Photo of Summer 2015 Service

Alumni Serving Others Around the World

A growing number of McKendree alumni are traveling beyond the United States to serve others around the world. Some are teachers, missionaries and pastors, while others are working in their chosen field overseas. They are living McKendree’s mission by becoming responsible citizens who understand human and cultural differences, engage with diverse individuals, and embrace a variety of viewpoints, all while pursuing lifelong learning opportunities that will enhance their personal and professional growth. We recently caught up with seven overseas alumni to find out just how they are impacting their local communities abroad.

Ashley Huffmon ’11, teacher at Al Damat School in United Arab Emirates

Serving Others“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others” - Gandhi

When Ashley Huffmon thinks about this expression, she reflects on how she wants to live her life always. In 2010, through the help and urging of retired McKendree University lecturer Barbara VanAusdall, Ashley participated in her first overseas trip to Quito, Ecuador.

“It changed my life,” she said. “I worked at a local non-profit school deep in the heart of Quito (San Marino School) with children who lived in a level of poverty I had never witnessed. This experience made me realize that making lifelong connections with diverse individuals can change their lives as well as mine.”

Five months after graduating in 2011, the elementary education graduate embarked on an adventure halfway across the world when she was hired by the Bhutan Canada Foundation for a two-year teaching assignment at Kanglung Primary School in the small mountain country of Bhutan, between China and India.

“Many people have never heard of it, but for me it is now my second home,” she said. “I have learned through teaching abroad we are all the same. Simply stated, people are people. No matter the backgrounds, location, social status or culture, we all have the common ground of wanting to live happily and peacefully.”

While in Bhutan, Ashley worked at a school with a high poverty level. She quickly realized that personal hygiene was a major issue in her village. “The children would frequent the restroom in the forest rather than use their old toilet systems,” she said.

With the help of McKendree education professors Dr. Darryn Diuguid and Dr. Brenda Doll, Ashley started her own hygiene project. She received a grant from the Bhutan Canada Foundation and received books, art supplies, a video camera, soaps and other miscellaneous supplies to promote healthy hygiene habits. She also completely renovated both the male and female restrooms with paint, shelves, plumbing and mirrors.

Serving OthersIn 2014, Ashley continued her global journey to the Middle East when she accepted another two-year teaching assignment with the Abu Dhabi Education Council in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). “Everyone thinks UAE is all about gold, riches, fast cars, fancy bars, cheetahs and Burj Khalifa,” she said. “Who am I kidding, it is, but the people here are just like everyone else … trying to make it big, owning the fastest car or camel, putting family first, and enjoying this wild ride the same.”

Ashley says her goals when she ventures abroad are truly for the purpose of enlightening the youth, changing the world, opening eyes, and giving an opportunity to those who would not have it otherwise.

“While my students may not always put forth their full effort and probably curse me in Arabic, they have huge hearts. My students have taught me Arabic, cooked for me, and written countless letters of thanks to me. Maybe it wasn’t English, but I surely enlightened them to hair extensions, opened their eyes to the world of Nepal, and challenged them on a daily basis.”

While living abroad she has been able to see and do some of the most amazing things. From trekking into the Himalayan Mountains at 6,485 meters above sea level to hitchhiking across an entire country in three days, she has experienced more in her 30 years than most.

In April, she had the opportunity to visit Nepal. She experienced firsthand the 7.8 magnitude earthquake and witnessed the destruction of one of her favorite temples (Basantapur) and the aftermath that has left countless people homeless. Initially stranded, with the help of friends she was able to get a flight out three days after the earthquake. She continues to share her personal experience with others and find ways to help the earthquake victims.

Serving OthersAshley commented that teaching abroad has been one of the most scary, exciting, eye opening experiences she has ever had. “There has not been a day that I didn’t either challenge who I am or what I thought the world was like,” she said. “Every day I am learning something new about each culture I am experiencing, while also making myself stronger, physically and mentally. I am not sure how long I will continue this nomadic lifestyle, but I know I won’t quit anytime soon.”

Ashley’s long term goal is to start her own nonprofit school in Southeast Asia. “My heart goes out to those who cannot afford an education otherwise,” she said. “I hope in the near future that I can say, not only did I have a positive effect on the students, but on the community as well.”

There has not been a day that I didn’t either challenge who I am or what I thought the world was like…

Rev. Charles McKnelly ’60, executive director Glorious Praise Fellowship in Hong Kong

Serving OthersCharles McKnelly found his calling at an early age. He knew as a teenager that he wanted to be a minister. At the age of 16, he was the president of the Jacksonville United Methodist Church District Youth Fellowship. A year later, he was appointed pastor at the Oxville Methodist Church near Bluffs, Ill. He continued pastoring at the Boulder and Keyesport, Ill., Methodist Churches during college.

While a student at McKendree, he had the opportunity to meet a missionary from Formosa. That is when he first became interested in the problem of Chinese refugees. He then started reading articles about children sleeping in the streets of Hong Kong in missionary magazines. By the time he graduated he had made the decision to pursue missionary work overseas.

