As student after student at Uganda’s African Hospitality Institute shared their stories, the obstacles they faced seemed unfathomable to the group of visitors from Greenwood.
Some of the young men and women had lost parents to diseases such as typhoid or rabies. Many of them had been abandoned as young children.
One boy had lost both his father and mother by the time he was 7 years old. He was forced to work in construction in neighboring Ugandan villages to earn even enough to survive.
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“When you hear their stories, you realize that your petty worries are really nothing. You see how brave they are, and how they long to overcome, despite the pain they’ve experienced,” said Greenwood resident Nickole Huffman. “All of the people we spoke with said they felt hopeless before coming to the school, and now they have hope.”
Hearing the impact the school has had only strengthened the resolve of Huffman and her husband, Greg, to help. The Huffmans, their two children and a group of friends had traveled to Uganda as part of a partnership between the institute and their business, Zoë Facility Services.
The hope is to prepare young Ugandans for careers and help lift them out of poverty. Zoë Facility Services has raised $11,065 so far to sponsor students, pay staff members, improve the school’s water system and support other projects.
“That the Huffmans want to join (the African Hospitality Institute) is humbling. Our staff and students would say it’s a miracle and a testimony of God’s faithfulness and grace,” said Maggie Josiah, founder of the institute. “The Huffmans are now family. Our liberation is now tied to them.”
The African Hospitality Institute is a two-year, hands-on program where students learn the basics of the hospitality business — doing laundry, preparing Western food, making a bed, pouring water and other skills needed to support Uganda’s tourism industry. The second year of the program is an internship at a local hotel or safari lodge.
The institute includes a guesthouse, where visitors can stay for $40 per night. Students at the institute would staff the guesthouse, learning real-world skills to help them upon graduation.
Josiah founded the school in an attempt to correct a life that had been traumatized by sexual abuse.
“As I approached my 50s, I decided I wanted a good ending to my story. I wanted my story to have purpose and meaning. I wanted my story to prove that good can overcome evil,” she said.
The trip lasted from July 18 to Aug. 3. Their group comprised of the Huffmans, their children Josiah and Samara, Zoë Facility Services talent recruiter Bethany Wilson and director of operations Jason Graf, as well as another family of friends.
The trip serves as a continuation of the Huffmans’ relationship with Josiah and the institute. The entire family had first encountered the school in 2014, while Nickole Huffman went on a separate mission trip again last year.
But this visit marked the family’s formal partnering with the institute.
“It was easier two years ago to walk away, to think, ‘Well, that was a great trip to Africa,’” Greg Huffman said. “But after her second trip, realizing the potential and how our company could work with theirs, I knew it was going to be risky. And if it was going to be risky, I was going to have to get dirty, to get to know these people closely.”
Zoë Facility Services, which the Huffmans founded in 2001, has become a dominant force in the cleaning industry.
From starting out cleaning 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.
The company is named for the Greek word for “abundant,” and Zoë has long worked community outreach into its mission.
“Two years ago when we went, we wanted to know what this was about. Last year, I wanted them to tell me more. Now, we wanted to know them, we wanted to know their story, we were in this together,” Nickole Huffman said.
The group arrived at the institute during what the staff and students call their “Sabbath ritual.” After a long week of work and study, they take time to rest and be still while reflecting on their faith.
The Zoë group was able to take part in readings about rest and blessings of the group as a whole.
But it was a raucous dance and drum session that brought the two distinctly different cultures together.
Their first night, they sat with the students and staff in congenial, yet stiff conversation. Finally, Nickole Huffman asked what the student would be doing if they weren’t there, if it were a normal Saturday night.
“They went into their dining room, and came out with these huge drums and grass skirts. And they said, ‘We would dance,’” she said. “The next thing you know, we’re around the fire pit and everyone is dancing.”
The music and movement served to knock down some of the perceived differences between the two groups. From the Huffmans’ perspective, it was a way to engage with the students and find a commonality among them.
“It was almost like any walls that were up came crashing down,” Nickole Huffman said.
Throughout their stay, members of the Zoë group shared their business knowledge to help the students as they searched for jobs. They discussed interview etiquette, team building and communication.
Uganda is beset by poverty, with nearly 80 percent of the population unemployed. So many had no experience with the process of getting a job.
“These are just kids, but they’ve overcome so much,” Greg Huffman said.
Greg Huffman brought some of his business-building techniques to the staff, finding out what their vision was and what they were trying to accomplish. The hope was that mapping out those ideas would help Zoë Facility Services and the school work more efficiently.
“We want to step beside them. We don’t want to change their methods; we just want to be able to support them in it,” Nickole Huffman said.
They also helped to “mud” a school — taking specially prepared mud and caking it into the wooden frames of a building being constructed in a nearby village.
Students that they had met on previous trips, who had secured stable jobs at local resorts or golf courses, came back to interact with students and help at the institute.
“It was amazing to see our friends use their gifts and talents in a way that really blessed the students,” Nickole Huffman said.
Their trip included more tourist-centric experiences as well. The group went on safari and took boats to see where the Nile River starts. They learned not just about the vital artery for much of eastern Africa but also about Uganda’s prison system and small fishing economy.
“We got to really be educated on their culture,” Nickole Huffman said.
Since returning to their home in Greenwood, the spiritual and emotional momentum generated during the trip has been refocused on the “Life Beyond Clean. Life Beyond Borders” gala event.
Nearly 100 people attended the gala, held on Aug. 27 in downtown Indianapolis. The event has brought in $10,000 at last count, with more to be tallied. Additional donations are being accepted as well.
The Huffmans hope that the excitement built from this initial event trickles down to bring in even more assistance.
“Maggie is from the (U.S.), but her support system is small. It has been the same support system for years. When you bring new voices and faces into the story, we’re going to see it differently than people did 10 years ago, when she started the school,” Nickole Huffman said. “We have a lot of people who are very interested in our trips. For them, they want to be a part of this.”
As part of the event, Maggie Josiah was able to come to the U.S. to meet with supporters. She has been touched by the dedication that the entire Zoë Facility Services team has made to her cause.
“The Huffmans are willing to struggle together with us; there is no greater privilege,” Maggie Josiah said.
How to Help
What: Zoë Facility Services is partnering with the African Hospitality Institute, a school that teaches young men and women to work in Uganda’s tourism industry.
Where does the money go?
The money raised will go to sponsor students, pay staff members, improve the school’s water system and support other projects.