Not alone. 

You 
are 
not  
alone. 

These are the four words I want to speak into Jane’s heart in every language possible. This past week, Jane, one of the widows who I work closely with in eastern Uganda, got deathly sick with complications from asthma made worse by severe pneumonia. We got word that she was in the Bududa hospital and went there immediately to check on her. I’m so grateful for Kevin’s presence, as he has been taking care of everything while I’ve been away. When he got to the hospital he found her “bad off” and immediately transported her to a much better hospital in Mbale. She was horribly sick and starving (there is no food or basic necessities provided in the hospital and so if there is no one to bring you the things you need, then you are left wanting). My heart breaks a million times over. 

Kevin cooked for her and has made sure she’s had all the medical care and treatment she’s needed. Another one of our fellow Joy Collective widows has given up her time and energy to stay by her bedside, tirelessly taking care of her, bathing her, being there for her. This is, after all, what family does for one another. And family is what we have become. 

Jane is one of our most gifted gardeners and, even after the tragic loss of her 23 year old son just a few months ago, she has continued to put her whole heart into our work together. She has hung onto an invisible thread of hope with a grace and beauty that I have never before witnessed. Even after her first gardens were plucked dry by the visitors of her son’s funeral, she replanted and, despite the hot breath of death, she never gave up. Health was restored to her gardens in miraculous ways, even thru the broken heart of loss. Her son was her everything. He was kind and loving and took good care of her. The struggle since his passing has been very real. Already widowed, she then lost not only her son, but her most reliable help mate. The second adult child to leave her too soon. She cares for more grandchildren than I’ve ever quite been able to count. She surprises me over and over again in her fastidious and faithful approach to all she does. She is immensely humble, loving and has a spark that even the devil can’t snuff out, even tho he has tried and come close. 

Getting to know her has caused me to love her in ways that words will never describe. I love her like I love Carl’s mom, my mom and my own grandmother. And yet, somehow, she is like a sister to me, too. 

The thing that strikes me the deepest these past few days is the realization that this illness could have easily taken her life by now. If Kevin wouldn’t have been able to show up and help her get the care she needed, she might have simply died. But she hasn’t. And we won’t let her slip out of this world unnoticed. Because we love her. And because the support we receive allows us to be there for her when she needs it most. 

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And, while I don’t particularily want my personal blog to become a space for fundraising, quite frankly, we need you more than ever. If you’ve been considering becoming part of our Joy Collective family by becoming a monthly sponsor of our Widow’s Program, there isn’t a better time to do it. For $100 a month, your reoccurring donation can change the lives of 12 widows and their families in some very serious ways. We work closely with them to educate and stand alongside them for lasting and much needed change. 

Help us to stand alongside Jane and other women like her to say YOU ARE NOT ALONE in ways that mean something even in the darkest hours. 

To become a Widow’s Program sponsor, click the $100 option (or more) here

The process is quick and easy. The output of love and support is more appreciated than you might ever know. Learn more about The Joy Collective here

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Forehead kisses.

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I miss my girl, Sharon, so much that I can hardly stand it. She would become especially snuggly the closer it got to bedtime. If it was just the two of us, she’d crawl into my lap and snuggle in as close as possible. An 8 year old that snuggles? Yeah…it’s just about the best thing ever. Sometimes there were tears that needed to wiped away. She didn’t want me to leave. Not ever. I would rock her in my arms and sing sweet songs, giving little kisses on her forehead. Maybe we never really outgrow a need to be loved like that. Never in my life has it felt better to bring comfort to another person. My heart yearns to hug and to be there for her in ways that simply defy words. This must be what it feels like to be a mother. My God…how does one survive this kind of love?

I love you. 


Not too many more days and I’m gonna get to see my beautiful girl, Sharon. I have missed her every single day since I rode away from her just over 3 months ago. She was the hardest part about leaving. I wonder if she misses me too? I keep her photo near me in the studio as I paint. She has my heart. As in like…allll of it. I gave it to her the night she got sick…the night she started staying with me because I realized she had been abandoned…the night I heard her say her very first words out loud: “I love you,” she whispered. “I love you too. Oh Sharon…I love you too.”

Dear God, bring me home.

