By SAMANTHA MCDONNELL
OBSERVER Staff Writer
A Fredonia resident is impacting the lives of others in Africa and South America with the help of a friend and a sock monkey - all without leaving the area.
Ashky went to an orphanage and school in Uganda with Aly Houser and visited with Eva, a student.
Sinclairville resident Aly Houser, 25, is helping tell the story of Ashley Sam by using a sock monkey during mission trips and ministry work. Houser and Sam first got connected through their parents.
"Our moms grew up together; they went to high school together," Houser said. "They got reconnected on Facebook earlier this year. That's how we got connected."
Houser, along with her mother Karen, would visit Sam and her mother, Jenny, weekly. Through these visits, the two young ladies got to have a connection. Houser was leaving in the summer to go to Uganda through AMG International for a service trip and wanted to take Sam with her.
"It would be really cool to take Ashley with me somehow. ... I tried to think of a way to include her in the trip so she could experience Uganda," Houser said. "I love Uganda so much and I just really wanted her to experience what it's like to be there."
Sam, who is currently in a wheelchair, is recovering from a traumatic brain injury sustained in a car accident in 2007. Houser who works as a teacher, remembered Flat Stanley, a piece of paper students would take places and take pictures of Stanley's adventures. Houser wanted something a little more durable for the trip.
"I wanted something that was going to be big enough I would not lose," she said.
That is when she found the sock monkey. The first sock monkey that Houser brought to Sam's house was taken by Sam's baby nephew. Since he did not want to return it, Houser had to purchase another sock monkey. It was Sam's job to name the monkey and she came up with Ashky, according to Houser.
"If you take the first part of Ashley and the last part of monkey, you get Ashky," Sam said.
Ashky's adventures started for six weeks in Uganda when Houser went in summer. Houser stayed at an orphanage with students in first grade through high school. In Africa, all the girls wear skirts. For Ashky, Houser made a skirt and a shirt for Ashky to wear while she was abroad. To document the trip, Houser would take photos of Ashky doing various activities.
"I took pictures of Ashky doing all these things in Africa. She rode a motorcycle, she washed clothes, she swept, she went on safari," Houser said. "It was my seventh time in Uganda. For me I have seen all these things before, I got to experience for the first time because I was trying to see it through (Ashley's) eyes."
The Sam family would wait anxiously around the computer to see what Ashky would be up to next.
"For six weeks, it was 'Oh hurry, let's get out the computer. I wonder what Ashky is doing today.' It became such a big thing," Jenny said.
Houser said one of the more memorable experiences in Uganda was going on Safari and one of the scariest encounters involved frogs.
"My parents were with me for part of the trip and then a team came for three weeks. In between I had a few days at the house all by myself. That night (my parents) left, I had a frog in my bathroom," Houser said. "Trying to capture these frogs were scary. I was afraid they were poisonous."
Besides having adventures, Houser used Ashky to help teach the students in Africa about choices by telling them about Sam's story. Sam, then 22, was a passenger in a vehicle that crashed at a high rate of speed on Dec. 27, 2007. The driver of the vehicle was intoxicated. Sam suffered a traumatic brain injury as the result of the accident and was in a coma for more than a month at Erie County Medical Center. Sam was released from ECMC in an altered state of consciousness in May 2008 and did not wake up until December 2008.
Houser used the story of Sam as an example to show the students that their choices will have consequences. The orphanage would have weekly Bible study and the orphanage also had the large group of students together. It was during this large group, Houser shared Sam's story.
"That's when I shared Ashley's story how one choice, you don't always think of the consequences," Houser said. "I'm sure Ashley didn't think ahead, she never even thought what would happen to her or what could happen. To think about it before they do something because there are consequences."
Jenny was happy that Houser was able to share Sam's story and teach students about choices, and how God is impacting Ashley's life. The students will have to leave school and they will go out in to the real world, she said.
"She's able to tell kids about making choices," Jenny said. "They're going to go out in to the world when they leave school. They need to know about choices. Don't make those kind of decisions but more importantly what God has done in (Ashley's) life since that decision. The idea that this monkey could go, and by telling her story and about the love of God, it's pretty awesome."
After the students heard Sam's story, they felt a connection to her. The children wrote letters to Sam, which Houser delivered when she returned home.
"If Ashley can sit in a wheelchair at home and make a difference in Africa, what can other people do?" Houser said.
Even before Houser reached Uganda, Ashky was impacting lives on the plane. Houser spoke of a British man who was flying back to his hometown in Rwanda. The man started talking how he once had a previous driving while intoxicated charge and Houser had told him Sam's story.
"He looked at me and said 'I can't even imagine what it's like to cause that in someone's life. I will never (drive drunk) again,'" Houser said.
After Ashky and Houser returned from Uganda, they made the trip to Peru in early December with AMG International. Houser took part of the Bundles of Love mission trip, which through sponsorships helps provide for children during the Christmas season. This year, the children each got a blanket purchased in country to help support the economy.
"Every child we handed out a blanket to we took a picture too. Every bundle I gave out, that monkey is in the picture," Houser said jokingly.
The children in Peru only spoke Spanish and most were shy. Ashky helped break that language barrier, Houser said.
"I would take this monkey out of my purse and sit it on my lap. Kids would come over and kind of look at her. (Ashky) had pockets in her pants and they'd stick their fingers in her pockets. They'd ask me, in Spanish, 'What's her name?'"she said.
While overseas, Ashky and Houser would Skype with Sam and her family. In Peru, all the children were able to meet Sam through Skype. The team and children in Peru took very much to Sam, which Houser said was "really cool."
Now that Ashky and Houser are back in the area, Houser uses Ashky when she speaks locally at churches. Houser says she uses the same message as she did overseas; choices have consequences. Houser will return to Uganda this coming summer for two years. She will be teaching and will host American teams when they visit. She plans on taking Ashky with her. Ashky has her own Facebook page which will be updated. The page also has videos and photos of Ashky in Uganda and Peru. Sam was glad that Ashky was able to travel.
"I'm glad Ashky went and met a bunch of people," Sam said.
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