Jonah that they’d been learning about all week in camp. A group of children and teens with special needs sharing the message that God’s love is for everyone (even those who may exclude or make fun of them) in a village where special needs are still vastly misunderstood was a daunting, but exciting, task for the group. Many of the kids jumped to take the different roles offered as they planned out how to group together to make the giant fish that would swallow up Jonah.
However, there was still some hesitation from Sheri’s friends. They were worried that they might miss their cues since they would have to rely on their new hearing friends to signal to them when the scenes began and ended. You see, the play would be communicated entirely verbally in Chichewa so the audience from the village could easily understand. Sheri would not be able to follow along to interpret for the girls.
In the beginning, the girls decided it might be better for them to support the group from the sidelines. But upon seeing the group’s need for roles that they would be a great fit for, they decided to step out of their comfort zone.
“At first they did not want to participate or act at all, but then seeing them stay up there for skit after skit and participate was really awesome. Just to see that and the other girls in the camp wanting to stay with them and [that they] were willing to help them...was probably the highlight while I was there,” Sheri reflects of that afternoon.
The youngest of the girls that Sheri had befriended (who was part of the younger group of children who did not act in the play) also got to shine on that day. Without hesitation, she jumped to volunteer to participate in a game in front of what had become a very large crowd in the village. Sheri got to go with her and interpret several aspects of the game and was thrilled when her new friend was announced the winner! The combination of loud applause along with the hands raised in the ASL sign for applause was a moment of merging languages that doesn’t often happen in Malawi.
“When she got to win that game in front of all of [the village] and seeing...that [her hearing loss] didn't hinder her from winning the game was huge,” Sheri describes, with a smile evident in her voice.
As that final afternoon ended, goodbyes were difficult throughout the camp. The friendships that had formed over the week were such that the thought of not seeing these kids again for a whole year was overwhelming to many from the Summit team, including Sheri. But, the realization that this team is only a small part in God’s big plan for these kids gave so much hope.
“...It was knowing that the time there with those girls was enough. God [taught] me that things aren't according to my plans. God saying… ‘This is enough, you are enough, and this time is enough,’ was probably my biggest takeaway,” Sheri explains.
Sheri and the rest of the Summit team certainly got to step into something beautiful during this week at camp but it’s far from the only time these kids are loved and encouraged. Day in and day out, the team got to see first hand how much the Malawian COTN staff went out of their way to make sure these kids knew how important they are. They followed up on challenges they’ve been walking through alongside these families. They made every accommodation necessary for each child without a moment of hesitation. And most importantly, it was displayed in word and action time and time again just how much God loves and values each child.
COTN has created a hope and a space for each child that walks into their program, including those with special needs. Sheri and the team felt privileged to get to spend even a small amount of time learning from and encouraging the staff members, who are truly in it for the long run— who truly are raising children who will transform nations.
Kari Freeman is so great. She's the Communications Coordinator at Summit and is so helpful, smart, kind, and also likes tacos. She makes Summit a nice place to be. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.