Recent Cal Poly graduate Noel Friend had an opportunity to study abroad during her junior year of college in 2009. She could have chosen Australia, England or Spain, but she wanted an experience that was “enlightening and would let me see the world from a perspective I knew nothing about.”
So she took off to Africa.
Through Food for the Hungry, a Christian nonprofit that helps those in need around the world, Friend expanded her mind and made a difference by teaching and caring for women and children in Rwanda and Uganda.
“It’s really a neat organization in that it wants to expose students to the realities of developing nations and the realities of living in poverty,” Friend said.
She first spent about a month and a half in Rwanda, teaching English to young women who were widowed or orphaned because of the genocide in the 1990s. She visited many memorials of the genocide and toured churches that were supposed to be safe havens but in which many were killed.
“It was so recent that it was still very fresh in the eyes of the people,” she said. “It was a huge part of their experiences.”
Friend then spent about a month in Kitgum, a rural community in northern Uganda, where she worked with Bringing Hope, a Christian charity, to help those living with HIV and AIDS by visiting people in their homes and educating them in healthy practices and ways to improve their lives.
Friend also volunteered at the Kitgum Infant Orphan Care Center, helping with tasks and befriending the children.
“With the orphans, I was surprised at the state of the orphanage and the orphans. They were very dirty; infants would sit in their urine and feces because there were so many children to clean up,” Friend said. “The people did what they could, but there weren’t enough hands to take care of all their needs.”
She was surprised by how frequently new orphans were brought in. She recalls two 1-day-old infants being admitted in one day because their mothers had died during childbirth, a major problem that contributes to the high number of orphans.
Friend talked about the heart-rending tales of the orphans, many of whom had lost their parents and ended up in the orphanage because they escaped abusive relatives caring for them.
Another girl was abandoned by her family because she was conceived after her mother was raped by rebels during a conflict in northern Uganda, a common occurrence in the region.
When Friend returned from her study trip, she felt she had to do something to spread awareness and to continue to help the orphanage at which she volunteered. She and her then-roommate, Mallory Wedeking, created a group called Walk Humbly – Kitgum, Uganda to raise money. Friend said it rains frequently in Kitgum, and children in the orphanage may feel cooped in without a place to play outdoors. Friend and Wedeking hosted a rummage sale here and raised $1,600 to send to the orphanage. Within a couple of weeks of receiving the money, Friend said, the orphan center had built a covered pavilion in which children could play during wet weather.
Friend graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in English and is now studying toward a teaching credential in English, also at Cal Poly. She has not determined what she will do after she finishes the program, but her experience in Africa has opened her eyes to the larger world. And one memory that sticks out for Friend is the many local volunteers in Uganda: “These people who took us into the field and translated for us and helped run this project were just as poverty-stricken as those affected by HIV, yet they were volunteering their time to help others,” she said. “It meant that they wouldn’t eat that day because they were spending their time helping others instead of themselves.”
“Their culture is very compassionate to others. Their ability to sacrifice their time, even if it meant they wouldn’t eat that day, to help someone else was really eye-opening.”
This Thanksgiving, we honor Noel Friend as an unsung hero. Not only does she ease the suffering of those in need, she also reminds us that there is a big world out there, far removed from the comforts of the Central Coast.