When Bedford native Renee Bach arrived in Uganda in September 2007, she was alone.
The 18-year-old had landed in Uganda very late at night, only to find her organized ride from the airport was nowhere to be found.
Construction had forced the plane to land on an airstrip, where she went through immigration at a nearby tent. That experience, coupled with the increase in guns and rustic atmosphere, made Bach begin to question her choice to volunteer at a local children’s organization.
“I’m like, ‘I’m from little Bedford and I don’t know anything about life here and I got left really late at night at the airport,’” she said. “I’m just sitting in the parking lot, and then got taken a bunch of different places with random people before I made it to the town I was going to.”
That was her first and most nerve-wracking experience in Uganda, she said.
“But really quickly after, [I] learned to super love it.”
So much so, that a little more than a year later, Renee Bach moved to the country for good.
Months before that first landing in Uganda, she had graduated from high school without a clue about what she wanted to do with her life.
She had always been involved in some sort of volunteer service, from in-country mission trips in high school to working on her family’s farm, Many Blessings Farm, and helping run the farm’s nonprofit hypotherapy practice.
Hypotherapy is a type of therapy that involves working with horses, of which there were 15, Bach said. The farm no longer runs its hypotherapy practice, but it does still have two horses: Solomon, 23, and Promise, 15.
She had also been a nanny for years and loved children, she said, so when she considered what to do with her self-described “gap year,” she immediately thought of kids.
“I was interested in maybe working at an orphanage, which I think is kind of commonly — when you don’t know a lot about the international world and you think kids, you think ‘Oh, orphanage,’ ” she said.
After some research, she applied to work with Amani Baby Cottage, a babies’ home that provides care for orphaned, abandoned and needy children, according to its website.
“I had never really heard of Uganda before or much about it,” she said. “It’s like such a tiny, little country. … I didn’t know a lot about it initially and I didn’t know anyone who had been there before, but just kind of took a leap of faith and felt like that’s where the Lord was calling me to go.”
Months later, she found herself in Jinja, Uganda.
It was a 10-month trip she specifically got her passport for, Bach’s mother, Lauri Bach, said.
But once she was back in Bedford, Renee Bach, now 28, wasn’t sure she would ever return to Uganda.
“I think that, that experience was more about me finding myself as a grown-up probably than anything I did for anyone else,” she said. “… I definitely loved Uganda a lot but I didn’t want to just go back and piddle around.”
She would go back if it was the Lord’s plan, she decided, but not if it was her own desire.
She returned to Virginia in the summer of 2008 and worked as athletic director at Camp Virginia Jaycee Inc., a Bedford-based nonprofit that serves children and adults with special needs. But at the end of summer, something had changed.
“I felt like it was pretty clear from talking to people that were a lot older and wiser than me and really thinking through what I wanted to do with my life that I was supposed to return,” she said.
She looked into some companies she had worked for previously, but nothing stood out.
So she started her own.
“That’s when I really felt like ‘Well, maybe there’s a need to be met in that community that isn’t already being met and maybe I can be a part of that,’” she said.
Serving His Children (SHC) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that works to end the cycle of malnutrition in families and communities through education, treatment and resource management and allocation.
The organization initially started as a feeding program that provided food to children, but soon children suffering from malnutrition began to show up at the center’s gate in Masese, a “slum” in Jinja, Bach said.
“And I thought it was so odd because I had never really seen malnutrition before, and was like ‘What is happening? This is so weird.’
“And, so, after we had seen about 12 malnourished kids come through and we had taken them to different hospitals and had poor experiences with them getting even moderate treatment and care, we decided this is an area that the Lord is kind of showing us there is a huge need and maybe this is where we’re supposed to put our focus.”
After a trial period treating malnourished children, SHC was reregistered as a rehabilitation center with the Ugandan government.
Five years later, SHC is growing quickly. Lauri Bach said it cost about $25,000 to run its entire first year and now costs about $17,000 a month.
Richard Hart, Bach’s former youth pastor and a former SHC board member, said he wasn’t surprised to see Bach start an organization like SHC.
“She knew that she wanted to make a difference and started recognizing that it wasn’t so much her but God in her and through her, and started believing it,” he said. “So she acted on it to where those of us watching her who had an influence on her life … it was so obvious to us that God was doing something in her heart.”
Hart said some people go on mission trips or do humanitarian work for recognition, but he never thought Bach was one of them. Instead, Hart admires Bach’s humility as “she doesn’t promote herself,” he said, complimenting her “teachability.” Hart said by teachability, he meant Bach’s ability to adapt to whatever needs she discovered in Uganda, such as changing SHC from a feeding organization to one that focuses on malnourishment.
“A teenage girl out of rural Virginia going and making such a huge difference in Uganda, and then just to stay with it for all these years, has been a real testament to her heart and her character and the humility that she has,” he said.
The organization is something of a family business, with Bach’s relatives taking on some roles. Her mother is SHC’s U.S. director, and her sister, Eileen, 22, works with the organization’s marketing and social media team from time to time.
