Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian


In the mountains outside Kyato, Uganda, two-year-old Rachael sat with Sister Maria Nakitto, a member of the Congregation of the Daughters of Mary, laughing and calling hello to the tiny people on the screen of Sister Maria’s phone.

“Hi!” she chirped, reaching forward to turn the phone for a better look, “Hi!” Beside her, a small boy named Moses waved at the camera.

Seven thousand miles away, in a meeting room at St. Bede Parish in Williamsburg, parishioners Rachael Yunis and Nicole Lancour waved back.

These two communities, worlds apart, were brought together by the legacy of Zakri Yunis, an outgoing 14-year-old with a big smile who loved, as he liked to say, “living large.” His sudden, accidental death in September 2015 left a deep void in the lives of his parents, Isam and Rachael Yunis, his two older brothers, and all who knew and loved him. But it also left a love strong enough to eventually reach halfway across the globe.

Fourteen-year-old Zakri Yunis, an altar server at St. Bede’s ran a lawn mowing business called Zig-Zag Lawn Care. His family donated his savings to the Revival Home, an orphanage in the Diocese of Masaka in Uganda.

‘Love Like Zak’ 

After Zakri’s death, friends and fellow parishioners brought dinners for the grieving family.

“The outpouring of love was overwhelming,” Rachael Yunis recalled.

“Soon, they had more than they could possibly eat,” said Nicole Lancour, adult faith formation director at St. Bede and a longtime family friend. “But so many were still asking how they could help.”

This gave Lancour an idea: she decided to create a web page allowing parishioners to sign up to volunteer with a parish ministry or to donate to various local causes. She called the signup “Love Like Zak.”

Then, she set up an email address so volunteers could tell the Yunis family what they had done in Zakri’s memory.

“The emails were wonderful,” Yunis said. “Every day we would get emails from people we did not even know. Zakri was an altar server, so a lot of people knew him by sight. They would say, ‘You don’t know us, but we wanted you to know we just made a donation to Williamsburg House of Mercy in Zakri’s name.’

“We had lost a son. We could have so easily just fallen into a deep, dark hole. But we weren’t allowed to. The community lifted us up and carried us — it supported us through it all.”

Making a difference

When it came time to decide what to do with the money Zakri had saved from his lawn mowing business, Zig-Zag Lawn Care, the Yunis family felt called to use it to help others, but were not sure where to turn. They asked Father Charles Ssebalamu, who at the time was assigned to St. Bede, for advice. He had a suggestion: Perhaps they would consider donating to an orphanage in his hometown in Uganda?

To Yunis, it felt like the perfect fit.

“Zakri had himself once been an orphan,” she said. “He was adopted from an orphanage in Jordan when he was 15 months old. And he was always interested in other cultures.”

Yunis recalled that in the months before his death, Zakri had read several books about the struggles of youth in the developing world, including “The Breadwinner,” a novel about an Afghan girl who disguised herself as a boy so that she might work to earn money for her family, and “A Long Way Gone,” the memoirs of a former child soldier from Sierra Leone.

“He would say, ‘Mom, I can’t believe this is going on in the world.’” Yunis said. “I remember thinking, ‘Maybe you will be the one to make a difference.’”

‘How much for a chicken?’ 

Father Ssebalamu, who now serves at St. Jude, Christiansburg, and as campus ministry chaplain at Radford University, introduced Zakri’s family to Sister Maria Nakitto, administrator of Revival Home, an orphanage in Kyato, Uganda.

Founded in 2011, Revival Home, located about 40 kilometers — almost 25 miles — from the town of Masaka, is currently home to 32 children between the ages of one and five. Sister Maria explained that many of the children were brought to the home when their mothers died in childbirth.

“So many mothers in villages die while giving birth because we live far from any hospital,” she said. “The grandmothers may try to care for the children, but they lack the resources.”

Those children who have extended family are returned to their relatives at the age of five. Even after they are settled, the orphanage helps to pay the children’s school fees.

The Yunis family donated the $5,000 Zakri had saved to the home.

“But once you meet someone, you can’t just cut them out of your life,” Yunis said. “Just giving the money didn’t really perpetuate anything; it didn’t really help the orphanage long-term.”

That’s when a new facet of the “Love Like Zak” campaign took wing: it turned to raising money to build and stock a chicken farm that would provide the children with an extra source of nutrition and the home with a source of income.

“People would come up to me and say, ‘How much is a chicken? I would like to buy a chicken,’” Yunis recalled.

Soon, volunteers raised $28,000 — enough to build the farm and stock it with more than 1,000 chickens. Then, they hit an obstacle.

“Evidently, you can’t simply send large sums of money to Uganda,” Yunis said with a smile.

Father Ssebalamu put Yunis in touch Veronica Fehrenbach, who works for the missions office of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Since the archdiocese has an account with the order of religious sisters who run the orphanage, it was able to transfer the money to Revival Home safely.

Sister Maria said chickens began producing eggs this September.

“We are so grateful for Rachael and for the support the parish has given us,” Sister Maria said.  “The children have all been enjoying the eggs. And we sell the surplus eggs to help to pay for the children’s school fees.”

Outreach aids healing 

Since the Archdiocese of Seattle is not able to make transfers to the orphanage on an ongoing basis, Yunis is looking for ways to continue assisting Revival Home.

“I feel now like I have a sister on the other side of the globe. Sister Maria and I talk through What’s App; the other day she sent me pictures of the children playing on the trampoline,” she said. “They all are now part of our lives. If it’s God’s plan that we can keep up our support, I am sure he will show us the way.”

Yunis, who hopes to visit the orphanage next year, said she feels blessed to have the chance to help where she can. Reaching out to others, more than anything else, she said, has helped her family to heal.

“Although there is a noticeable daily absence in our lives, we are not sad. …  Death is not the end of life. Death is merely the moment between two journeys: our temporary life on earth and our eternal life with God. Zakri is home and more fully alive than we can imagine,” Yunis said. “One day we will all celebrate the journey that brought us all together. It is our sincere prayer to continue to reach out to help those who need our love and to always ‘Love Like Zak.’”

“It’s as if Zakri’s love is a pebble that dropped in the water,” Lancour said. “People reached out first to ministries here in the area, to so many places where there is a real need. And then the ripples eventually reached all the way to Uganda.”

Editor’s note: A financial professional well-versed in how to transfer money to Uganda is welcome to contact Rachael Yunis at rachael.yunis@gmail.com.