After 29 hours aboard airplanes and packed vans, several Dawson County residents arrived in eastern Uganda to "spread the love of Christ."
The locals teamed up with Helping Hands Foreign Missions, a Gainesville-based Christian ministry, to visit Ugandan schools, churches and bush villages for two weeks last month.
The goal of the mission was simple: Evangelize, disciple, witness and love.
Joining a larger stateside team of 25 people, the local residents eventually gathered with a team of nearly 100 people, some missionaries coming from as far as Singapore.
Emily Stowers, a recent Dawson County High School graduate who plans to attend the University of Georgia this fall, said she went on the trip to serve God and help with children's ministry.
"When we got there and we crawled out of the vans, all we saw was the one-room, adobe walls, thatched-roof church," she said. "The kids came piling out of the church and we just wanted to hug and squeeze them all."
Roger Slaton, a member of Silver City Baptist Church and the Dawson County school board, further emphasized the number of kids.
"You would turn around at any given point and there would be hundreds of children in the streets," he said.
According to the Helping Hands Web site, Uganda ranks as one of the poorest countries in Africa, with the average life expectancy of 43 years. According to reports, AIDs and other deadly diseases have left many children without parents and homes.
Through the children's ministry, hundreds of young Ugandans participate in music, games, sports, Bible stories and arts and crafts.
While Slaton was there he visited local bush schools and talked to instructors.
"The faculties of the schools were excellently qualified and the children really wanted to be there. That was encouraging to see," he said.
After the first week of children's ministry and the teacher's conference, the team split up to begin hut-to-hut ministry.
Two missionaries paired up with translators and traveled into the forests to find villages.
Mission trip participant Brody Hughes, 26, graduation coach at Hightower Academy and co-pastor of Crossroads Baptist Church in northern Forsyth County, said missionaries would walk from village to village to share the Gospel.
"One day I ended up at a school with about 700 kids. The pastor led them out under a tree and we ministered to them," he recalled.
Stowers, 18, also recalled a moment during hut-to-hut ministry that made an impact.
"We came across this village of little huts and the pastor asked the women if they had ever heard of Jesus, and they had never heard of him before. That blew me away, you know?"
"We live here in the South and everybody has heard of Jesus, whether they chose to believe in Him or not. But these women, they had never heard of Him before."
Stowers said she sat down with her partner and translator and proceeded to minister to some of the women.
"One woman said she believed and it was that simple," she said. "People here make faith so complicated, so political, and it's not. It is a heart thing."
Slaton, 71, said the trip was a "profound" life-changing experience that has affected his perspective on evangelism.
"It was humbling to go walking through this village across the world and speak to somebody about the Lord, about Jesus," he said. "This trip made me bolder. At my age, I didn't realize I could be bolder and talk to someone about their salvation."
Hughes said playing with the children, ministering to the adults and visiting with the teachers reminded him of "the simplicity of the Gospel" and the importance of true offering.
"We were sitting in this little bush church on Sunday morning and they called for offering," he recalled.
"A little girl came walking up first with two ears of corn and laid them next to the offering plate. Then came another girl about 2 years old and she put in two little brown eggs.
"I just realized that I had forgotten how to offer and how to get close to God by sacrificing and giving him all I got."
While preparing to go on the trip, Hughes and fellow missionary Tammy Brinkley, also on faculty at Hightower Academy, led a book drive for the Ugandan school's libraries.
Hightower students took on the drive as a service learning project and set up partnerships with fellow elementary schools and churches. Together, the effort collected more than 2,000 books that were shipped and carried over.
"There were only eight of us that went from Dawson County, but there were hundreds of people who took part in the trip itself," Hughes said.
Now the missionaries have another charge - to sign up 10 child sponsors each by Aug. 25.
Through the Helping Hands sponsorship program, Ugandan children receive food, clothing, medical care and a Christian education. For $25 per month or $300 per year, a contributor "adopts" a child to sponsor.
For more information on Helping Hands or how to sponsor a child, call (678) 828-9416 or visit www.helpinghandsmissions.org.