In 1960, Charles raised enough money through donations to pay for a three-year missionary assignment in Hong Kong with the Oriental Missionary Society. Fifty-five years later, he is still providing aid overseas by helping children, refugees and drug addicts.

“It took much courage to leave my home in the USA at the age of 21 to come to Hong Kong to get involved picking homeless children off Hong Kong’s streets for 20 years,” Charles said. “I knew so little about real faith, but my heart was touched by the suffering of the refugees from China coming to Hong Kong. I look back know and realize just how powerful the love of God is. He has given me a supernatural love for people who are hurting that causes me to give little time to thinking about my own needs. It drives me continuously to want to give everything.”

Serving OthersDuring his early years in Hong Kong, there was an average of 25,000 homeless youth coming from mainland China every month; most were between eight and 21 years old.

“There were so many children sleeping in the streets, because they didn’t have anywhere to go,” he said.

In 1969, Charles and his mother went to India. They met an engineer at their hotel and after a lengthy conversation he invited them to come meet a missionary friend of his. “He took us to meet Mother Teresa of Calcutta,” he said.

“We had a chance to spend the day with her and follow her around. She took us to her house for the dying. A building filled with dying people she had picked up off the streets. I was then about 30 years old, but this one day changed my life and really propelled me even further to pick up suffering children off Hong Kong’s streets.”

I knew so little about real faith, but my heart was touched by the suffering of the refugees from China coming to Hong Kong.

Serving OthersAt one point he had 35 children living in two apartments and he was running out of room. Knowing he needed more space, he got a job teaching English at the University of Hong Kong and the Baptist University. In 1970, he earned enough money to move onto a farm in Sai Kung and open an orphanage. He started raising chickens and growing vegetables to help support himself and the children he took in. From 1960 to 1980, he helped nearly 130 street children.

By the early 1980’s the Hong Kong economy started improving and there were fewer children sleeping in the streets. Charles changed the direction of his work and started a computer business. For nine years he earned good money, but major health issues and a desire to help others brought him back to missionary work.

In 1990, he rented an abandoned church and started his Filipino Fellowship in Hong Kong, focused on helping abused female domestic helpers. “Many of these women were beaten, had boiling water poured on them, and were burnt with hot irons,” he said. “They were pushed out in the streets in the middle of the night. We had a hostel where we took these women in.”

His ministry assisted over 750 women from 1990 to 2005. During this same time drug addicts began coming to the church services asking for help, so he also started a drug rehabilitation ministry. Since 1999, his drug rehabilitation ministry has helped over 400 addicts. While many have graduated from the program, gone on to get married and have children, and joined him as missionaries, others have not been so lucky.

Charles shared one story about an eight-year-old boy he had found on the street. He took care of the young boy for eight years. His mother was mentally ill and father dead. At 18 years old, while Charles was hospitalized with spinal meningitis, the boy’s drug addicted brothers took him away. He was locked in a room and forced to take heroin. Once he was addicted, he joined his brothers in selling drugs. After several years on drugs, he reached out to Charles for help but couldn’t stop his addiction. At age 28, he killed himself by drinking weed killer. Charles cried for a month.

“There are many in Hong Kong that still live in poverty,” he said. “There are thousands of drug addicts. God has given me a mandate to preach one sermon topic all over Asia. For many years I have been preaching in churches in China, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Singapore, Sabah, Malaysia and Australia.”

In addition to his own ministries, Charles has served as chairman for the Prisoner’s Friends’ Association of Hong Kong and as a chaplain for the Lai Chi Kok Prison Reception Center where there are 2000 prisoners.

In October 2013, Charles was recognized for his many years of missionary work with the presentation of the Medal of Honor from the Chief Executive of Hong Kong.

“I am thankful for what God has helped me to achieve with my ministry in helping over 1000 people mostly in residential care,” he said.

Sam Jakaitis ’14, “In His Hands Orphan Homes” in Grand Savanne, Haiti

Serving OthersFour months after graduating in May 2014, Sam Jakaitis and his wife Jessica moved to Haiti to start an orphan village. Working with Rochester, Ill., based “In His Hands Orphan Outreach” the couple is raising funds and managing the construction of several orphan homes that will house eight to ten children each. They broke ground on the first home this summer.

The son of a pastor, Sam went on several mission trips to Haiti before deciding to become a full-time missionary. “When I first went to Haiti, it really opened my eyes to what my priorities were and where they should be,” he said. “As I transitioned from a short-term to a long-term missionary, I began to really grasp what many of the people in this world struggle with. It really made me thankful that I was born in the United States where I didn’t have to worry about food, clean water, electricity or being able to afford going to the doctor.”

As I transitioned from a short-term to a long-term missionary, I began to really grasp what many of the people in this world struggle with.

The couple’s main focus for the orphan village is to provide a loving, safe and Christian home for children with deceased parents. They will also teach and prepare the children with life and trade skills to be able to transition and contribute to society. Outside of the compound, they wish to grow the surrounding community by offering jobs, opportunities to attend future trade school classes, as well as opportunities to attain micro loans.

