I was asked to address the students during their chapel service at the school.

Due to time constraints, I had to edit down my remarks. Here is the full text of my speech. You can watch a video of my address here.

Good afternoon everyone. For those of you that I have not yet met, my name is Melissa Watkins, and I am a sixth grade social studies teacher at GW Harby Junior High School in Alvin, Texas, a town about 30 miles outside the city of Houston.

            Before I begin, I want to thank each and every one of you for welcoming me to your beautiful country and your school. I cannot tell you how honored I am to be your guest and how much this trip means to me. I’d like to say a special “thank you” to Jumba Cyprian for his invaluable help in coordinating my visit to Uganda.

I’d like to begin with three simple but powerful words: “God Bless You!”

       In the United States, I would not be able to say those words in school or talk with my students about God.  Our country’s constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”  This means that there is a separation of church and state, and that the law prohibits religious symbols or practices within property or businesses controlled by the government such as public schools.  Daily prayer used to be part of the school day until 1962 when it was ruled unconstitutional in a Supreme Court case, so we cannot pray in school any more.  Teachers cannot share their faith with their students, nor are they allowed to let students discuss faith in the classroom.  We are not supposed to focus on any specific religious holidays, although our school calendars give us days off for Christian holidays. However, after school our building is used for various church organizations that come to teach the students that choose to attend about religion.   We also have student-led prayer at the flag pole sometimes, as well as clubs like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes that take place before school begins.

Part of my World Cultures curriculum includes teaching about the five main world religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. I teach my students the main beliefs of each religion, where in the world this religion is practiced (although all of these are practiced in the US at varying levels), and facts about each one such as the name of the holy book and place of worship.  We make comparisons among the beliefs and make connections to history, both ancient and modern.  But I have to start the lessons with a statement that I am not teaching the students what they should believe; instead my purpose is to teach them what followers of each religion believe.  For a country that is known throughout the world as a champion of freedom, the United States has some confusing rules regarding religion and public schools. Whether or not prayer should be allowed during school continues to be a controversial topic in my country.

When I began teaching social studies in 2012, I was askedto incorporate more reading and writing skills into my classes. During my research, I stumbled across a program called ePals that encouraged correspondence with studentsacross the world, so I signed my classes up.  We wrote to nine different countries that year, but it was the school in Africa that touched our hearts the most.  I’m talking about all of you. 

When we began to receive letters from your school, and I saw the way that you all would write and the things that you would include, I had to talk to my students about it.  Each school year I tell my students that you do attend a Christian school, and that God, church, and prayer are very important to you.  I allow my students to decide if they want to write letters with you because I don’t want any of them to be uncomfortable with the religious references.  I say “uncomfortable” not because religion is a bad topic, but simply because it is just not something we are used to talking about in school.  But year after year, my students are eager to write to you and even discuss religion with you or share their favorite bible verses. It makes them happy that they are able to be open with someone from another country and share something so personal and considered taboo in public schools in the US. 

Not too long after the letter writing began, my students decided that they would send you some sort of gifts.  However, a week later I found out your school’s one and only restroom had collapsed in a flood, and that there was not any money to rebuild.  Your letters indicated that “My God will meet all of your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).  And he did…by way of 6thgraders from a school in the United States. My school…and my students.

My reason for telling my students about what had happened to your school was to have them make suggestions on a gift that we could send to all of you.  I never imagined that this gift would quickly become so huge and so impactful.  I remember talking to my 2ndperiod, and Jeffrey spoke up to say that we needed to buy a new restroom.  From there, my life and the lives of my students changed in ways that are unimaginable.

We had our difficulties that spring as we tried desperately to raise the money. We did fundraiser after fundraiser; I exhausted all of my ideas.  I remember sitting on the floor of my classroom with three students (Haylie, Erica, and Christina), counting money. When I finished adding everything together, I started to explain that we didn’t have enough, but the fundraiser was over. Erica simply shrugged her shoulders and said, “Then we’re not done”, as if it was that easy.  I found out later that she went to the principal on her own and asked permission to do another fundraiser. How do you say no to that? It is quite humbling and inspiring to have students be so dedicated to seeing this through.  

This is how it has been since the first fundraiser.  When my class found out that some of you, their friends, couldn’t go back to school because they couldn’t pay the fees, they started handing me money.  In the book of Luke, verse 21:2-4, there is a story of The Poor Widow’s Offering; “2 and He saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3“Truly I tell you,” He said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4 For they all contributed out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”…   My student, Samuel,  didn’t have much money, but he gave me the handful of change he’d saved to buy ice cream at lunch and said his ePal needed that more than he needed ice cream.  Samuel did ultimately get his ice cream – I made sure of that.  When a student who never seems to have their own supplies suddenly brings in a new pencil, a toothbrush, or a box of crayons to donate, it makes me realize that they do care about others, and that student will forever have a pencil in my classroom, even if they never bring their own again. 

Over the years, my students have raised money for a bathroom, a plot of land for a garden, school fees for 35 students for a whole year, shipping fees for donated school and hygiene supplies, and a new borehole and pump.  Most of this has happened because my sixth graders have taken the initiative to make sure that their online friends received what they needed. It is an amazing thing to see that sense of empathy grow within my students. 

In Romans 1:12, it says  “That you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.”

Your strong faith has encouraged my students and Ito become better people.  I watch my students become invested in your lives and step up to help when it is needed. You start out as strangers and it’s likely that you will never meet face to face. Nevertheless, through your letters, a tangible bond is created and the world becomes just a little bit smaller and better.

My life has changed in ways that I cannot even express, and I know that this journey is far from over.  It’s really just beginning.  The way my students push me to do things for others has made me a better person.  I never imagined that this is what my life, both professionally and personally, would be like.  I never thought I would actually get to come here and see in person all of the things that we have accomplished over the years. Yet, here I am and quite honestly, I still cannot believe I’m here.

This week will be/has been one of the most impactful moments of my life. It is impossible to put into words what I will take away from this experience, but I hope each of you takes something special away as well. I will return home feeling blessed and filled with memories to last a lifetime. This week will also be the fertile soil of lessons for my classroom for years to come.

You have shown me that I must continue to be taught.  You’ve encouraged me to follow God.  You’ve shown me that God will provide what is needed, even if it takes a while to get there.  Learning from all of you has changed my life so much, and I cannot thank you enough for that precious gift.

In the United States, we have many Chinese restaurants. For dessert, most of them give you what is called a “fortune cookie.” It’s a crispy cookie that you break open and inside is a small slip of paper with your “fortune” written on it. It’s all in good fun and typically the messages are inspirational quotes like “You will get a great gift soon” or “You will do something great this week.” A few weeks ago,I received one of these cookies. My fortune said, “You will soon meet a lifelong kindred spirit.”

 And here I am. 

My “kindred spirit” and I found each other online about seven years ago.  We developed a bond that goes beyond our love of teaching. Her name is Deborah Faith, and she lives here in Entebbe, Uganda.  Many of you know her, and now, thanks to this trip, we metin person. But I think that the fortune cookie was thinking of other people too, not just Deborah. I think in a broader sense, it meant all of you. In Psalms 133: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” We may be separated by thousands of miles and a giant ocean, but we are all part of a larger, global community under God.

Thank you for allowing me to visit your school and your country. God Bless you all, God Bless my country the United States of America, and God Bless Uganda.

Thank you very much.