After graduating from Marquette University with a business degree, Tom Kelly anticipated a bright future in finance and accounting -- but felt called to do something more meaningful first. So, he volunteered as a Salesian Lay Missioner (SLM) and embarked on a long journey to the world’s newest country.
Upon his arrival in Juba, South Sudan, Tom was immediately humbled by the realities of a nation struggling to transition from a state of near-constant war to a “normal” existence. The material poverty was shocking: Large families living in mud huts, surviving mostly on subsistence farming of maize, ground nuts, sweet potatoes and cassava. Few adults had ever been to school, though many were taking their first steps toward education. And Tom would come to play an integral role in the lives of many new students during his service at the Don Bosco Vocational Training Center.
He’d begun his year teaching English to Pre Novitiate candidates at Don Bosco Juba, but soon found himself heading up the computer department at the newly established Training Center.
“I felt like this was way above my knowledge and expertise,” recalls Tom with a laugh, “but the need was great and I embraced it.” Tom had spent some time fixing minor computer issues and developing the DonBoscoSudan.org website for the Salesian community there.
Soon, Tom took on even more responsibility, acting as a school administrator while the search for a principal began. “My focus was on applications and enrollment, managing student attendance, and creating the first student handbook,” he says.
In the first year, 120 students applied to the Training Center, hoping to study auto mechanics, electricity, or computers. Sixty students were accepted; two of them were women.
“This has been exciting and challenging,” Tom says, explaining that in South Sudanese culture, women take on most of the family’s responsibilities.
“Men often don’t work, and the women care for their immediate and extended families -- cooking and cleaning for their children, brothers, sisters, parents.
“Getting to classes on time, and maintaining a consistent study schedule, is therefore often difficult or impossible for most women, which is why we don’t see many female students -- at least not yet. But, through educational opportunities like these -- and a willingness to be a little flexible -- we’re working to eliminate gender inequalities one small step at a time, and to provide all students with the chance for a brighter future.”
Tom is temporarily home in the States to assist with the orientation of a new group of SLMs, but eagerly anticipates returning to South Sudan this month -- where he will witness his very first students graduate.
Reflecting on his year of service, Tom remarks on the significant growth achieved by Don Bosco Juba. In addition to the Technical Center, the mission has recently opened a dispensary, a women’s promotion program, and a preschool. Several hundred youth participate in the Oratory, playing soccer, football, and volleyball as well as singing, dancing and saying evening rosary. All told, more than 1,000 South Sudanese rely on the services provided by the Salesians.
Not unexpectedly, Tom has also grown -- in ways he couldn’t have imagined. “Through my SLM experience, I’ve become very flexible and open to moving outside my comfort zone. I’m much more willing to take on new challenges and risks,” he says. “I’ve learned first-hand that God doesn’t call the equipped; He equips the called.”
Tom hopes his experience will inspire others -- to volunteer, to teach, and to help those in need. He also hopes that one day South Sudan will transition from a nation reliant on outside aid to one of self-sufficiency and justice. “We truly can make a difference through education,” he says.
The Salesian Lay Missioner program is just another example of your generosity at work. By making it possible for a willing young person to serve at one of our missions, you are having a positive ripple effect -- creating change through education and training. Thank you for whatever you can give today to support these and other meaningful programs.
Find out more about the Salesian Lay Missioner program.