By February 2017, the St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf opened its doors for the first time. St. Francis was chosen as the patron because he personally developed a sign language to preach the Gospel and teach the Catholic faith to Martin, a deaf man.
“We are here to promote the education and welfare of the Deaf in the West Nile region,” the school’s mission statement says on their website.
“Most importantly we are here to fulfill a deeper meaning behind Christ’s “Eph’phatha” in Mark’s Gospel: ‘... and looking up to heaven, he [Jesus] sighed, and said to him, “Eph’phatha,” that is, ‘be opened.’ And his ears were opened, his tongue was released and he spoke plainly.’”
“The deaf are often outcasts in Ugandan society; isolated, deprived of their rights, and looked down upon by hearing people. They are more exposed to being raped, abused, and neglected by society. They are often thought of as stupid, cursed, and many parents still think it is a waste of money to send them to school,” the statement continues.
“We are here to break this cultural stigma, provide quality education, and give our Deaf students the most precious thing in this world: Jesus Christ.”
Evetts said she was most moved by her love for God to give language to those who otherwise could not speak.
“I didn’t think I would do anything with [sign language], but it’s like everyday [God] reveals more and more why I’m doing what I’m doing,” she said.
“I knew I wanted to evangelize, I knew I wanted to share the word of God with people and what he did in my life. It’s so huge what he did for me, that you can’t not share that with people! I’m a convert and I’m on fire, you know? It’s like, ‘no, I’ve been to the other side, trust me!’”
But it hasn’t been easy. The school is open to children ages 3-14, and the age range brings a variety of needs. When they first arrive, most of the children have no way of communicating their needs, their thoughts, their experiences, pain or ideas.
“All of a sudden they’re being thrown into this and they have no idea what’s going on, so we have kids who are trying to run away, a lot of our kids just cried seeing me because they’ve never seen whatever I am, and the everyday challenge of bringing them a language...it was incredibly difficult,” Evetts said.
It also came with times of personal darkness and challenge for Evetts, who was the only foreigner in her village, the only woman living at the parish, and the only person from her culture in the area. She would also often feel overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility on her shoulders.
“I have a lot of thanks to give to my mom, because I would tell her ‘I want to come home Mom, because I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and she would stick with me and pray with me,” she said.
She was also still struggling with anxiety attacks and the painful healing of the abuse in her past.
“I want to tell you this because...it shows God’s goodness, because there were days when I couldn’t do this. I’m 22 years old and I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m the leader of all of this thing and I’m working in another country and having my own problems... that I’m dealing with and alone in that silence with God,” Evetts said.
There were several weeks at a time where she felt like she was literally unable to get out of bed in the morning.
“But I want to share that with you because it shows that God did this. You say ‘yes’ to God and he does it, he fulfills it, because this is his school and this is his mission,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain it, but he’s here and he’s got this all under control.”
The transformation she and the staff began seeing in the students throughout the year was incredible, she said.
Children came to them having been raped, abused or neglected because of their disability, and were transformed in personality and behavior as they started acquiring a language.
At the beginning of the year, many parents reluctantly sent their children to the boarding school, believing it impossible to educate a deaf child. But on the night after the first term ended, and the children went home for the first time, parents started calling the school in amazement.
“They were like, ‘there’s stuff written in [their notebooks]! There’s grades!’ And then their kids are signing all this stuff to their parents, and these parents are like ‘we don’t know what our kids are saying but they know stuff, and they’re talking with their hands!’”
“And so they’re really seeing the evidence of this works, so its a real encouragement for the parents,” Evetts said.
The school has just begun its second year, with 50 students enrolled. It was recently licensed, and the plan is to eventually find enough land to build a boarding school for more than 300 nursery and primary school deaf students in the area.
Evetts said the way the local community has embraced the school with love has been encouraging. As the only white person in the area, Evetts said it automatically brings her a lot of attention, which in turn lets her bring that attention to her work with deaf children.
“God uses that, then I get to explain about sign language and about deafness and how awesome it is. We’re walking around town, playing games with the students, using sign language, and people just gawk and stare--like what? White people know this language too?” Evetts said. “This year I’ve had volunteers come and it’s more people knowing sign language and giving it attention, and Caritas is now helping sponsor our school, so it's just been growing and I see that the community has really taken us on, and it really has been great.”
Evetts said the most rewarding part of the experience has been how God has used her ‘yes’ and the ‘yes’ of her staff members to transform lives and to do something that they would be unable to accomplish without him.
“The closer you get to God in his silence, that’s where he reveals himself, that’s his language,” she said. “And not only that, he reveals you to you--he draws that out of you, and I really learned that the closer I came to him, he just showed me - ‘this is why I put this desire in you, and this is how I’m going to use your sufferings or your vices and this is how I’m going to transform it.’”
“It was all him.”
This article was originally published on CNA March 1, 2018.