How a 22 year-old Texan began a Catholic school for Uganda’s deaf children

by Mary Rezac | Catholic News Agency

Uganda

Rannah Evetts had always wanted to go to Africa. She has no explanation for it, other than that God had planted a deep love of everything Africa in her heart for as long as she can remember.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I would say I was going to Africa, and I didn’t really understand why, and my mom would just call me her little African child because that’s all I would talk about,” Rannah recalled.

Today, Rannah is living out her childhood dream, having founded a Catholic school for deaf children in Uganda at the age of 21.

But it came to fruition in a way she could never have imagined.

Evetts loved to talk about Africa as a little girl. But there was a lot she did not talk about – the sexual abuse she experienced and the traumatic consequences she suffered silently for years: depression, suicidal thoughts, self-hate and despair.

“Through a lot of hurt and pain that God worked through me,” Evetts said.

Desperately seeking happiness in high school, she threw herself into the party scene, looking for relief.

“I wanted to be happy, I was so tired of hating myself and being miserable, and so when I was a junior in high school I started partying a whole lot... and I quickly realized this isn’t making me happy,” she said.

Looking for answers, Evetts started attending different churches with friends and family on the weekends. Having never been baptized, she bounced around non-denominational Christian churches for a while, but did not feel like she had found the truth until she began looking into the Catholic faith.

“When I was a senior I started RCIA. I gave up drinking, no more parties, I was reading the Bible all the time, and realizing that I just want Jesus. He has to be the cure, because I knew that the world wasn’t,” she said.

When she was baptized, Evetts said she felt the presence of Christ, in an indescribable way, in her heart. She felt God calling her to an unfolding mission that would piece together seemingly unconnected parts of her life, including her love for Africa, and her knowledge of American Sign Language (ASL).

“It’s hard to explain the real presence that I experienced of Christ inside of me when I was baptized... and receiving the Eucharist, receiving him in the flesh, I gave up everything, that’s when he opened up the door and said ‘This is what I want you to do and this is why.’”

At her high school in Texas, the only classes offered to fulfill language requirements were Spanish or ASL. Evetts said she joined the sign language class because it was required, she thought it was “cool,” and her sister had taken the same class.

“It was just a requirement, I did not think that I would do anything with it.”

But as she experienced a conversion, she said God began to pull on her heart through her sign language class, especially when she completed a project on deafness in Uganda.

She learned that the deaf in Uganda are often misunderstood and often mistreated, considered sinners or even cursed. She said that the deaf are often outcast out of malice or because of a lack of resources.

After high school graduation, Evetts flew to Uganda for the first time to work for seven months for an established school for the deaf in the capital city of Kampala. Through that experience, she met a priest in a village in northern Uganda, in an area with hundreds of deaf children and no resources for them.

“I basically just walked back to the sacristy and I was like, ‘Hi Father, I’m Rannah, can I talk to you?’” she recalled.

The initial meeting sparked a conversation that continued for more than a year and a half, while Evetts, the priest, and the local bishop discerned starting a school for the deaf.

In 2016, Evetts moved to the village for five months to get used to living in the area and adjust to the culture, and to see if her dream could become a reality. By September 2016, the local bishop gave her permission to use an old catechesis building, “and basically he just said ‘begin.’”

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.”

“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!’”

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, 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 this and I’m working in another country and having my own problems,” 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 this works, so it’s 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. We’re walking around town, playing games with the students, using sign language, and people just gawk and stare.” Evetts said. “This year I’ve had volunteers come and it’s more people knowing sign language and giving it attention.”

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.’”