Story by Rachel Dawson

Photos courtesy of Brittany Dunay

In a town on the other side of the world, 17 Ugandan girls are being loved as family in a home they weren’t originally born into. They’ve been rescued from injustices such as sexual abuse and forced prostitution, and they are learning about God’s love. Gulu, Uganda is ravaged by war and tragedy, but in the midst of it all, Zion Project strives to bring light, life and hope.

The story begins with one woman. In 2002, Sarita Hartz Hendricksen graduated from James Madison University with degrees in English and psychology. She knew she was interested in social justice and women’s studies, but didn’t know where that interest would take her.

She began working as a counselor at a domestic violence and rape crisis center through AmeriCorps, and soon realized she was in a field she wanted to be in for the rest of her life. “I felt a strong calling from God to go to Africa and ended up in Uganda,” said Hendricksen. She was inspired after watching a documentary about the sex slavery of young girls there. In 2008, she took 11 girls that were former child soldiers, and 13 babies into the first rescue home and began her journey, which led her to start Zion Project. Today, the small nonprofit has a staff of seven Ugandan and three American volunteers, as well as other volunteer support in the U.S. One of those Americans is another JMU alumna, Brittany Dunay, who graduated in 2012 as a psychology major.

Bill Evans, her professor at JMU, showed a video about Zion Project during her senior year. “Once I saw that video, my heart was clenched by the Holy Spirit, and it was undeniable that the Lord was calling my attention there,” said Dunay. Now, the two JMU alumnae are teaming up to fight for justice as they seek to spread God’s love. Zion Project’s mission boils down to just that — love.

“I see our role as bringing love to the darkest places on earth and bringing the love of Father God, and a counseling curriculum that can help transform lives that have been devastated by war and sexual violence and exploitation,” Hendricksen said. “Our vision is ultimately redemption.” Their children’s rescue home currently houses 17 young girls. “We send them to school, pour the love of Jesus into them and have them go through counseling to help with healing from their past,” Dunay said. Her role in the home is to facilitate logistics and playtime, as well as to carefully discipline the girls if necessary.

While the rescue home is the heart of Zion Project’s work, it don’t stop there. The staff offers seminars to the greater community to teach about God and provide counseling opportunities for those  in need. Topics of these seminars include marriage counseling and lessons on how women and children should be treated in society. “Every Wednesday, we do outreach programs,” Hendricksen said. “When we’re doing that, we’re going into the community, we’re praying for people, sometimes we’re giving medical help, we’re giving food and resources.” Seminars and community programs are advertised through posters in local churches and around the slums, but information is usually spread through word-of-mouth.

Zion Project doesn’t want their aid to have a damaging effect on the community. “There is a real negative impact that aid can have on communities, which is why when we were designing things, we were trying to come up with programs that would help people to be self-sufficient and have dignity,” Hendricksen said. “All our programs were developed alongside the Ugandan and Congolese women and girls we’ve been helping. So everything had input from them in terms of what was going to be most helpful, what was going to serve them, what they could put into the program so they could have ownership of it.”

Opportunities for women who have gone through the rescue home can be tangible as well. Eight women who were formerly in the sex trade, but were rescued and helped through Zion Project, are now the creators of a jewelry line called Imani. This line gives these women a way to earn an income in a healthy and safe way. To help the organization grow, Hendricksen spreads awareness in the U.S. about the Zion Project. “As the founder, it’s part of my job to spread the vision of Zion Project so we can continue to grow and reach more women, children and war-affected communities,” Hendricksen said.

Their work of justice is a daunting task. They focus on what is best for the people and the community in the long-term. “There’s always more work than there are people to do it,” Hendricksen said. “But the reward is that when you look at a life, and you see how it has been transformed through love, through pouring your life into their life, through God’s power, it makes it all worth it.” The girls will leave the Project after they complete their secondary schooling. Plans are in the works to help set the girls up with opportunities for further education or internships to ensure their continued success. At Zion Project, girls are more than just numbers, statistics or snapshots of poverty and tragedy in a developing country. They are more than just names and students in a classroom. They become family.

“My relationship with each one of the girls is different from the rest,” Dunay said. “I love that I know how each girl longs to be loved. For example, I know that Jolly loves just messing around with a little bit of rough play and lightly pinching my arms, and Gloria loves to play outside, while Jacky is content with me letting her ‘make my hair.’ It’s all about how to make them feel loved and how to connect with them.”

Zion Project is a family, and Dunay led them as such as it grew. “The best way I can describe my relationship with the girls at Zion Project [is] that of a little sister,” Dunay said. “They welcomed me with open arms the first day I went to their home, and our relationship has grown in love tremendously ever since. There are times when I need to be more disciplining than playful, but that is all a part of them growing up. They call me Aunty Britt and my heart smiles each time I hear it.”

As the girls grow older, they too have modeled this love and motherly role to those younger than them in the house. “Every family member holds a very important role, and ours is no different,” Dunay said. “I have been able to see certain older girls step up into leadership roles of the family and care for the younger ones very well.” The motivation behind Zion Project builds on their love for people. As a Christian organization, they want people to know God’s love for them regardless of whether they are a part of Zion Project or not.

Eighty percent of Uganda is Christian, and Zion Project hasn’t encountered any negativity from the local community about their faith-based work and teachings. Neither Hendricksen nor Dunay graduated from JMU knowing they would be living their lives in Gulu, Uganda, a world far from Harrisonburg. “Sometimes we can get into this work with a rosy picture in our mind, but the real work requires sacrifice, commitment, and love,” said Hendricksen.

“There is trash everywhere, dirt roads with terrible potholes, and no street lights,” said Dunay. “The main way of transportation [is] bodas, [something between a motorcycle and a dirt bike] instead of cars. Instead of Giant, Target or Walmart, we have Uchumi—the main convenience store in town—and markets built out of big sticks and tin coverings.” The air is full of pollution and smoke from burning trash. It’s rare that the power stays on all day. Coming from Ashburn, Va., life in Gulu shocked Dunay. “The beauty of it all makes up for it. The greenery is immaculate, the skies give Harrisonburg’s sunsets and sunrises a run for [their] money, and the sound of laughter, chickens and palm trees in the wind sing to you,” Dunay said.

The women bring their traditional music and dance with them when they come to work. Dance and music therapy have come to be a part of Zion Project. “We feel a person’s culture is very important … Part of loving the whole person is accepting different aspects of their culture,” Hendricksen said. They’re working to teach the women a new way of thinking to counter the harmful aspects of the region: child abuse, rape, gender violence and suppression of women in society.

Dunay still has several months before she leaves Uganda. “What keeps me going? People. That’s what this is all about,” she said. Whether in Uganda, in the girls’ home, or spreading the word about their organization in the U.S., the sacrifices fade away in light of the love and life these women have found in the work of Zion Project. “Honestly, I was just a girl with a dream, and a belief that God could use me if I said yes and I wasn’t afraid to sacrifice and give up a life that most ‘normal’ people wanted,” Hendricksen said. “In choosing the less traveled path, I’ve found so much beauty in losing my life, and I’ve truly found it.”