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“Let your mind start a journey through a strange new world. Leave all thoughts of the world you knew before. Let your soul take you where you long to be…Close your eyes let your spirit start to soar, and you’ll live as you’ve never lived before.” ~Erich Fromm

I only want one thing. To begin my life. This new life. The one that includes mountains and humid African air and a world filled with all sorts of love.

I am happy now. My new life has already begun. These are the days of preparing. The days of closing the chapters of my old self and preparing clean sheets of paper for a new story to begin.

These days, I find myself getting down on my knees to pray. It somehow shuts out the clamor of my mind and the world around me and puts me in direct communion with God. My prayers no longer even have words. They are made of a silence that needs no translation. Sometimes, the clutter of my prayers are burned away so completely that I think this must be what brings me to my knees.

Dear Abba, yes…please…take me to that place you have allowed me to see.
Amen.

Vulnerable.

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Her scars are faint, but they are there. On her forehead and cheek. I want to know how they got there.

This photo haunts me. I do not know this girl, but I do know many of her schoolmates. Maybe she fell on the wet slippery soil of the mountainside. Perhaps she was hurt from riding as a passenger on a motorcycle. Maybe she got in a fight with her brother. I can’t know just by looking at a picture that sits open on my computer screen a half a world away. I sit here looking at her photo and feel some worry in my heart. The chances of abuse are likely. There are other photos of her as well. All of them hold a look of sadness that is impossible not to notice. I begin reaching around inside myself for a happier story, but instead keep returning to this one, the one I can’t set down.

I Google the distance between Bemidji, MN USA and Bududa, Uganda and am told that it cannot be calculated. Yes, that is about how far away it feels some days. I fight with the urge to simply be there, in the thick of all those uncertainties where I can at least put my arm around these kids for a few seconds or minutes or hours each day. Where I can at least look in their eyes and SEE them, even when others don’t.

I am fascinated by the definitions of words lately. These days I seem to be mostly obsessed with words like JOY, HOPE, GRACE. I get stuck on upward punctuating words such as SING, DANCE, FREEDOM, FAITH. Vocabulary is a powerful thing. Language itself holds some of the deepest power available to us.

But then there are words like this:

vul·ner·a·ble
ˈvəln(ə)rəb(ə)l/
adjective
  1. susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.
    “we were in a vulnerable position”
    synonyms: helpless, defenseless, powerless, weak, susceptible

    • (of a person) in need of special care, support, or protection because of age, disability, or risk of abuse or neglect.

Put that word next to even a “neutral” image and it is easy to be reminded of the life that all too many Ugandan kids are living. I hate it that I don’t even know her name…as though that might somehow make a difference.

Poverty.
Malnutrition.
Dirty water.
HIV/AIDS.
Child marriage.
Lack of education.
Lack of health care.
Child sex slavery.
Abandonment.
Orphanhood.
Homelessness.
Child labor.
and, of course…
Child abuse.

Oy, this is getting dark.

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I have a lot of images of kids from the mountains of rural Uganda whose names and stories I do not know. When I took this particular photo, I didn’t even notice his torn shirt sleeves. I had grown used to such raggedness. What made me notice him was something about his silent, soulful self. I’ve done a disservice tho, you see. I didn’t stay long enough to get to know this boy. I find myself feeling annoyed by that fact. Suddenly, my camera feels useless. And yet…these images have etched something permanent on my heart. They call me home to a people whose names I do not yet even know.

Maybe my camera is useless. Maybe my words are, too. Or maybe they are exactly the things that pull me back. I am a fine art painter by profession. My style of painting takes me a long, long time. I’ve always said that, if you look at something long enough, you will get to know it. I learned that lesson years ago, while still in my late teens. I had a journal and, in it, I taped a couple of old black and white photos of people whom I did not know. I spent a lot of time looking at those photos and, after the better part of a year, I felt as tho I knew them intimately. The same turned out to be true when painting. Whether it was a person or a dog, by the time I had applied the last brush stroke, I found that I had grown to know that person or animal from the inside out. To realize this has been a perfectly humbling experience every time.

Vulnerable. To be exposed. Unguarded.

What if…
vulnerability could be transformed into
being seen.
feeling loved.
finding security in knowing that you have not
fallen through the cracks
or disappeared into the darkness.

