Disability & Accessibility, Diversity, Ministry, Pastoral Life, Stewardship, Women in Ministry

Altoona District UMC Churches Purchase Lifechanging Device for Visually Impaired Teenager in Africa

Claudine is sixteen years old and visually impaired. After losing her parents, she found a home with Mama Arlene Brown and Hope Made Real. She dreams of becoming a doctor.

Image of a tall man and a short filipino woman standing with a missionary wearing a blue dress
In this photo, Rev. Rebecca and her husband, Jeff, stand with mama Arlene Brown. Mama Arlene Brown is originally from Pennsylvania. She started an orphanage and a school in Rwanda to help orphans. Claudine, one of the students in the school, has the same rare eye disease as Rev. Rebecca


At almost 91 years old, Mama Arlene Brown is a force of nature. At the age of 65, she followed God’s call to Africa where she began working with vulnerable children after the Rwandan Genocide. In 2004 she moved to Rwanda and made it her permanent home. Two years later, she began her work creating a home for vulnerable children in Muhanga District. In 2010 she established Urukundo Learning Center, a school for children of low and no income families in Cyeza Sector, Muhanga District.

         On November 5, 2021, we were honored to host Mama Arlene at Christ Community UMC in Altoona, Pennsylvania. She spoke with passion and eloquence about her ministry in Africa. She also shared stories with us about the young people in her school, many of whom had lost their parents during the tragic Rwandan genocide.

At the time of this writing, the Urukundo school serves the needs of over 1,000 children. One of these young people is named Claudine. Claudine is currently sixteen years old and visually impaired. She was born with cataracts on both eyes as well as other health complications. (To read more about Claudine and her amazing story, I encourage you to check out Mama Arlene’s memoir, Hope Made Real).

 I was particularly touched by Claudine’s story because I was also born with cataracts. Just like Claudine, I am also visually impaired. Although I had never met this young woman, I felt an immediate connection to her. Congenital cataracts are very rare and I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I wanted to know more about her story.

Claudine, a young woman with big dreams!

         Mama Arlene stayed the evening with Jeff and I in the parsonage. I was excited to host her and very interested to hear more of her stories. The next morning, she and I chatted while we had our coffee. Mama Arlene was surprised to discover that Claudine and I both have the same rare eye problem. We both believed that the Holy Spirit was working quietly in the background, drawing us together. How strange and wonderful that the two of us should meet like this and form this connection!

Mama Arlene confided in me that she wanted to help Claudine, but that she didn’t know how. Resources in Rwanda for people with disabilities are very limited and she had never even heard about many of the pieces of adaptive technology that I take for granted.

 She asked me about my personal experience with disability and asked how I had managed to complete school.

“During school,” I said, “The two most helpful pieces of technology that I used were something called a handheld CCTV and a monocular.”

I then gave Mama Arlene my monocular and asked her to please give it to Claudine. (The monocular is like a small, automatically focusing spy glass that you can use to read the blackboard. You can also use it when you travel to read road signs.) Mama Arlene was very pleased with the present and promised that she would make sure Claudine would get it.

I then showed Mama Arlene a YouTube video to help explain what a handheld CCTV is and how it works. She agreed that this small device would be “just the thing Claudine needs to attend high school and read her textbooks.”

“I was concerned,” said Mama Arlene. “At our school, we make sure that Caludine gets all the help she needs. Our teachers love her and support her. But when she goes to high school, the teachers might not give her the same support. With that device, she can enlarge anything she needs to read.”

 However, I was sad to say that I no longer had a handheld CCTV of my own that I could give to Claudine. Handheld CCTVs are incredibly expensive and many of them cost over a thousand dollars. After I finished graduate school, my handheld CCTV broke and I didn’t purchase a new one because I was finished with school. The device we wanted to purchase for Claudine had an extra-large screen and was $1700.

I was intimidated by the cost, but I remained hopeful. I told Mama Arlene, “Maybe if we take up a special offering and ask the other United Methodist Churches, people will donate to help us buy a handheld CCTV for Claudine.” I reasoned that even if we couldn’t raise the full amount, we might at least raise enough money for a slightly cheaper model.

Mama Arlene agreed that it was worth a try and encouraged me to keep in touch with her. As soon as she left to present at the next church, I sat down and began to write.

A race against the clock

         Writing is something I love to do, so I sat down and quickly crafted a letter of appeal. I wrote to my colleagues and fellow UMC clergy. I emailed everyone on the Disability Ministry Task Force mailing lists. I posted to Facebook, sent an announcement to the QUIK LINK, and requested that information about the special offering be included in the Altoona District Newsletter.         

         Our goal was to raise $1700 by mid-November. This would allow enough time to order the device and have it shipped to Mama Arlene’s daughter in Pittsburgh. Mama Arlene could then take it with her when she flew out of Pittsburgh in early December. Although this was a daunting challenge, I believe that the Holy Spirit was with us.

 Everyone was incredibly supportive. I was astounded at the amazing generosity that came pouring in. Many people donated online, other local churches took special offerings, and some generous souls even stopped by the church office to drop their donations off in person.

         By the grace of God, we reached our goal in just two weeks! Thank you so much to everyone who donated! Thank you to the CCUMC finance team for counting and managing this special offering! Thank you to everyone for supporting our efforts through your prayers and by helping us to spread the word. Please continue to pray for Claudine and the children of Rwanda.

Image says thank you
Thank you to everyone who supported Claudine! Thank you to the people of CCUMC for keeping track of the special offering and to the CCUMC finance team!

A happy ending—and a new beginning!

         Claudine’s story touched me personally because we both have the same rare eye problem. Because of modern technology, I was able to attend school and graduate with a master’s degree. Mama and I both hope for the same educational opportunities for Claudine.

         Thanks to the generous outpouring of love from believers here in Pennsylvania, a young woman in Africa can follow her dreams. One day, she hopes to become a doctor. Wherever the road of life takes her, I know that this is only the beginning. I am honored that we were able to help her begin this journey of learning.

         We can do incredible things when we work together and when we trust in God. Lately, the UMC has gotten a lot of negative press because of some serious issues—but I would like to lift up this positive ministry. God is still at work among us. The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing. We are better together. Together, we made a difference. Thank you, my fellow people of faith.

About the Author: Rev. Rebecca L. Holland, M.Div. OSL is an ordained elder serving in the Susquehanna Conference of the UMC. She is proud of her intersectional identity as a visually-impaired Filipino-American clergy woman. She is the author of Through My Good Eye: A Memoir in Verse, The United Methodist Church and Disability, and Hope for the Broken: Using Writing to Find God’s Grace. She blogs about faith, books, and disability awareness at BeckieWrites.com.

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