We all want our journeys to matter. No matter what our backgrounds, passions or aspirations, we have a fundamental human need to make some sort of impact on other lives. At some point along the way, we will all find ourselves at a crossroads; a point in our lives where we will have the opportunity to make that desire for impact a reality.

My journey began with a 10-minute meeting in a slum on the outskirts of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. I was a 19-year-old college student at Southern Methodist University. It was the summer of 2004 and I had promised two of my high-school friends that we would have a summer adventure.

I was thinking Europe. They were thinking Uganda.

Brittany Merrill Underwood 6

It was there that I met Sarah, a Ugandan woman who was not but three years older than I was at the time, yet lived her life with great meaning and purpose as she sacrificed everything she had to open her doors to 24 street children who slept on her floor. Sarah told me she had full confidence that God would provide even though she was poor herself and did not have the means.

I suddenly realized that I had lived my whole life with all I could ever want, sharing none of it with others, yet standing before me was a woman who had nothing and shared everything with others. I gave Sarah what little money I had in my pocket and promised to pray for her, but that didn’t seem like it was enough.

So began my 10-year journey in Africa – what was once a burden became compassion … and then a passion.

Responding matters.

At first, it was a burden. It was strange that I only spent ten minutes with Sarah yet I remained so deeply affected by her story. Six months after I met Sarah, I bought land near Kampala to build a house for the 24 children who slept on her floor. So began my 10-year journey in Africa – what was once a burden became compassion … and then a passion. The vision expanded and I moved to Uganda when I graduated in 2006 to build an orphanage home with the capacity to house 180 children for Sarah and her growing ministry.

Learning matters.

At the same time we were overseeing the construction of the orphanage, we were drilling over 20 wells in communities that lacked access to clean water. As we traveled to different villages throughout the country, we were amazed by Ugandan women who cared for over 10 children in their homes. Like Sarah, they had a vision and hope for their families, but they simply lacked the income to embrace their calling.

Brittany Merril

We discovered that by training and employing 250 women in producing high-quality accessories and guaranteeing them a monthly income, we could care for 2,500 children without building an orphanage. It was a way to make a greater impact because it was a model that was sustainable. It was a pathway to care for MORE orphaned children.

It was a means to help other women facilitate their dreams. Once we handed the orphanage to Sarah’s local ministry in 2007, we launched this new sustainable model to uplift women and children. The women named it “Akola,” which means “to work” in their local dialect, and so the Akola Project was born.

The model matters.

In 2010, I took a pause to get my masters degree in Intercultural Studies with an emphasis in International Development. After five years in Uganda, I worked with the best development practitioners in the country to create a model that weaves the best principles of international development, businesses, and ministry to create transformed communities.

Those five years taught me that it is not enough to funnel money and resources into a community if you are not also equipping that community with necessary skills to tackle the crippling issues with which they are faced every day. I realized that money alone could not make poverty and other problems disappear, but empowerment through training and employment was a start.

The work paid off. Over the last seven years, the Akola Project has blossomed into a thriving social-business that empowers women. Through our development programs we have built two vocational training centers and 23 clean water wells in Ugandan communities. Akola jewelry is sold in over 350 high-end boutiques throughout the United States and will launch through Dillards department stores in 2015. Our innovative development model that begins with community development and ends with long-term sustainability has even been featured in a McGraw Hill textbook and will be taught in a University setting next year.

Instead of thinking about all that is wrong with the world and all the problems we cannot fix, let’s focus on what we can do.

Empowerment matters.

Sarah’s sacrifice motivated me to empower 250 women who have impacted the lives of 2,500 children who are in school and will now have the capacity to change the lives of many others in their community.

When I was 19, I never would have thought that ten years down the road I would be where I am today: empowering women in rural poverty to transform their communities. I shudder to think that my life now would be drastically different had it not been for a chance encounter with an incredible woman, Sarah, who opened my heart and gave me the motivation I needed to turn my own journey into one that might benefit the lives of others.

In order to take that step toward the empowerment of others, we must first be empowered ourselves. Instead of thinking about all that is wrong with the world and all the problems we cannot fix, let’s focus on what we can do. No one man or woman can change the world overnight. But as soon as we are able to recognize our own power for change, we can change a life. And that sure is a great place to start.

“We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” –Marianne Williamson

Where is your starting place? Where do you see your passion and the world’s need meeting?

Find the Akola Project by visiting their website, and also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Images courtesy of Brittany Merrill Underwood

1 comment

  1. I absolutely LOVE this and your heart to help these people. That’s where I’m at – before October I didn’t really have a passion for this, just an interest. But The Lord has taken me on a journey in the past month with writing for 31 Days on ethical, fair trade fashion and the companies, individuals and businesses that are helping us make purchases that make a difference. It is SERIOUSLY LIFE CHANGING!!


    I’d love to chat with you some more about this project, if you could e-mail me!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.