Serving OthersSam’s business degree has been critical in the couple’s early success in Haiti. “I see the management skills I obtained at McKendree put to use on a daily basis, whether it is through managing projects, teams, workers or money,” he said. “The orphanage itself is very new, so there are many projects that need funding. Also, the micro-financing projects require an initial amount of money to start. At the moment, I currently have four businesses, all of which have made every monthly payment.”

It takes a lot of hard work and support, both financially and physically, from people near and far to make the orphan village successful.

“We are always looking for teams to come down and work on projects, as well as offer their own specific skills,” Sam said. “I had a business club from a university in Minnesota come down and set up two chicken coops for an egg business, while also raising the funds and getting the food donated. This provides an income to the orphanage, food for orphans, and food for teams that are visiting.”

Serving OthersIn addition to managing the orphan village, the couple has to self-fundraise about $25,000 for their personal yearly expenses, which includes raising two Haitian girls, ages nine and 11.

“To be 23 and have two kids half my age that I am responsible for, really forced me to grow up and learn what it is like to be a father figure,” said Sam.

With a baby on the way in October, Sam’s ultimate goal is “to be a loving and caring husband, father and friend” to everyone he encounters.

“Professionally my goal is to get this orphanage to be as self-sustaining as possible, while also seeing the children that come through grow up and make a difference in their own societies.”

Rosza Brown ’11, volunteer with Peace Corps in Bobeica, Moldova

Serving OthersFeeling overly complacent working her 9-to-5 job, Rosza Brown was looking for a change. Since helping people is her passion in life, she applied for the Peace Corps. In June 2014, she packed her entire life into two suitcases and moved to a tiny country in Eastern Europe that she had never heard of.

“A small village in Moldova with no running water, dirt roads, and beautiful rolling hills is now where I call home,” said Rosza. “I work as a small enterprise development volunteer in a village called Bobeica.”

Working with a local non-governmental organization, the McKendree management graduate helps facilitate a volunteer club, teaches business skills to women and youth, writes business grants and holds various activities for the community. She also enjoys sharing her traditions with the local community. In October, she introduced Halloween to her village by hosting a costume party at the community center and she is currently helping a Moldovan counterpart start a greenhouse.

Outside of work she teaches English and Zumba. A month after starting Zumba in her village, Rosza posted on social media, “I could not have picked a better way to try and bond and form relationships with the youth here. They have been curious about me since I got to the site and now I can see that they are finally starting to see me as a fellow human being who just wants to help their community and have fun while doing so. The turnout has been amazing …”

Serving OthersI could not have picked a better way to try and bond and form relationships with the youth here.

“I never thought a year ago I would be speaking Romanian, be comfortable with things not going as planned, and be the foreigner who was the center of attention,” she said. “Peace Corps has really taught me the value of patience, understanding cultural traditions, language differences and recognizing that work can be accomplished outside of the hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. I love that almost every other week they celebrate a holiday with big masas (large feasts), traditional music and tons of dancing.”

Rosza admits “each day is an adventure full of surprises and learning experiences. Every day, I wake up in this new life of mine and tell myself, ‘Get comfortable with being uncomfortable so just let go and go with the flow.’”

Greg Abrahams ’06, instructor at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco

Serving Others“After graduating from McKendree in 2006, I was searching for a job and was interested in traveling. I typed “Travel” into a job search website, and the first thing that popped up was a job teaching English in South Korea. I leapt at the opportunity, and nine years later, I am teaching academic English for a university in Morocco. It’s an exciting life, having taught in six countries and traveled to dozens of others, learning to speak three languages, and having friends and colleagues all over the world. It also affords me the opportunity to explore other interests, such as photography and volunteering on small farms in Italy to learn about agritourism and sustainable ways of life. Yet what is most important to me is what this lifestyle has taught me. Embracing different perspectives, creating cultural awareness, cultivating patience and flexibility, expecting the unexpected, and saying “yes” to the unfamiliar are just some of the invaluable life and career skills that I have learned and am constantly developing.”

Serving OthersMeghan Birdsong ’14, teacher at Idiomas Sin Fronteras in Puerto Varas, Chile

“At McKendree I was a Spanish minor and that is where I realized I had a love of languages and really wanted to be a language teacher. After I graduated I decided to get my CELTA, which is an English teaching certificate, from Cambridge. I have traveled a lot through my life and I wanted to make a career teaching in South America. I’ve been fortunate to find a job at a small independent language school. I teach small groups or individual classes to adults and some teenagers. I live in Puerto Varas which has been on the news recently when the Calbuco volcano erupted outside the city. It is a small town in the south of Chile with a lot of interesting culture with both Chilean and German influences. It has been an adventure!”

DServing Othersanny Mannix ’14, teacher with Bangkok Success Group in Kabin Buri, Thailand

“Traveling and working in Thailand has helped me grow as a person. I studied abroad in Scotland as a student at McKendree, and since then, I’ve wanted to experience other cultures while gaining work experience at the same time. I’m glad that I’ve become an English teacher because I feel that am always improving on how I conduct my lessons and how I manage my classroom. Not to mention that I have learned to be more confident, given that I am in a country and area where very few people speak English. I feel that this adaptability and confidence has been a great help to my personal development since I became a McKendree alumnus.”