FSC alumna Lisa McQueen pursued discipleship training after making a church-sponsored mission trip to teach children in Ugandan refugee camps. She later returned to the country to become a co-director of Elwa Sunrise School. In 2018, she posed with "Junior," one of the first students to attend the school.
Feb 2, 2021
Lisa McQueen ’06 never thought about teaching abroad while earning her degree in early childhood education at Florida Southern College.
Chatting via Zoom from the heart of northern Uganda, McQueen can’t imagine missing out on the experience of helping to build the first and only school in the village of Elwa.
“When I walk down the road, kids will just call, ‘Teacher Lisa! Teacher Lisa!’” McQueen says, smiling broadly. “From so far — they’ll be in trees, way down — you can’t even see them. I feel so rich that they welcome me, and that they even call me out with my gift; my gift is teaching, and they see it and they speak it out.”
Born and raised in Queens, N.Y., McQueen came to Florida Southern at 17, a year after her mother died. She recalls it as a time of much learning.
McQueen became involved in FSC's Multicultural Student Council under the leadership of the Center’s director, Brenda Lewis, who was instrumental in her personal growth “and became like a mother to me, and still is.” Taking on various leadership roles, McQueen found out how to work with others. She helped with campus events and fundraisers, travelled to conferences, and sang in the FSC Gospel Choir.
She describes her path to becoming a co-director of Elwa Sunrise School in Lira, Uganda, as a spiritual certainty — guided entirely by God.
After graduation, McQueen worked as an elementary teacher in Lakeland and Orlando for most of the following decade. In 2015, she made a church-sponsored trip to Budapest; her Lakeland church also had a connection to Uganda, which put the country on her heart, she says. Two years later, through her church in Orlando, she made a two-week mission trip to teach children in Ugandan refugee camps.
During and after that mission trip, five people told her, “Next year, you’ll be here, teaching.”
In the course of her introductory visit to Uganda, McQueen had met a missionary who suggested that she attend discipleship training school, a six-month program organized through Youth with a Mission, an international Christian outreach group. The training program would teach her about the Ugandan people, their language and culture. As McQueen continued to hear confirmations of the impact she could have in the country — through scriptural visions and the words of others — she decided she couldn’t say no.
“I rented my house, gave my car away, and moved,” McQueen says. “It was pretty brave.”
She started her discipleship training in September 2017. It involved three months of learning and three months of outreach, spreading the word of God throughout Uganda. Her travels unexpectedly took her to Lira, the hometown of the missionary who had encouraged her to return, John Bosco. McQueen called Bosco to say hello, and learned that he had turned his whole house into a school, renting another house for his family and himself.
“I just knew this was the place God would have me work,” McQueen says of her decision to partner with Bosco, teaching phonics and helping to ensure the growth of the school. “Elwa is the name of the village here. It means ‘big tree’ in the local language, and we desire to be a place of refuge and protection for those who are in this area, to offer them Christlike education and to give them dignity and honor. We don’t just focus on the children, but also the parents’ sustainability.”
In 2018, the Elwa Sunrise School's preschool had 30 students and four teachers. By the start of the school year in February 2020, there were 150 students and 10 teachers, with classes up to third grade. Three temporary classrooms had been added, and plans were underway for new construction projects.
Only six weeks after the start of classes, in March 2020, Ugandan schools entered lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Uganda is very acclimated with disease, unfortunately — but also fortunately, because we know how to shut everything down to prevent spread,” McQueen says. “We had zero cases for several months. We’re planning to be back in February. Of course, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Construction on the new school buildings began just three days after the national lockdown, thanks to sponsorship funding from a U.K.-based foundation. The school hired local residents who had no jobs, enabling them to feed their families through their work. The school also stepped in to feed elderly and disabled members of the village.
Despite the setbacks of the past year, McQueen and Bosco have been looking to the future, with the thought of opening schools in the Congo and South Sudan when the time is right.
“You know how Americans are,” McQueen says. “We have five-year plans, 10-year plans. And I was afraid of letting it go. But I decided that I have no plans any more. I don’t fail to plan day-by-day, but long-term, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I say, ‘I’m here in Uganda — until!’”
More information: elwasunriseschool.com
Social media: @elwasunrise on Instagram; Elwa Sunrise School on Facebook
Generous gift by Nick and Ashley Barnett made open-air study space possible.
Class of 2006 alumna promotes elementary education through a village school in Uganda.
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