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Alabama Power employee travels across the ocean to reach out to children with disabilities

Tara Ellis recently embarked on a mission trip to Uganda, Africa, to lend a helping hand to children with special needs, little knowing then that she would “receive as much as she gave.”

“It was a life-changing experience,” said Ellis, Power Delivery specialist in Alabama Power’s Contract Services. “We went there to help these children and give them a little love. But they literally gave me joy. They are happy all the time and love everyone around them. I learned they are not special needs; they are beautifully and uniquely made.”

Ellis traveled to Uganda in February for an eight-day mission trip sponsored by Promise International, a Montgomery, Alabama-based nonprofit that works in that country to provide resources and educational opportunities to children with special needs and their families, as well as schools that serve them. The organization also trains pastors and university professors in Uganda and is raising funds to build a school on the Nile River solely focused on educating children with disabilities.

Ellis, who attends Highlands Bible College in Birmingham after work, was looking for mission opportunities last fall when one of her classmates showed her photos from a recent trip to Uganda through Promise International.

Ellis said the organization’s work immediately captured her attention.

“My son Samuel (now 21) was born premature and had cognitive and language issues as a young child,” she said. “Ever since then, I’ve had a heart for teaching kids, especially those with special needs, and for organizations that focus on early childhood development.”

Tara Ellis in Uganda, where she worked with Promise International to provide resources and educational opportunities to children with special needs and their families, as well as schools that serve them. (contributed)

Ellis said the highlight of her trip was helping to host “Night to Shine,” a prom-night-style event that provided an unforgettable experience for children and young adults with disabilities served by Ekisa Ministries in Uganda. She snapped photos of prom participants and assisted with various sensory games and activities. The evening featured dancing, face and fingernail painting, a reading station, a sand area and bounce houses.

Ellis and the mission team also made stops at three schools to deliver medicines, clothes, shoes, food, crayons, coloring books and other items they brought with them from the United States, and hosted a health fair and family day for children and their families.

During a visit to the Ndere Cultural Center in Kampala, Ellis learned about Africa’s diverse governments, economy and cultures. The group also received guidance on how to communicate and work with those with special needs during an orientation and training session at Uganda Christian University.

Ellis noted her visit was “eye-opening.”

“The people were poor as far as material wealth and technology, but they were rich in natural resources and unique cultures,” she said. “Before I went to Uganda, I thought we would be so different from the people there. But no, we are all literally the same, we just have different resources and different living situations.”

Ellis said she has been volunteering in the community for most of her life. At age 10, she helped clean and paint the homes of senior citizens as part of community days hosted by her church in Eufaula and read to younger kids at the local library on Saturday mornings.

Since joining Alabama Power 16 years ago, Ellis has volunteered to help with many community projects as a member of the Alabama Power Service Organization and is a past vice president of APSO’s Southern Division Chapter. She often presents Safe-T-Opolis, Alabama Power’s electrical safety program aimed at teaching fourth grade students the importance of staying safe around power lines.

Ellis hopes to return to Uganda in July with another mission team sponsored by Promise International. They will assist with school summer programs focused on educating parents about how to teach daily living skills to their children with special needs.

“My trip to Uganda made me know for certain that we are here to love on each other and help our neighbor,” Ellis said. “Everybody has an opportunity to help someone else in their everyday walk. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. It could just be a smile or an encouraging word.”