What if…
those dark places were exactly the place that
set us free and into
the light?

What if…
we didn’t stay standing at the open grave of death
and abuse
and hunger
and hurt.

What if…
we let the light shine through us in a way that burns
everything
away
and instead leaves only
brightness
and
joy, hope, grace, singing, dancing, freedom and faith to fill
all the desperate places where darkness and the things of death once stood.

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“Suddenly there was a great burst of light through the Darkness. The light spread out and where it touched the Darkness the Darkness disappeared. The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining, and through the shining came the stars, clear and pure.” ~Madeleine L’Engle

Dear Abba,
Put us in each other’s paths. Show us the way. Give us the eyes to see, the hearts to feel, the grace to understand. Light hope like a fire somewhere deep inside us. Tinder and spark. Lead us even further to Joy. Use our scars to create a more useful landscape. Burn us clean so that we might shine bright because of You.

Help me to stand in the face of vulnerability, even my own, without turning away. Give me a new song. Your way is not the way of the world, but dear Abba, I trust You.
Amen.

Dream Bigger.

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“When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come.” ~Leonardo Da Vinci

Earlier this week I was given guidance to dream bigger. I’m already a pretty big dreamer and so…to dream BIGGER? Yeah, I’m willing to give it my all…even if I don’t entirely know what that even means just yet.

This morning I have been looking through images from Bududa. I can’t seem to get from Point A to Point B in my editing endeavors in any linear fashion because I get distracted by the sheer beauty that so many of these photos contain. This little girl’s name is Mutenyo Evelyne. She hung out with us a lot while we were working in Bududa. She was as curious and sweet as her eyes might lead you to believe. I’ve had her photograph open on my computer since Tuesday because her eyes have captured me, her expression creating a peaceful stillness buoyed with possibility.

Dream bigger, her eyes say.

I want this girl to dream as big as she possibly can. And I want to dream right along with her.

When I left for Uganda, I didn’t really know where God would end up leading me. I knew I was going there to photograph, document, and tell the stories of a particular group of kids and their community. I went there as a Hands of Action volunteer, but the entire time leading up to the trip and even during the time of my stay, my deepest prayer was, “God, plug me into where I am needed most!” I wanted to find my place in this great wide world of need. I wanted God to use me. I trusted that He would. I wanted more than a 3 week experience doing short-term mission work. There were moments when I prayed, “Oh, dear God, please don’t leave me hanging without a sense of place after this is through.” There was a bit of desperation under the surface of that prayer, but He listened to my heart on that one, too. He has a plan.

And you know what? I am falling for His plan hook, line and sinker. lol I’m laughing as I write that…only because it’s true. I’m not even aware of when, exactly, “it” happened. It was incremental, perhaps a bit like the way a baby grows. You don’t notice how fast it happens when they’re in your arms all day long every day, but eventually you turn around and and can’t believe the change that’s taken place!

I left for Uganda with a backpack full of camera gear and several journals. Included in all that gear were a few point and shoot cameras that had been donated after a last minute moment of inspiration to capture photos from the kids’ point of view. Little did I know how important those inexpensive little cameras would become! Actually, I have a feeling that even I still don’t know the full potential of this new journey that I have so divinely been sent on.

This is what the good stuff is made of. Meet my Camera Crew (below): Emma, Emma (a common boy’s name in Uganda) and Godfrey…just three of the fourteen kids that became a committed and integral part of a photography project that I haphazardly pulled out of thin air just days before leaving. God is GOOD! That project changed everything. As my dear friend Moses would say, it is giving me the way forward.

I’ll tell you more about the camera project in future posts, but for now let me just say that the kids took it seriously. Very seriously. It was also my doorway into getting to know the community in a much more intimate way. Those involved became my special crew, my students, my interpreters, sherpas, guards and best friends. They were eager to participate and learn in every way possible. We were a team. It didn’t matter that we sometimes spoke a different language; it didn’t matter that we came from opposite ends of the earth. We found a common thread and I daresay it has woven our lives together for good.

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Emma, Emma and Godfrey, eager students learning how to use a camera tripod.

