SEMINOLE — Lenora Gauthier had been regularly traveling to Uganda for five years when she decided to make a permanent move there and dedicate her life to uplifting the war-torn country.
That was three years ago and she hasn’t regretted her decision, she said, though her mission has certainly evolved a bit.
“My plan was to go into a village and teach Bible school and never come out, but God had other plans and I ended up in Parliament once a week,” Gauthier said.
Working with the Anointed Church of Jesus Christ in Uganda, the former Seminole-area resident runs New Life Bible School in Mukono.
She also inadvertently became part of a weekly prayer group for members of Uganda’s Parliament. She was invited to join the group by a pastor she worked with, not knowing many of the country’s leaders attended the group.
It’s not easy for Gauthier to travel to these prayer sessions, but she recognizes their value. She lives an hour-and-a-half away from the country’s capitol. To get there on time, she needs to get up at 4:30 a.m. and get a ride to her car, which she parks in a nearby village due to safety concerns.
“It’s really amazing,” she said. “Each week a different leader presents the Bible. It’s all sound doctrine based in scripture and we have these amazing conversations.”
Over time, she became more involved with the group and is now on the committee organizing Uganda’s annual National Day of Prayer.
This group is also where she met and befriended Molly Lanyero, a member of Parliament since 2016, representing the Lamwo District that borders South Sudan.
Lanyero spent much of her youth living in internment camps. As a teen, she was “lucky” enough to leave the camp and attend boarding school in a nearby city, she said. “But I would go home on holidays to see my parents and they were two different worlds apart.”
She watched children born in the camps and grow up knowing only life within its borders. She wanted to help these children and became a teacher. She served as deputy headmistress of a high school in Bunamwaya and also was project coordinator for the Foundation for Early Childhood Education & Development.
When the war subsided and camps were dismantled around 2009, people returned to their villages.
“But it was hard for them,” Lanyero said. “It was a difficult transition. Life wasn’t the same.”
She resigned from her teaching position to continue her crusade to uplift the youth and women who had been displaced by the internment camps. She gathered women and young adults to teach them life and career skills.
“I wanted to empower them so they could pick up their lives,” she said. “These children born in these camps, they were 20 years old, and all they know is camp life. They don’t have any skills. It was a really big challenge. I wanted to bring this transformation to my community.”
Eventually, she realized she wanted to continue this work on a larger scale and ran for Parliament. First elected in 2016, she’s now in her third term.
Along the way she also created the Molly Lanyero Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to educating women. She donates 80 percent of her salary to this organization.
“It’s about helping them build skills,” she said. “Farming in Uganda is our major, major source of economy, but 80 percent of farmers are women. So, I want to get women there doing large-scale, commercial farming.”
Lanyero and Gauthier connected immediately.
“Molly is a strong women leader. The people love her. She pours so much into her community,” Gauthier said.
She also discovered the two shared many similarities, including their belief in God, their optimism and their approach to helping Ugandans rebuild.
“We don’t believe in handouts. We believe in giving a hand up,” Gauthier said. “We both believe Uganda is a country of light. It’s called the Pearl of Africa, after all. The people want to work. They’re really driven. They just need a little bit of a hand.”
Similar to Lanyero, she helps her students learn the skills and obtain the tools they need to pull themselves out of poverty.
“I don’t want to just give them money or give them things,” she said. “I want to help them help themselves.”
She added, “It’s a really hard life in the village. There are no toilets. And we’re really fortunate because we have electricity 40 percent of the time. The rest of the country doesn’t have it. Still, the people, they don’t complain. They don’t whine and they aren’t depressed. They’re so joyous and thankful.”
Gauthier will begin working as a mentor and educator at Lanyero’s foundation this year.
Their friendship has blossomed beyond the work they are doing for the Ugandan people.
Last year, Gauthier traveled hours to attend Lanyero’s wedding.
“It was beautiful,” Gauthier said. “Her entire village showed up and there were so many people dancing and singing.”
In mid-December, Lanyero spent a week in Seminole with Gauthier. During her time in Florida, she kept “a tight schedule,” she said, which included a visit with Seminole Fire Rescue Chief Heather Burford and attending the Dec. 17 Seminole City Council meeting.
“Everyone has been so sweet and welcoming,” she said, adding that she learned a lot from Seminole leaders. “I hope to take lots of (ideas) with me back home.”
Those interested in Lanyero and Gauthier’s educational initiatives in Uganda should contact Gauthier at Mark949Ministries@yahoo.com or PO Box 785, Mukono, Uganda.
While Gauthier’s students are always in need of school supplies and hygiene items, monetary donations are most welcome as she hopes to fix the school’s leaking roof and install a cement floor. Funds will also be used to serve more nutritious meals to her students.
Many adults in the village are uneducated, she said. “We want to break that cycle. It’s really hard in a village like that. Living hand-to-mouth, you have to choose between food and school fees.”
She added, “I’d like to improve that school, but the truth is we need just a little help to get it there. I think if we put a little bit of time and effort into improving that building and having better teachers, it’s going to change that community.”