•the hilly and wild bush country of central Uganda, a small school has emerged as the foothold people need to climb out of abject poverty.

Young men and women, usually between the ages of 18 and 22, learn how to use computers, work in a kitchen and clean rooms to a level expected in a hotel. For visiting missionaries and others to the remote regions, they practice their skills by serving meals, tidying rooms and perfecting their manners.

In a country with 80 percent unemployment, the African Hospitality Institute has a vision for economic success.

“With a lot of these students, they’re the first ones in their families to have a job that isn’t working in the field,” said Greg Huffman, a Whiteland resident who has visited the Ugandan school. “They’re making money when most people live for $1 or less a day.”

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Huffman and his wife, Nickole, have been involved with the institute since visiting it two years ago. This year, they’re using their own business, Zoë Cleaning Services, to form a partnership and support a vital engine for prosperity in an overwhelmingly poor region.

In recognition of the business’ 15th anniversary, the Huffmans will host a gala event in August. The hope is to raise $30,000 to sponsor students, pay staff members, improve the school’s water system and support other projects.

The Huffmans first encountered the African Hospitality Institute unintentionally.

They were in the middle of their first mission trip to Uganda. The Huffmans and their children, Samara and Josiah, traveled to northern Uganda to serve at Restore International Academy, a school created by author and human rights advocate Bob Goff.

Nickole Huffman had read Goff’s book “Love Does,” and was inspired by his message of courage and justice, as well as the work he does in countries such as Uganda.

“His whole book is about adventure and being brave, doing the things you never thought you could,” she said. “That spoke to me.”

Along the way, they were told they had to meet Maggie Josiah.

Josiah had spent 25 years in the hospitality industry in the U.S. before she came to Africa in 2002. While on a personal journey of discovery, she encountered the Ekitangaala Ranch tucked away in the Ugandan wilderness.

Her idea was to start a vocational training program for young people in the region, teaching them the skills they’d need to serve Uganda’s tourism industry. A vast majority of the Ugandan people are unemployed, and many who do have jobs don’t make enough to support themselves.

“Many of these students come from very poor families. Many have been orphaned. We met several people on that trip that didn’t know their birthdays,” Nickole Huffman said.

Josiah built a guesthouse, where visiting missionaries could come to stay for $40 per night. Students at the institute would staff the guesthouse, learning real-world skills to help them upon graduation.

The first part of the two-year program is hands-on basics of doing laundry, preparing Western food, making a bed, pouring water and other staples of hospitality. The second year of the program is an internship at a local hotel or safari lodge.

The Huffmans ended up staying at the institute for four nights.

“We fell in love with her and her students,” Nickole Huffman said. “After that, I kept in pretty good contact with her.”

Greg and Nickole Huffman are open about the Christian faith. Zoë Cleaning Services is not a “Christian company,” but they’ve tried to link the ideals of service, character and humanity in the people they hire.

The outreach mission of Zoë has always been the primary passion for the Huffmans. While they’ve invested more fully in the cleaning industry, it’s that outreach that has been central to what they do.

“We’ve wondered for a while how we can show our people who we really are and give them something to see and understand about the Zoë concept,” Greg Huffman said.

Zoë Cleaning Services was founded in 2001 by the Huffmans, the same year they got married. Greg Huffman was in the midst of a carpentry apprenticeship, while the couple founded a ministry for at-risk youth.

When he was laid off from the apprenticeship, he was initially excited to spend more time with the ministry. But, they also needed a way to support the family.

Greg Huffman approached the apartment complex they were living in and asked if he could clean hallways at night. He had done cleaning for apartments in Bloomington in the past.

The complex manager told him he needed to be insured, so he decided to incorporate and form his own company. Zoë Cleaning Services was born, named after the Greek word for “abundant life.”

“We started doing the work, and I realized that I was making more money in two days here than I was the entire week in carpentry,” Greg Huffman said. “What if my wife and I could do this, and give us more time to be in ministry.”

From apartment complexes, camps and other residential settings, the focus is now entirely on commercial cleaning, with all of its clients larger than 40,000-square-feet and requiring five-days-a-week service.

By 2007, they were doing slightly more than $100,000 in business. That number was slightly more than $1 million of business last year.

Zoë now features a management staff of seven people, with nearly 50 employees doing the cleaning work.

The growth of the company has corresponded with an increasing desire to impact the community in meaningful ways.

From the experiences in Uganda, as well as other encounters that demonstrated the impact they could have in the country, the Huffmans formulated a plan.

Zoë could work with the African Hospitality Institute to help develop the skills and resources to change their own lives. They would not just give money as a handout; rather, it would go to improve the facility where many people could come to learn, work and ultimately succeed.

The Huffmans could use their own experience running a business, from simple lessons such as how to dress for an interview to more complex ideas of goal setting.

“It would give the company something that Zoë could be behind. We could give (Maggie Josiah) the tools she needs to provide jobs,” Greg Huffman said. “We are not in the hospitality business. But there are a lot of parallels between the two, especially when you think of our customers’ service demands and the demands in hospitality.”

To support that effort, Zoë Cleaning Services is planning and hosting a gala event to get the entire central Indiana community involved.

By achieving their fundraising goal of about $30,000, they can sponsor students to attend the school and provide funds to pay the in-place staff.

Some of the money would pay for excursions for the students to visit safari lodges throughout Uganda to learn about what those jobs entail. As those students are placed in unpaid internships at those lodges, additional funding would provide them with money to buy food and shelter.

So that the students know the basics of working with computers — a skill that they’ll need in the tourism industry — the hope is to provide laptops to them.

Currently, the institute is in the middle of a project to install new water pipes and a pump to service the existing guesthouse, school and medical clinic. Eventually, the hope is to provide hot, running water and flush toilets in the staff living quarters, as well.

Leading up to the gala, the Huffmans are currently in Uganda as a family. This time, they’ve brought Zoë talent recruiter Bethany Wilson and director of operations Jason Graf with them.

“I’ve been hearing about (the African Hospitality Institute) and Maggie for two years solid, and I want to meet this woman and see the passion she has for people,” Graf said.

A former pastor himself, Graf had never been on a mission trip before. He’s anticipating teaching the students at the institute about business, as well as taking away a new perspective from the residents themselves.

Josiah’s track record is immaculate — in 10 years, every one of her graduates has found meaningful employment. Uganda has a thriving tourism industry; in 2013, the equivalent of $979 million was spend by tourists, according to the country’s ministry of tourism.

The graduates of the institute are tapping into what has the most economic potential in the country, Greg Huffman said. When a student finds that stable employment, it can change the course of generations of people in their family.

“Over the long haul, you’re going to see these families change. That’s going to be part of the process, where they’re no longer just surviving with one day’s worth of food. They can be creative with their future,” he said. “I think we’re going to make a big impact with little financial contribution and a whole lot of personal support and awareness.”

If you go

“Life Beyond Clean. Life Beyond Borders” Gala

What: A fundraiser organized by Greenwood-based Zoë Cleaning Services to support a partnership with the African Hospitality Institute.

When: 6 p.m. Aug. 27

Where: Sanctuary on Penn, 701 N. Pennsylvania Ave., Indianapolis.

Cost: Individual tickets start at $150, with larger sponsorships available. Black tie optional.

Where does the money go?

The money raised during the gala will go to sponsor students, pay staff members, improve the school’s water system and support other projects.

Information: beyond-clean.com/index.php/life-beyond-clean-life-beyond-borders

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.