Since the moment I left African soil, I’ve been obsessed with getting back. I keep saying that I can’t wait to dive into the work that awaits me there. My friend Poppy finally asked me, “Jessie, what IS the work you are going to be doing now?”  Ahhh, such a simple, yet powerful question! Leave it up to Poppy to get down to the brass tacks.

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I believe in these boys. This is the look of limitless possibility.

The short answer is this:

  1. I am working to further develop the camera project as a means of creating continued education and opportunities for the kids involved.
  2. I am working side-by-side with Hands of Action Uganda to grow a micro-loan lending system/cooperative group to help widows get back on their feet after significant loss.
  3. I am helping with the photography, rebranding and websites for Hands Of Action Uganda and Hands of Action International as well providing social media and content in the form of photography, stories, and video.
  4. Last, but not least…I am sooo drawn to work with orphans on some level. I will give that time tho. I have a feeling it is something that will come to me if and when it is meant to be.

Needless to say, all of this seems like as good a place as any to start. When I asked God to use me, He didn’t hold back! In all honesty, I am overjoyed. Meanwhile, I am preparing for a solo exhibition of canine painted portraits with my whole heart. This show is over two years in the making and it is also what is going to propel me into the Whateverafter.

See those kids in the photos above? I believe in them. I believe they can do anything. Emma (left) has a heart of gold. He is gentle, observant, and thoughtful in ways that make him stand out like a shining star. Godfrey (right) is quieter and a bit more likely to go unnoticed in the scheme of things…oh, but that boy, more than any of the others his age, has an eye for detail! Every single one of the kids that emerged to be a part of the camera project is remarkable in some way.

Let this be just the beginning of limitless miracles. It is my hope that the camera project will cause those involved to see the world with new eyes. It is my hope that it will forge a path towards continued education…perhaps someday even creating an opportunity for a university education. If given a chance, what might these kids be capable of? How many other lives might they touch in the process?

All I know for sure right now is this: I want to find out.

Dear Abba, thank you for this journey you’ve set me on. Make me Yours…over and over and over again. You have touched me to the current of new water. Everything before this led to now and everything beyond this leads to what is still to come. May Your grace be limitless.

Teach me how to dream BIGGER. Teach us all.

Dear Abba, I love you.
Amen.

Waiting.

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“Waiting For the Doctor” :: by Jessie Marianiello

I’ve been looking through and editing images today of an incredible community of children who I have completely fallen in love with. Most of the photos break me wide open with immense JOY and even wider open in my desire to return. Never in my whole life have I felt so saturated in happiness and love.

As part of our yearly audit, our team worked hard on updating the students information. We took their photos, measured their height and weight, noted progress and loss, provided an opportunity for each student to receive a medical examination and treatment from Dr. Samuel, as well as new shoes, a pencil and some sweets.

But there is another side of the story that my camera did not always capture. While my lens was focused on the smiling faces of children, behind me there was a constant line forming around the edges of the tent with villagers who were coming to us in hopes of finding even the smallest amount of help. Some of them had walked long distances in great amounts of pain. All of them waited patiently, respectfully, hopefully.

We were blessed. We had a doctor working alongside us. And not just any doctor. Dr. Samuel joined our team from Kenya. Despite significant and recent tragedy in his own family, he was by our side to help in any and every way he could. I have never met anyone quite like him. He is a special man, indeed. He worked tirelessly to help as many people as he could in the time he was there. The only supplies we had were what our small team had brought with us in suitcases from the U.S. plus a few things we picked up once we made it to Uganda. Dr. Samuel was working with the bare minimum in terms of medical supplies…and yet the number of people whose lives he changed are countless.

You see, the presence of Hands of Action International and Hands of Action Uganda was, for most of those people, the one and only opportunity they would have for medical attention of any kind. Some were living with life-and-death illnesses. Some were carrying babies that they were afraid might not survive. Others were living with the pain of serious fungal infections, dental problems, and a miscellany of injuries that we might have difficulty fathoming. No matter what our income level here in the US and in other first world countries, we DO have access to medical and dental assistance in ways that many of these individuals will most likely never know.

This photo makes my heart feel the heaviness of the world. I was reluctant to share it, but lest we forget…this is a reality that exists. I want to always remember that every soul matters. None of us can help everyone, but most of us can help someone. I am grateful for my experience. I am hopeful because…yes, it really does matter.

with love,
Jessie