For most of us heading overseas, checking the Smart Traveller website and seeing the warnings ‘reconsider your need to travel’ and ‘do not travel’ and immediately we would change our plans. For others warnings on websites mean nothing. When you feel such a heart stir, such a deep set knowing that you must follow the whispers of your prayers, nothing can stand in your way. This is Natalie. This is her story.
In 2010 Natalie looked to fill a void in her life, an emptiness that she couldn’t define. In her search to fill that void she began volunteering at her local Church. “The first twelve months were a real eye opener to what is out there, just here in Melbourne.” But local work wasn’t enough for Natalie. One service the pastor showed images of places that the church helped around the world and instantly something changed in Natalie. “I started feeling a real stirring in my heart; alright mission work sounds really great and exciting!”
A trip to the Philippines was coming up and Natalie wanted to go. Yet, it wasn’t as easy as just saying yes. Natalie was a wife and a mum to three little girls, at the time they were only three, seven and nine years old. “I had a young family and did not want to disturb the girls’ life – I’m always a mum first.” But with a supportive husband and amazing family, Natalie went on that Philippine’s mission’s trip and those five days changed her life. “It was the birth of something in me. I came back and I was just pumped! What next?!”
Natalie did not have to wait long for the answer. The Barton family, who are the heart and soul of Operation Uganda, came to visit her church. Jenny Barton spoke about the work of Operation Uganda and the opportunity to volunteer with them. “I felt a real heart stirring again. I loved everything that they were doing and that she was saying.” A week later, not only was Natalie all set for Uganda, her husband Rob was just as excited to go.
“I wasn’t keen on taking the girls until I had been there and seen for myself what it was like and what to expect. Just Rob and I went and it was the best thing we have ever done – ever! It was just an amazing two week trip. We did renovations to the orphanage and school, we worked and it was hard, but what Rob and I felt in Uganda was like home, it felt like we could do this again.”
We came back and “one thing after another confirmed that yes we should go again.” But not everyone was as confident as Rob and Natalie. Family were concerned about their safety in Uganda and Natalie’s mum concerned that she would not be seeing her granddaughters for six months. “But we had a peace and no one could shake that. Many people told us it was crazy, but I never thought that myself and I still don’t.”
Since this next trip was a family trip, Rob and Natalie sat their girls down and asked them what they wanted to do. The two little ones were excited and ready to go, but Natalie’s eldest daughter was not so sure. “We wanted everyone to have the same vision, the same feeling, I didn’t want to drag anyone kicking and screaming there – it’s not a holiday destination. We just wanted to be real.”
Natalie’s eldest daughter came round and in 2013 the five of them traded life in Australia, to life in Uganda. “I thought honestly, six months all of us working and living together all the time – we were going to kill each other – but it was the total opposite.” Rob took long service leave, the girls were home schooled and life in Uganda became the new normal. “We would do one or two hours of home schooling every morning, then the girls would hang out with the kids at the orphanage all day and just do what we were doing.”
“There are things that you would never let your kids do in Uganda; they would never be out of my sight, everywhere you drive doors must be locked, windows must be up, because if you stop at traffic lights they will grab things and you never walk anywhere at night, you barely walk anywhere during the day. We told the girls the dangers, they would see security guards and police walking around with guns, but they were so resilient, they just went with it.”
Natalie being a hairdresser and Rob working in IT, their skills were not easily transferrable in Uganda. So they took over kid’s ministry for Operation Uganda. “We just flipped this thing on its head – it was incredible.” With a 100 children, everyone had a task to do, including their daughters. Worship, testimonials, giving thanks to God, and making sure the children drank enough water were all part of the job. Rob and Natalie brought “real structure into the program, so all the kids would focus.” Group work and craft work all part of the fun. “Many of these kids would not go to school, so to give them crayons and paper, they would all put their hands up ‘me, me, me!’ they were scared to miss out.” By the end, 100 children had grown to 180 and there was real empowerment within the community. “Rob and I just stood back, as the kids were able to run the whole thing on their own from start to finish.”
“I look at my kids and think oh if only you had a little bit more gratefulness for all the things that you have, but they have now, after six months in Uganda.” Six months is about to turn into twelve, as they pack up their lives to go back to Uganda. Rob has quit his job and the girls are already enrolled in an international school. “When we left at the end of those last six months, it just felt unfinished. I walked in my house from the airport and I wanted to walk out. It just felt wrong.”
Natalie and Rob have their work cut out for them. “In the first three weeks we will hit the ground running; the Barton family come back to Australia for ten weeks, so we will be running the show. We will also work in a village ten hours away from Kampala, Abim; we need to build this community, volunteer teachers are teaching the 500 kids there – just sitting under a tree and being taught. We also have plans to build a child care centre and continue to help build the community library.”
Natalie knows that this experience will be life changing. But it is not her own family she thinks about. “One child at a time, one person at a time, you are slowly building up hope and they start to think ‘I can do this.’ If you educate a child, that is when poverty starts to go, they won’t stand for the things that they have been told to stand, and if you educate the girls especially, they will be world changers, they will change the country. You are changing a child’s life from a life of poverty to a life with some hope, how could I want anything more than that?”
Many of us spend a lifetime seeking the answer to our purpose here. Some of us are lucky enough to find that answer. “This was the thing that was missing, we now had a life with the bare minimum and it was enough. For the person who is reading this, sitting there feeling that emptiness, perhaps sit, be quiet and listen to the whisperings of your heart before you fill that emptiness with things.”
You can follow Natalie and her adventures in Uganda on her blog: Aguis Family’s Ugandan Mission
Natalie and Rob will be volunteering their time in Uganda for the next twelve months. They will not earn a wage during that time. They still need to cover their living expenses for the twelve months they will be away. If you would like to donate in any way to their trip, supporting their work in Uganda, please use the donate button below. All donations are most appreciated.
Do you listen to the whisperings of your heart?
All images (except those watermarked always Josefa) are copyright to Natalie Agius.
If you would like to nominate someone or yourself to be part of Stories of You, please email me directly at email@example.com. I’d love to meet you over coffee and hear your story. Read the other incredible stories from the Stories of You collection here.