Changing the world, one moment at a time
A couple of times a week I do yoga with a rock star. Not exactly the kind who attracts arenas full of screaming fans, my yoga buddy is a friend who is a great inspiration — and a true rock star to me — because of the work she does every day that is making a difference in the world, both to her own uniquely blended family and an extended one that includes 30 widows and 3 children’s homes in Kenya.
I first met Michelle Outman last April through P.E.O., a women’s organization we both belong to that champions educational opportunities for women, when our local chapter held a meeting at her office to find out more about h.o.w? Jewelry (h.o.w? stands for helping orphans and widows).
Entering a two-story office connected to her home on the outskirts of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, we are greeted by Michelle in African dress and surrounded by displays of handmade crafts, beaded necklaces, bracelets and earrings, hand-loomed scarves, bowls, baskets and wire-and-beaded animals. On a nearby television are scenes from her last trip to Kenya, and several colorful photo books are scattered on tables.
Mixed in with items for sale are mission keepsakes that Michelle and her husband, Jamie, a physician, have gathered over the years. On the landing are larger-than-life photographs of their twin boys, now 5, when they were babies. They had applied to adopt a healthy child from Ethiopia but God had bigger plans, she says, sending them twin infants with special needs to join their family of four including their teen-aged son and daughter, both of whom have served with their parents in Africa.
During our meeting, I begin to realize that Michelle has not just been participating in — but is leading — a project in rural Kenya supporting 30 widows, many of whom are HIV-positive or raising their orphaned grandchildren, and contributing funds and service to 3 children’s homes. Michelle has led mission teams annually, more recently twice a year, to assist the women in the business of making jewelry and other crafts to sustain their families and pay for their children’s education. h.o.w? buys their creations at market value, and Michelle brings them home to sell in the U.S.
Her work has also included raising funds to furnish a library, build a new building, buy a wheelchair and furnish children’s dormitories with new bunk beds, fresh linens and colorful new paint, and help the widows and children with the many health-related challenges compounded by poverty. When one of the children needed medical attention for a severe ear infection and malnutrition, Michelle privately paid for his care until a donor could be found to provide the extra needs the children’s home could not.
Hers is the continuation of work begun in 2006 by Janine Maxwell and Heart for Africa, an organization with strong support in Cape Girardeau, after that organization chose to leave Kenya in 2011 and focus its efforts in Swaziland.
Janine started h.o.w? Jewelry to help women in Africa help themselves. In addition to helping them set up a jewelry-making business, h.o.w? also supplied them with cows and water tanks to provide nourishment from milk, a means of income from future calves, and access to clean water. Without tanks to hold clean water, fetching water is a daily chore relegated to the girls in a family. When that water is miles away, many girls lose any chance to go to school. And their journey is dangerous. Rape is not uncommon.
Janine’s memoirs about her ministry, It’s Not Okay with Me and Is It Okay with You?, are compelling and include a cast of characters still prominent in Michelle’s world since she assumed full ownership of h.o.w? Jewelry in 2012.
I had assumed Michelle’s role was part of a parent organization offering an umbrella of support somewhere. I was wrong. She has been quietly continuing the h.o.w. mission largely on her own, aided in Kenya by Keziah Kariuki, an HIV/AIDS orphan, and her husband, David, a social worker and former Nairobi street orphan who aspires to establish a vocational school. She is also backed by a loyal following of supporters and mission participants doing what they can to raise money for trips and service projects by organizing a 5k race, garage sales, trunk shows, craft fairs, and more.
This year, Michelle completed transforming h.o.w? Jewelry into a non-profit organization, h.o.w? Ministry, reflecting its expanded focus. Her local church with a congregation of thousands has just recently made h.o.w? Ministry an official mission partner, offering to help ease the administrative burden she and her family have carried.
Stunned to discover that a busy mother in my hometown has been leading a world mission from our small town, I was moved by her example and offered to help. And as I expected, the assistance I enjoy giving returns far more to me in spirit. I also have a wonderful new friend and yoga buddy.
This January, Michelle will lead another team to Kenya. I’m excited to be part of that group, which will include 9 women from 4 states working together to launch the first h.o.w? women’s conference.
Michelle is someone who lives her faith each day leading h.o.w? while also meeting the challenges of raising her two special needs children and finding time to savor the busy high school years of her oldest children. No one is more surprised than she is by the path along which she says God is leading her, especially since that path is sometimes unclear.
“My relationship with God is paramount. God doesn’t ask us if we will help out. He commands it. I take that very literally,” she says.
Michelle’s compassion for the poor was forged by hardship growing up. Her divorced mother struggled to raise three girls. Sometimes they went without a car, a refrigerator or electricity. Those formative years stand in stark contrast to the comfortable life she and her family are blessed with now, she says. “I believe what we have doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to Him. I just want to share what we have.”
We do what we can across the street and in our own back yard, but some of the most lonely, sick and poverty-stricken people in the world have no access to assistance. “When we first went to Ethiopia, and we saw and smelled and tasted and touched the depths of poverty like we had never seen here, I knew that deep down in my spirit we had been blessed to be a blessing.”
Most all of Michelle’s spare moments are filled with service. In just a month she’s held an open house, created holiday ornaments and cards adorned with photographs and biographies of each of the 30 widows for a special Christmas adoption project, purchased airline tickets and insurance for the January trip for nine people, helped transport and sell h.o.w? jewelry at a fair in St. Louis while working in outings to see her daughter dance at football games and help her young son see a specialist in St. Louis.
She has set dates for the summer mission, confirmed plans for the January conference, met with her board of directors, a non-profit consultant and a local church, attended at least one fundraiser for an autism-related cause, and designed some Team Outman T-shirts for a walk she participated in for children with apraxia. She also came up with cute Halloween costumes for the twins (a lion and a dinosaur), and arranged a family trip to Disney World.
Are you beginning to comprehend the rock star analogy?
Whether it’s a smile or a kind word for someone having a hard day, a bag of groceries for a soup kitchen, or a hug, a cow and a water tank for women a world away, there are rock stars among us bringing light to the world. Let them be the people we celebrate and talk about and follow.
Especially, let them inspire us to do the same.
“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” – Max Lucado
So this holiday season, if you’re feeling rushed or overcommitted, think about my friend Michelle and say a prayer for her and the mission she lives 24/7.
Photos: At top, Michelle greets Mary, one of the h.o.w? Jewelry widows, who went blind as a complication from HIV/AIDS. Photo by Holly Brantley. Also pictured is the h.o.w? headquarters and jewelry showroom in Cape Girardeau. Below is a video about the June 2014 mission trip produced by Paeton Outman.
Find out more at howministry.org