Into Africa: She gave away everything she owned and headed for the slums of Uganda
by Brett Buckner
Special to The Star
May 05, 2012 | 3663 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Staci Bence sits with Martha Sanyu, one of the women on the Ray of Hope Uganda team, and five street boys who were supported by RoH. Photo: Submitted photo
Staci Bence sits with Martha Sanyu, one of the women on the Ray of Hope Uganda team, and five street boys who were supported by RoH. Photo: Submitted photo
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Staci Bence’s friends thought she was crazy. Some even quietly suggested having her committed.

Looking back, Bence was committed — but she wasn’t crazy. She was choosing to follow what she believed was God’s calling.

Several years ago, Bence sold — and later gave away — virtually everything she owned before moving to the slums of Africa.

Bence, 44, was born in Valley, and had followed her career to Columbus, Ga. It was while living there, around 2006, that she sensed God wanted to renew their relationship.

“I believe that there is a bigger picture,” Bence said recently, while sitting in a Columbus, Starbucks. “I believe that God has a purpose for me. I’d gone about as far as I could go on my own, and it was time to get back to God’s purpose.”

Bence will be returning Africa in mid-May. She has been back in Columbus for more than a year.

She has been working to raise money and awareness for the two main organizations she has been affiliated with in Africa: Ray of Hope, a school located in the slums of Kampala, Uganda, and Ten Eighteen, which educates, feeds and clothes children living in the Ugandan slums.

For $300, a Ten Eighteen sponsor can send a child to school for a year.

Americans spend more money on coffee every year that it would cost to put fresh water wells in every African village, Bence said.

The greatest hurdle is getting people to pay attention. “In America, we have the opportunity, when the snotty-nosed kid from the Sally Struthers commercial comes on TV, we can change the channel,” Bence said.

“But if you had that same child, standing on dirt with an open latrine pit running beside you, no food, and you could smell that terrible smell — try turning away then.

“I just felt like God wanted me here to let people know what it’s really like, and how they can help.”

The Rainbow Connection

Ashley Burrage met Staci Bence about two years ago, while Bence was in the midst of giving away her worldly possessions.

During a 15-minute conversation, Burrage received a stainless-steel outdoor grill and a message that would stick with her for years to come.

Upon Bence’s return to the U.S., the two remained friends. Both now attend Word Alive International Outreach in Coldwater.

Burrage, who teaches drama at The Donoho School, always wanted to sponsor a child. “As soon as I have a couple hundred dollars lying around,” she told herself. But the money just wasn’t there, until she decided to direct a Donoho production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

The play — one of the largest that Donoho has ever staged — will be performed tonight at the Anniston Center of Performing Arts.

“We have never really made much profit from our plays,” Burrage said. “In the past, we have sometimes asked for canned goods or non-perishable items in lieu of admission, or we just charge minimal admission and allow students and faculty to come for free.

“As this project started to snowball, I realized that we were probably going to make some money. And it dawned on me — I had finally found some extra money.”

Burrage, Donoho’s administration and the Anniston City Board of Education decided that 10 percent of the proceeds from “The Wizard of Oz” would go to the Ray of Hope school, an idea Burrage decided to call The Rainbow Connection Project.

“A week later, I get a package in the mail for my music class,” Burrage said. “I open it up, and the first page I turn to is a picture of the Muppets and Kermit and the whole ‘Rainbow Connection’ song.

“So tonight the show will open with the Donoho fifth-grade choir singing ‘Rainbow Connection.’ It was an affirmation to me that we were doing the right thing.”

Everything must go … even the guitar

In 2006, Bence was working at TSYS, an international credit card processing company, where she was making a “very nice salary.” She had a home, drove a Volvo and enjoyed all the trappings of success.

God wanted her to get rid of it all.

“If there’s anything ahead of God in your life, you can’t give him 100 percent,” she said. “I asked for this, and I knew it was going to hurt, but I needed him to burn out anything that wasn’t for him.”

The purging of her material possessions began with CDs and DVDs.

She eventually gave away her car, her furniture, most of her clothes and her guitar collection — including a handmade Taylor guitar.

To give away that prized possession was almost too painful. “I was very prideful about my guitars,” she said. “Not the Taylor … please, not the Taylor,” she pleaded. “But God wanted me to give up everything.

“Still, I tried to justify keeping it, saying, ‘I could use it to sing praise music, to worship you.’ I argued with God over that for days.”

But Bence let it go. She cried when she gave it away.

As soon as she did, she knew it was the right decision.

The man who got the guitar was a worship leader who had damaged his own guitar and couldn’t afford to have it fixed. “This guitar is an answer to my prayers,” he told Bence.

The slums of Uganda

In November of 2009, Bence felt God was telling her to quit her job.

It was through work that Bence had fallen in love with Africa. Years before, she’d been transferred to the U.K., making vacation trips to Africa much easier.

“I’d always been drawn there,” she said. She did the tourist thing — going on safari, etc.

The slums of Uganda were an unfamiliar world.

But that’s exactly where she was by May of 2010.

Bence was on a mission, but she wasn’t necessarily a missionary. She arrived in Africa independently, helping anywhere and anyone she could, before eventually landing in the Kampala slums of Uganda with the volunteers at Ray of Hope.

She witnessed abject poverty. A family of five living in an 8-foot-by-8-foot hut made of mud thatch. Children digging through garbage for food, playing games with ripped up plastic bottles, starving, sick.

“The first time you walk through these slums with 10 kids — each one holding onto a finger because they know you’re somebody with something — it’s easy to get overwhelmed,” she said. “I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘What am I doing here?’

“But God didn’t want me to save the world or even save a village. It starts one day at a time, one person at a time, one bowl of rice at a time.”

Back home to raise funds

Bence stayed in Uganda for six weeks before returning to Columbus to tie up a few loose ends, including finding homes for her four golden retrievers and putting her house on the market.

Her second trip to Uganda lasted for nine months, before she felt called to return to Columbus once more.

Bence’s home never sold. She’s been living off her retirement fund. She doesn’t have a paying job, but travels back and forth to Anniston several times a week.

She attends Word Alive and volunteers with the Isaiah 58 food program, as well as lending her expertise to the church’s missions program.

Bence is working toward launching her own non-profit — Sponsors for Hope. Bence and good friend Mardee Thomas have founded Intense Fork, an “underground dinner club” where they serve meals in Bence’s home, with 10 percent of the sales going to children in Africa. They also sell scones at Market Days in downtown Columbus during the summer.

“I’m back in the West to help feed people,” she said, “so that I might raise money to feed people in the East.

“I want my life to be about loving my neighbor — and that’s everybody but me,” Bence said. “It makes me sad to see so many people in the West sitting in their wealth and complaining about what they haven’t got. They’re missing the joy of sharing what they have with someone who has nothing.”

Contact Brett Buckner at brettbuckner@ymail.com.

“The Wizard of Oz”

• Performed by students of The Donoho School.

• 7 tonight at Anniston Center for Performing Arts.

• $5; free for children 5 and under; 10 percent of the proceeds will go to the Ray of Hope School in Kampala, Uganda.
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