August 15, 2014

Treasuring the gift of one another: Sister’s ultimatum leads to memorable experience in Africa for Catholic teachers

Four Catholic teachers from Indianapolis traveled overseas this summer to lead a workshop for teachers in the African country of Uganda. Erin Ancelet, left, Lynn Baumann, Sharon Ancelet and Nancy Meyer made the three-week journey in July. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Four Catholic teachers from Indianapolis traveled overseas this summer to lead a workshop for teachers in the African country of Uganda. Erin Ancelet, left, Lynn Baumann, Sharon Ancelet and Nancy Meyer made the three-week journey in July. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The stories of how the four Catholic teachers from Indianapolis were serenaded and given flowers by admirers in the African country of Uganda will come later.

Yet right now, Nancy Meyer is sharing the smile-worthy story of how the teachers’ journey this summer began with an ultimatum from one sister to another.

Ever since her older sister—Sherry Meyer—moved to Uganda in 1991 to serve as a lay missionary in the Diocese of Arua, Nancy Meyer had traveled five times to visit her. But she drew a line in the sand after her visit in 2010.

‘I had always enjoyed going and visiting, but I had seen the area. So I told Sherry, ‘I’m not coming back until you give me something to do,’ ” Nancy recalls with a smile.

That’s when Sherry issued her own challenge to Nancy.

“Sub-Sahara Africa is among the poorest places in the world,” Sherry says. “Visitors find it difficult to come and not help in some way. I understand this desire, but the practicalities of making it work are daunting. Language and cultural differences make short-term interventions difficult to pull off. I did a lot of thinking and consulting and finally proposed that Nancy consider putting together a workshop, inviting other teachers to join her and raising the money needed to fund the workshop.”

It all sounded good to Nancy, except for one concern.

Facing challenges at every turn

Nancy has never been comfortable about fundraising. So she enlisted the help of her longtime friend and fellow teacher, Sharon Ancelet. The two 1970 graduates of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis developed a plan to raise $3,600—$60 each for the 60 African teachers who couldn’t afford to attend the workshop otherwise.

Along the way, they also enlisted two more teachers to help with the fundraising and the workshop, both with family ties. Nancy’s and Sherry’s sister, Lynn Baumann, joined the team. So did Sharon’s daughter, Erin Ancelet.

Together, they represent about 120 years of teaching. Together, they raised more than $6,000. Together, they made their journey to Uganda for three weeks during July. They also shared a common impression when they saw firsthand the shocking conditions that their African counterparts face as they teach.

“There were more than 100 children in a class, and the only supplies they had were a chalkboard and chalk,” recalls Sharon Ancelet, a member of St. Francis and Clare of Assisi Parish in Greenwood and a master teacher in the Perry Township Schools system.

“They had nothing—no technology and no glass in the windows of the classrooms,” says Erin Ancelet, a member of St. Francis and Clare Parish who teaches at Southport High School.

The four Indianapolis teachers were also stunned that the 60 teachers at the workshop had not been paid for the past three months. The sense of “How do they teach under these conditions?” led to one more reality that shocked them.

“They never complained,” says Nancy Meyer, a member of St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis who is a third-grade teacher at St. Jude School in Indianapolis. “They seemed very serious and excited about teaching.”

The African teachers were also excited about the weeklong workshop.

“Our focus was to give them the ‘best practices’ they could use, that could really be useful,” says Baumann, a member of St. Roch Parish in Indianapolis who teaches kindergarten in the Indianapolis Public Schools system. “We talked about using peer modeling—putting brighter students with a student who was struggling. That surprised them.”

Sharon Ancelet adds, “We were teaching methods to get the kids to really think and truly understand. We used games and songs.”

They also gave the African teachers tote bags filled with school supplies that had been bought with the extra money from the fundraising efforts: scissors, notebooks, glue, maps, pencils, pens.

Each tote bag displayed the saying, “A teacher takes a hand, opens a mind, touches a heart.”

Two scenes showed just how much the Indianapolis teachers touched the hearts of the African teachers.

Treasuring the gift of one another

“One day, we were walking home from the workshop, and there was a group of men who were participants,” Baumann recalls. “One of them had a guitar. We spoke with them for a few minutes and Sharon asked, ‘Do you play this guitar?’ They spontaneously started singing for us, and their harmony was terrific.”

Sharon Ancelet adds, “At the very end of the workshop, this one lady went out and got these four flowers. [They came with the message] ‘Friends are like flowers, beautiful flowers.’ They said our names and gave us the flowers.”

The touches of appreciation are what Sherry Meyer has learned to expect in her 23 years in Uganda, where one of her ministries is as the station manager of Radio Pacis. “With the slogan, “Peace of Christ for all,” the station provides news, music and catechesis in English and in several African languages.

“Visitors always tell me they are overwhelmed by the warmth and joy they find in the Ugandan people,” Sherry says. “The same is true for me. Ugandans are teaching me to live in the reality of our total dependence on God, and to treasure the gift of one another. Living in that way does bring joy.”

Those emotions and the entire experience have left their mark on the Indianapolis teachers.

“It just gives me a bigger perspective,” says Erin Ancelet. “Southport High School has a lot of refugees from other countries—Burma, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India. It’s given me a perspective on some of the conditions that they faced.”

Her mother recalls how their time in Uganda enhanced her faith.

“You really felt you were doing what Christ called you to do—to be of service to the least of your brethren,” Sharon Ancelet says. “I also remember when we went to a rural church for Mass. We didn’t understand a word of what was said, but there was the universality of the service. And the music was so inspiring.”

For Nancy Meyer, the experience fit the essence of her 40 years as a Catholic school teacher.

“I teach in a Catholic school where service to others is an important part of what we do. It wasn’t a religious workshop, but it was a way of sharing my faith and sharing my talents with other people.”

It all made the ultimatum she gave her sister—and the challenge her sister gave her—worthwhile.

“It was really much more rewarding than I even thought it would be,” she says. “It was such a wonderful experience.” †

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