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Move-in day at new orphanage in Uganda named for women killed in Hwy. 12 crash

Melissa Bodin, center right, and her children Page, left, and Brandi, right, traveled to Njeru, Uganda, in June and met 5-year-old Mayanja. They are his sponsors at the orphanage that bears their family member's names: the Michelle and Julia Hoffman Memorial Home. The Hoffmans were killed in a car accident in August 2012. (Submitted photo) 1 / 2
Melissa Bodin’s son Page, right, meets children in Njeru, Uganda, during the family’s visit there in June to see the orphanage that bears their family members’ names: the Michelle and Julia Hoffman Memorial Home. The children were fascinated by Page’s sunglasses. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

CLARA CITY — Life’s journey ended Aug. 17, 2012, on U.S. Highway 12 near Willmar for Marta Stoffers, 68, her daughter-in-law Michelle Hoffman, 40, and Hoffman’s daughter, Julia, 8, when a drunk driver crossed the center line.

Life’s journey started anew today in Njeru, Uganda, for 50 children when they crossed a dusty street into their new home, the Michelle and Julia Hoffman Memorial Home.

The four-building orphanage opened by True Impact Ministries of Parker, Colo., is designed to eventually serve 100 children, which happens to be the number of children Julia Hoffman had once told her family she wanted.

Among those celebrating this seemingly incredible turn of events is Melissa Bodin of Clara City, originally of Atwater, who lost her mother, sister-in-law and niece in that tragic crash.

“It is as unbelievable as the crash,’’ said Bodin. “You never expected that to happen and then to have something good as that was bad to happen, yeah, it’s crazy.’’

It was also incredibly emotional for Bodin when she reached Njeru, Uganda, last June, tears streaming.

The children were all smiles and cheer as Bodin and a True Impact Ministries group of 20 arrived in the community on the shores of Lake Victoria. The Americans were on their way to help out at other orphanages supported by the small ministry, but wanted to see what was being started.

“The grief for me driving in was just as bad as the first week of the crash,’’ said Bodin. “Joy and grief at the same time. You know the only reason you’re there is because your family’s died and then you see the awesomeness that came out of it.’’

Bodin made the trip to Africa with her grown children, daughter, Brandi, and son, Page. The children in Njeru took quickly to the three Minnesotans. Bodin said they couldn’t help but think that their shared experience with trauma may have had something to do with it.

Most of the children have lost one or both of their parents to AIDS.  Or, they have in some form or another been victimized by the poverty and previous civil strife that shapes life in Uganda. Until the opening of the orphanage today — thanks to financial sponsors — the children have been living with extended family, said Bodin.

It is no exaggeration to say many of those families lacked the resources to add another child to their households: In some cases the orphaned children waited until the other children in the household ate to make sure there was enough, she said.

The idea for the Michelle and Julia Hoffman House started at the American International School in Muscat, Oman. It’s where Michelle Hoffman and her surviving husband, Michael, taught. The school’s elementary principal is Daniel Hovland of Willmar. Bodin believes two Spicer residents are on the faculty there as well.

The Hoffmans’ good friends at the school, Ross and Jennifer Macfadyen, knew the family’s suffering following the tragic accident. The Macfadyens are friends with the leaders of True Impact Ministries, Andy and Susie Stewart. Susie Stewart’s mother grew up in Maynard, said Bodin.

The Macfadyens and True Impact Ministries launched a fundraising campaign to buy the property to create the orphanage in memory of the Hoffmans. In six weeks they had raised $100,000, more than enough, said Bodin.

“Everything happened so fast,’’ she said. She has no explanation for how all of this could have happened but to say: “It’s God’s redeeming grace.’’

The greater Clara City community has been more than generous in supporting this venture, and helped with the fundraising that made it possible for Bodin and her children to visit Africa last summer, she said.

Bodin works with Pathways in Montevideo assisting the victims of sexual assault. She is no stranger to the injustices that can befall innocent children.

Still, the trip to Africa — where she always had it in her own heart to travel — was eye-opening.

“I think I came back so much more thankful for everything that I have,’’ she said. We often feel entitled to all that we have, and do not appreciate “what life could really be like, how hard it could be,’’ she explained.

Bodin said the hurt and grieving over the family’s loss is something that really never ends, but she thinks more often today of her blessings.

They include the support of her friends and community, and the acts of complete strangers, like the motorist who risked his life to pull her niece and nephew from the burning van. He saved her 5-year-old nephew, Jason, by doing so.

Now, Bodin and family members are sponsors to children in the orphanage. She hopes to return to Africa in the coming year to help at the orphanage, her way of giving back.


Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335