By her mid-20s, she’d already fared better than many of her college-grad peers: Maegan Hubbard had already snagged a mortgage, a 401(k) and a steady corporate job — during the height of the recession, no less. As project manager/store planner for Bassett Furniture Industries, she traveled around the country helping the company launch dozens of Bassett Home Furnishings stores.
She had never stepped foot in a developing country until a church mission trip to Haiti in 2011, when everything about her changed — especially her smile. She returned to Haiti three months later, but by then it was clear.
“I couldn’t sit in my cubicle anymore,” Maegan said. “There were so many people needing help in this world, and here I was sitting there trying to get people to buy furniture.”
Maegan, now 30, is a long way from Bassett — and a long way from Haiti. She’s spent the past year in faraway Uganda, doing mission work for Roanoke County-based Kissito Healthcare International. She facilitates visiting medical volunteer teams from Roanoke and elsewhere, feeds starving children under the shade of a tree and, in a handful of extreme instances, has watched them die, too.
“It was never in my nature before to be bold,” said the 2002 Northside High School graduate. “But in Africa, you have to learn boldness.”
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Elbowing your way into a chaotic non-line that is the supermarket checkout. Crowding onto a taxi filled with people who’ve hauled their chickens — and even mattresses — on board.
Trying to coax a mother into admitting her starving teenager into a regional hospital when she fears her abusive husband may leave her if she takes the boy there.
“Going into a dirty old hospital with crying kids and people are dying, and the place is a mess — you learn a whole lot about yourself,” Maegan said.
Couple that with terrorist strikes in nearby Kenya and civil war in neighboring South Sudan, and work in Mbale, Uganda, is rife with sorrows and potential pitfalls.
And yet, Maegan says she’s only cried twice during her first year of mission work — once, when the starving teen described above died despite all her organization’s efforts to get him admitted into the hospital.
Though she admits to being a bit rattled, she did not cry a few months back when the vehicle she was traveling in was tear gassed as collateral damage from a communitywide manhunt for a man who’d killed people and stolen their motorcycles. (The chase culminated in death by vigilante justice as the villagers took the law into their own hands.)
Ask Freida Hubbard if she worries about her daughter living with no salary in dicey Third World conditions, and she laughs — nervously. But mom recalls marveling when her daughter returned from her initial missionary trips to Haiti with an expanded, changed heart.
She follows the moving stories Maegan writes on her blog, and she witnesses the joy emanating from the pictures Maegan posts: an old man wearing glasses for the first time; a child cured of malnutrition-caused swelling and flashing Maegan his adorable, what-you-talking-about-Willis grin.
“The biggest change I’ve seen in Maegan is her smile,” Freida Hubbard says. “It’s huge. Huge. I mean, there’s a happiness and a joy in her that she just didn’t have before.
“Something inside her that’s a real fullness because she knows she’s making a difference now with her life.”
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That’s the message behind the talks Maegan is giving during her monthlong visit home in Roanoke, where she’s speaking at area churches and selling jewelry made by female entrepreneurs in Mbale. She talks about the joy she gets from treating malnourished youngsters under the shade of a tree.
At Parkway Wesleyan, where she first got the missionary bug — she coordinated church mission trips and still receives donations from several members for her work in Uganda — she discussed Kissito’s latest Ugandan endeavor, a separate nongovernmental organization called Life Centers Ministry-Africa. It’s launching an inpatient malnutrition clinic in a hospital, largely supported by several Roanoke-area churches and businesses, including Gentle Shepherd Hospice.
Kissito President Tom Clarke said he started Life Centers Ministry-Africa as a separate, church-affiliated nonprofit. Kissito International gets funding from the United Nations and U.S. Agency for International Development, “and separation of church and state seems to be a bigger issue every single year,” he said.
Domestically, Kissito operates a range of housing and nursing facilities for the Roanoke region’s aging population. But its Africa arm partners with local governments to buttress health care operations in Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia and — until a few weeks ago — South Sudan. Late last month it arranged for the emergency evacuation of seven employees working in South Sudan because of the brewing civil war. (See sidebar on former Kissito accountant Scott Montgomery, now operating his own agriculture NGO in South Sudan.)
Maegan’s current focus is forging community connections and health education by connecting with village churches. Uganda is half-Muslim and half-Christian, and most Ugandans are accepting of others’ beliefs, she said.
“Religion is very important in Africa; everyone believes something.”
Maegan has not only retained her passion for mission work; she’s expanded it, Clarke says.
“What ends up happening a lot of times is people go to Africa and after a month or two months, they start missing Home Depot and Sheetz and Kroger. But the longer Maegan’s there, the more committed she is.”
In her Roanoke talks, Maegan says her goal isn’t to rattle the can for donations, but rather she’s “trying to encourage people to look at life from a different perspective.”
Visiting her old co-workers in Bassett last week, she did sell some jewelry, but mostly she visited and hugged and answered questions about the Ugandans she writes about on her blog.
“So many people live in their bubble here in America, so I’m just trying to give a broader view,” she said. “People are fascinated by the little white girl who’s enmeshed in Africa and ‘She must be so brave.’
“I’m not scared there but I also don’t feel brave. I’m just trying to show people you don’t have to live your life the same way every day. You can make a difference.
“By giving up something,” she says, “I’ve received God’s best for my life.”
This story in it’s entirety was written by Beth Macy and can be found on the Roanoke Times website