When classes started last fall, Jenna Dowd had two years left at Brandon High School. Afterward, she planned to go to community college to study linguistics.
But everything changed last September, when Jenna and her parents saw a video at church about a village being built in Uganda. The Village of Hope would shelter and provide education for hundreds of orphans.
The video stirred something in Jenna. Her family had been praying for God to show them what to do with their lives. This, they figured, was it.
Now, instead of attending prom and pep rallies, Jenna's moving to a developing country.
The 17-year-old and her parents, Mike and Janelle Dowd, first heard about the Village of Hope at Bay Life, their church in Brandon. The church is sponsoring the soon-to-be constructed village, and Mike Dowd decided to apply for a job leading the contractors. The village will be completed in three years.
Soon Jenna was preparing to make her own contributions, working at an orphanage located hours from where her parents will stay.
Her life has been on warp speed ever since.
Last semester, she took eight classes, including English 3 and 4, the latter online, so she could graduate early. She got her braces removed and ordered her maroon graduation gown.
"It was pretty stressful," she said.
Five days after she walks down the aisle at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall on June 1, she'll be on a plane to Gulu, Uganda.
She's leaving behind her blue electric guitar and favorite fantasy novels. She's trading her bedroom with the neon yellow concrete floor for a room she'll probably share with orphans.
But she's definitely bringing her iPod. She couldn't abandon her favorite rock bands, Kings of Leon and the Fray.
When they arrive, Jenna's parents will travel to the village site, several hours south of Gulu, to lead the construction. They'll live in a mud hut.
Jenna will stay in the city to help the village's director, Rose Aberr, who cares for about 20 orphans at the "safe house." That's where Jenna will live.
She also will travel with Aberr, caring for about 350 more orphans in camps where children displaced during the conflict led by Lord's Resistance Army live. Since it was formed in the late 1980s, the rebel group has attacked civilians and abducted tens of thousands of children to serve as slaves or soldiers in its fight against the government, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Jenna's parents never told their only child that she had to go with them to Uganda in east Africa. She could have stayed with a friend's family and finished her last year of high school. But she decided otherwise.
"I had itchy feet," she said. "I just wanted to go somewhere."
She also chose to live several hours away from her parents. She thought she could be of more help to Aberr, counseling the traumatized children and offering lessons in English.
The project isn't simply about feeding and housing orphans. The goal is to train future leaders.
"If you give kids an education, hopefully they can go out into Africa and make things better," Jenna said.
Her parents plan to stay for three years. They're selling their cars, putting their most important belongings in storage and renting out their home. Mike Dowd is leaving behind his electrical engineering business.
Jenna thinks she'll stay between one and three years. When she comes back, she'll probably live with a friend's family and enroll in community college.
In Gulu, she'll be closer than her parents to the LRA soldiers, who have moved into the border region of northeastern Congo and southern Sudan. She says she's a little nervous.
"I'm not silly enough to think things couldn't happen," she said. "Without my faith, it would be pretty terrifying."
Jenna and her parents will use their cell phones to stay in contact. They'll fly back to the United States if the LRA moves in closer and poses a danger.
"I'm real comfortable with everything," her dad said. "Bad things happen everywhere in the world, and a huge part of this is a faith issue. I'm very proud of her."
The hiatus from school gives Jenna extra time to think about what she wants to do for a career. For now, she's still interested in linguistics.
She'd also like to be a writer. Maybe she'll write fantasy novels, like her favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Or maybe she'll write about her experiences in Africa.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.