Eight years ago, Greg Van Dyke called his wife over his lunch hour to deliver a surprise.
“I’ve got good news and bad news,” the Tenaska Energy CFO told her. “The good news: I’ve cleared my schedule and taken care of all the logistics for you to go to Uganda with your sister. The bad news: You only have 24 hours to decide.”
Karen was shocked. Unbeknownst to her, her husband had overheard a conversation with her sister about a mission trip to Uganda. That was her dream, Karen told her sister: to go on a mission trip to Africa. With five children aged 2-12, she figured it was impossible.
Greg thought otherwise. He saw a chance to fulfill one of his wife’s dreams on her 40th birthday. He saw his wife, a natural organizer and doer, sharing her big heart with others.
Back then, neither of them knew his proposal would ignite a passion that has touched thousands of lives in the U.S. and Uganda. So powerful was her first trip that Karen founded Educate Uganda, a nonprofit that improves schools and provides scholarships to children in the area of Nkokonjeru, Uganda.
It didn’t happen overnight. On the first trip with her sister’s church, Karen struggled. “If you would have asked me whether I would have come back again, I would’ve said no.”
The brick cottage where they stayed redefined the word “rustic.” It was smelly. There were bats. All around, there was poverty. The experience stuck with her beyond the two-week trip. “It was hard to come back,” Karen said. “I felt like they are already living their purgatory. They are already suffering, and yet we don’t have any idea of what’s in store for us because (Americans) have so much.”
Lost and disheartened, she confided in her priest. “God gave to you what you have,” the priest told her. “The only sin you may have is the sin of forgetfulness. God gave you this gift, to know this place.”
Eighteen months later, she was back in Uganda. She sought a way she could make a difference, however small. She found the answer in education, and what started as a small fundraising project among the couple’s close friends has grown to a full-fledged 501c(3) nonprofit organization. Educate Uganda employs in-country staff to coordinate projects in multiple villages funded by thousands of stateside donors.
Karen draws no salary for her efforts, leaving 100 percent of the donations to go to Ugandans. Their scholarship program encourages interaction between scholarship sponsors and children to build relationships.
“Knowing that someone in another country cares for them makes those children feel special,” Karen said. She encourages both children and sponsors to pray for each other, even though they may never meet.
Today, it’s hard to imagine what life would be like had Greg not paved the way for Karen to make a dream come true. Greg and the children are Karen’s cheerleaders. The kids mowed lawns and hawked lemonade to sponsor Ugandan children, and several have traveled to Uganda with Karen. Greg provides the support Karen needs to make it all happen, even from thousands of miles away.
Greg knows that just once during every trip to Uganda, Karen will call overwhelmed by the feeling of being a drop of water in an ocean of need. Greg listens. He reassures her that all is well at home, and she can focus on the tasks at hand without worrying about the kids. Then he tells her where to find one of the many letters he hides in her luggage. One letter is aimed at cheering her up: a handwritten joke about a snail, with footnotes describing how to deliver the joke to get more laughs in front of the group. (For example: “You’ll get the loudest laugh if you’ve had a glass of wine.”) Other letters she savors just before bed, after she crawls under a mosquito net and prepares herself for another day helping children.
His letters are the last thing she reads before she goes to sleep.