Emma Quisenberry had been fascinated by the idea of mission work in Uganda since she was 6 years old.
She took her first mission trip to the east African country when she was 13. Her father, who was a pastor at Pine River Church in Bayfield, was asked to hold a pastor’s conference, and it was there the opportunity arose for her to make her dream a reality.
Today, she and her husband, Josh, run The Gem Foundation, a faith-based orphanage for children with special needs. They house 49 children of varying ages. The campus was built to be fully disability-accessible, accounting for children using wheelchairs and walkers, Josh said.
The couple employs 91 locally hired Ugandan staff members and also receives support from three international volunteers. Emma said teams of staff members perform a range of duties, including child care, nursing, physical and occupational therapy, teaching, laundry services, supervisory duties, bookkeeping, farming and social work.
The children are housed in four homes on campus, further sorted into eight groups by age. Josh said a special needs school is being planned for the orphanage and a medical center is being constructed and will hopefully be opening by August. A staff pediatrician visits regularly to work with the children. Food is grown on-site on 70 acres of farmland.
The Quisenberrys opened the orphanage specifically to support special needs children, who are often neglected in Uganda because of cultural stigmas and superstitions, such as a father unwilling to believe he had a disabled child, or communities fearing that disabilities are curses, bad omens or contagious, Emma said.
She said often, these fears lead to special needs children being abandoned.
Even the children the Quisenberrys have taken under their wings face adversity off-campus. One 18-year-old visited 10 different schools before she found one that would accept her despite her disability. She uses a small walker to get around, Josh said, but that was enough for multiple schools to say they could not accommodate her.
“Finally, we found a place where she's able to study, but we know for the rest of our kids that have even more severe needs we’ll have to make a space for that,” he said.
The five oldest children at The Gem Foundation are over 18 years old, he said. They have no traceable relatives. The oldest among them, age 20, is nonverbal and needs help bathing and getting dressed. What does one do with somebody who has aged out of a children’s home but cannot take care of themselves on the outside?
Build an assisted living facility, Josh said.
He said he and his wife are waiting for Ugandan government approval to begin an adult assisted living program. The building is already on campus.
“We’ve had to figure out every accommodation, how to provide education and feeding and health care for all stages (of life),” he said.
The neighboring village is extremely rural. All roads are dirt. The nearest medical center is 2 to 3 miles away, linked by more dirt roads, which are difficult to travel for the locals, who are mostly farmers without cars living hand-to-mouth, he said.
There are a lot of responsibilities – and costs – in running The Gem Foundation. Josh said it costs about $35,000 per month for various expenses, including anti-seizure drugs and other medical care for special needs children. Then there are salaries for the staff.
Emma and Josh said the foundation doesn’t pay for their personal expenses, which they get from friends and family, because everything that goes to the foundation is for the children, he said.
Emma said care and love makes all the difference for the children she works with.
The foundation works with social workers and the local government to go through the legal process of taking kids in. Once, a severely malnourished 7-year-old girl was brought in weighing just 6 pounds, she said. But she’s since transformed completely into a smiling, healthy person.
“We’ve seen kids learn to walk – kids who we didn’t even know could walk or talk start walking and talking – because it’s just such a difference that care and love makes,” she said.
The Gem Foundation has taken in abandoned kids looking like little more than skin, bones and hopeless eyes, Josh said.
“They can’t tell you their story of what they’ve seen their last six or 12 years of life that brought them to this point,” he said. “And it’s amazing to see the transformation literally after just a month, two months.”
But without fail, the kids become healthier after receiving care, he said.
“It’s really cool to see just what love can do,” he said.
The Quisenberrys’ work doesn’t stop at caring for lost special needs children. So far, they have managed to reunite 14 kids with their biological families.
“Because of the cultural misconceptions and stigmas, we can’t just reunite a child with the family, because that family might actually get ostracized by the entire community,” he said. “... It can be sometimes six months to a year of counseling and mentoring and training (the community) before that child is able to safely reunite.”
Emma and Josh are visiting Durango over the weekend as they and their five children tour several states to reconnect with donors who have supported the foundation and continue fundraising for a new school on their campus, Josh said. They plan to speak about The Gem Foundation at 10 a.m. Sunday at The River Church at 860 Plymouth Drive in Durango.