However, Bach said the majority of employees are Ugandans because she believes Ugandans are capable and don’t need a “white savior.”
“It’s a real thing. There are people that go there and probably do what they do for themselves and the self-gratification from helping people that are ‘less-than’ or who are super poor, or assisting orphans,” she said. “… I think all too often we as Americans, we think, ‘Oh, well, they’re just incapable. So we better go and help these people.’
“I think that’s the mindset of a lot of people, and I would probably say that even I had a bit of that mindset when I first went, of like ‘Oh, well maybe they just can’t do it,’” she said. “But they can, and I definitely learned that very quickly, that I’m definitely not needed here.”
And SHC reflects that latter belief, she said, with a goal of completely phasing out the need of the organization one day.
“We really believe in Ugandans,” she said. “We believe they can take care of themselves and that they can — and are — the best people for the job. Who better to serve a community than someone who is from there, who can speak the language, who can relate to the exact problems that someone is telling them about?
“I mean, I can’t.”
Bach, who was recently in Bedford to visit family and raise money for the organization’s latest campaign, said she remembers the exact moment she fell in love with Uganda.
It was a couple of days into her first trip. There were 65 children at the orphanage and only a handful of “aunties,” women hired to care for the children.
Culturally, Ugandans don’t “take up for their neighbor,” Bach said, because most people have just enough resources for themselves.
“But seeing the ladies really care for the kids that were in — most of them were in really unfortunate situations and needed alternate care … really spoke to my heart in a way that helped me understand, ‘Wow, we’re called to serve people that may never even be able to tell us thank you.’”
And it helped her to see what Ugandans were really like, she said.
“And all throughout my time there in the last eight years, I’ve seen that over and over again. And it’s just representation of people selflessly loving and caring for other people, even when culturally, the world there, the community there, says ‘Oh, well, you don’t really need to take care of that person.’ ”
That attitude inspired Bach to love more selflessly, she said.
Months after moving to Uganda permanently, she put that lesson to the test.
In October 2009, Bach’s neighbor found an abandoned 10-day-old girl and gave her to Bach, as she didn’t know what else to do.
In order to keep the little girl at the SHC center, Bach had to file as her foster parent, she said. She did this with the intention of finding the little girl’s mother and placing her with family.
But it didn’t work out that way. The little girl’s mother died shortly after Bach found her a month later. With no other living or known relatives, the girl didn’t have family to be placed with. After failing to find an adoptive family, Bach knew what the Lord was telling her, she said.
“That’s when I just — I obviously love Selah and wanted to selfishly keep her, but didn’t know if that was the wisest choice for her or for me,” Bach said. “But I spent a lot of time praying about it and talked to a lot of different people about adoption … and decided to adopt her myself.”
Selah Grace, 8, and Bach officially became family in March 2015, Bach said — Selah from the Books of Psalms, which means “praise the Lord,” and Grace because Selah was an unexpected blessing, Lauri Bach said.
A lover of hot chocolate and coffee, Selah just started third grade at an international school in Uganda and became a U.S. citizen in January. She loves going on coffee dates and to the pool on Saturdays with Bach. She hates zucchini, loves macaroni and cheese and speaks both English and Luganda, one of the major languages spoken in Uganda. She also knows two dialects, Soga and Lugwala.
Selah describes her mom as “interesting,” someone who always jumps at the chance to plan a friend’s wedding, and loves ice cream.
Lauri Bach said she knew Selah was her granddaughter immediately. Though Bach’s father doubted a 20-year-old, single woman living in a foreign country should adopt a child, Lauri Bach said he couldn’t resist Selah’s charm and quickly caved.
“When I met her, Selah had come with Renee to the airport [in Uganda] to pick Eileen and I up, and when I held her — I always cry — when I held her, it was like the Lord said, ‘Lauri, this is your granddaughter.’ Even though that decision hadn’t been made, it was so, so incredibly clear to me that she was our granddaughter and that was kind of it,” Lauri Bach said.
Lauri Bach describes her daughter as someone who sees a job and wants to get it done, to the point where everything else stops and Bach’s vision seemingly shrinks to only encompass the impending challenge.
“Renee is really just an ordinary girl who said yes to an extraordinary God,” she said. “… It’s humbling to watch your daughter save thousands of lives. Obviously we’re proud of the work she does, but mostly, I think her dad and I are just proud of the person she is.”
Though born in Bedford, Bach now has a different place in mind when she thinks of home.
It’s a large area outside Serving His Children’s previous center, above which Selah and Bach lived for five years. Tables and chairs dotted the front porch.
“Every night we all sat [together], whether we had five patients and five moms or we had 40 patients and 40 moms, we would all cram on our porch and eat dinner,” Bach said. “And those are my favorite times of day because I think as a young child growing up in a big family, dinner time was always something we all were present [for]. … We were always taught the importance of sitting down as a family and connecting.
“… And so sitting down with Selah as my family and with 30, 40, 50 other people on our front porch having dinner every night is definitely one of my fondest memories of Uganda and is very much the picture of home for me.”