This is part of an ongoing series about how members of the Building Champions team are Living Forward and leading lives they love at work, at home and around the world. Today’s post features Coach Coordinator Caitlyn O’Neil.
Somewhere in central Uganda, Caitlyn O’Neil steps out of a taxi and onto a dirt road. Neighbors peer through their windows to catch a rare sight of a blond-haired visitor.
O’Neil might look out of place in the remote community, but as she walks toward one house and meets the women who live and work there, the words that come out of her mouth are not English, but Luganda.
“I greet them in their language, tell them they’re beautiful in their language,” she says. And by the time she pulls out her camera, the women will allow her to photograph something that’s seldom captured in the struggles and celebrations of their daily lives: a smile.
At home in Portland, Oregon, O’Neil helps Building Champions make a positive difference in clients’ lives as a Coach Coordinator. Since joining the team in 2016, she has been seamlessly connecting clients with coaches and managing her coaches’ busy schedules.
But behind the camera, O’Neil lives out her purpose in a different way — as a humanitarian photographer.
“My heart is for the nations,” she says. “Their stories need to be told. People need to see Uganda and not think of this scary place.”
O’Neil’s first trip to Uganda happened on a whim in 2014; she saw a friend’s Facebook post about a benefit dinner for a Uganda mission team from a local church in Damascus, Oregon, and it piqued her interest. Two months later, she was on a plane with the team.
Through a partnership with Oregon-based nonprofit Ukids, the team would spend the next few weeks helping Christian Life Ministries at an orphanage called Adventure Village, which houses about 1,000 children in Seeta, Uganda.
At the time, O’Neil says she didn’t have a clear vision for her life — but the trip brought it into focus.
“I always felt like I wanted to be a mom, but I was either single or way too young to be thinking about that,” she says. “But when I stepped off that bus at the orphanage, I felt like God said, ‘You’ve always wanted to be a mom. Here are my children — love them.’”
She spent the next few weeks teaching, playing and dancing with kids and leading them through grief counseling as they coped with the traumas of their past. Some of the children told her about being abandoned on the streets or passed around between family members until no one wanted them — but they all started and ended their stories by telling her how grateful they were to be alive and to have a place to live.
“I thought, how can I start and end my day, my life — everything — with thankfulness?” she says.
She was also struck by the joy she witnessed in Seeta. One day during lunch, she recalls, a Ugandan interpreter stood up and said, “We haven’t danced yet today!”
“He said we should never go a day without dancing,” she says. And in the middle of the meal, the entire team stood up and danced.
Since that first trip to Uganda, O’Neil has discovered a passion for photography.
She started out helping a friend photograph weddings, but when she brought her camera along for her third Uganda trip this past April, she realized that she could use her skills to help nonprofit organizations share the work they’re doing.
O’Neil says she was moved when she visited homes of women who make BaMatooke Made’s purses and stationery. Many of the women were shy around the camera at first, but by using the Luganda words she knew, she was able to draw out natural moments and let their personalities shine through.
When she showed the women their portraits, they laughed, danced and jumped up and down.
“I’m just trying to capture their joy,” she says. “Their life is so hard — if they can have a couple moments of happy thoughts, it can take them out of their circumstances.”
O’Neil isn’t sure where her next trip will take her — perhaps to northern Uganda or South Sudan. But wherever she goes, she knows she’ll be there behind the camera, using her gifts to help the people she meets and make their stories known.