Bereaved parents find higher calling

LUTZ — Mike and Deb Gilbert knew they had a higher calling.

Related News/Archive

After their son, Sean, died in 2007 at the age of 18 from an overdose of oxycodone and alcohol, the Gilberts thought his death could either ruin them or motivate them.

God motivated them to help other young people.

The Gilberts found their spiritual destination in a village situated near the city of Mbale in Uganda.

“It’s a purpose bigger than us,” Mike Gilbert said.

For the Gilberts, that purpose is saving lives in a nation where rampant disease begets death, thirst breeds desperation and food shortages bring despair.

“It’s about empowerment and helping the local people,” says Deb Gilbert, who has contracted malaria six times during her visits to the sub-Saharan African nation of 40 million people.

Uganda is a landlocked nation sandwiched between South Sudan to the north, Kenya to the east, Rwanda and Tanzania to the south, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west. It’s a region of the continent where the incidence of malaria is increasing because of dam development and climate change.

Across Africa, one child dies on average every 30 seconds from the pervasive and entirely preventable and treatable disease.

“When we first arrived in Uganda, we were assisting in two or three funerals a week for children under the age of 5,” Mike Gilbert said. “When we looked down and saw that tiny person in a box, it really moved us. We worked to do everything in our power to stop this.”

The Gilberts raise funds to help the village through their nonprofit, One City Ministries.

The Gilberts are particularly proud of a certain number that they have achieved through their fundraising efforts, and it’s not the dollars their supporters have generously pledged.

The number that excites the Gilberts most is zero.

“Zero children have died in the village this past year. None,” Mike Gilbert said.

That’s down from the approximately 165 deaths the Gilberts grimly faced each year in the village they adopted upon first arriving in 2008. Those hundreds of young lives were lost to the likes of malaria, diphtheria, typhoid, and a host of other pernicious causes.

“People ask ‘How do you do that? What kind of drugs are you giving them?’ ” Deb says. “We did nothing. They did it themselves.”

It is a testament to the life-changing opportunities that the Gilberts have implanted through their campaign of building hope.

“This is not a handout,” Mike says. “We teach skill sets such as farming and budgeting.”

They have also fostered an environment where education supplants teenage pregnancy. One of the local villagers is about to become a doctor.

“When you empower people from the grass-roots, the effects stay,” Mike Gilbert said.

“When you reduce malnutrition, incomes go up and poverty stops,” added Deb. Malnutrition has dropped 60 percent in the area during the past five years. “Malnutrition causes poverty. People can’t work when they’re hungry.”

When the Gilberts first arrived in the community they helped rename Light Village, the average income was between $0 and $25 per month; most villagers spent their waking hours engaged in subsistence farming.

Now, the average monthly income is $250. Incomes are still growing as farmers produce more food, schools graduate more students, and local artisans create more crafts and other goods that the Gilberts can sell in the states; all proceeds are returned to the budding entrepreneurs.

The Gilberts rejoice in the changes they’ve seen in the village since those bleak times when they first arrived eight years ago. Meanwhile, Bishop James Tukole of Spiritual Rock Foundation Church in Sibanga sees hope swelling in the smiles of the people he serves in Light Village.

“The feelings are right high in the villagers and so is the hope of always a better tomorrow by asserting the prevention then the cure of not only (malaria, diphtheria, and other) illnesses, but also other preventable but lethal diseases,” says Tukole, who works hand-in-hand with the Gilberts instilling hope and faith in Light Village.

“After our first meetings that followed with the Gilberts, everything seems to be going for the better,” said Tukole, who established more than 35 churches throughout his region.

“I just wish to express our extreme appreciation for the prayers and financial sacrifices our American friends are making to provide all these life-enriching blessings to us,” Tukole said. “We are profoundly grateful.”

Contact Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Leave a Reply