Michael Timmis - Making a Difference in Africa
Published on Monday, 21 May 2012 15:02
It was shortly after his graduation from Marquette University in 1988, that Michael Timmis, Ave Maria resident and chair of the AMU Board of Trustees, set out on a trip to Africa, a journey that has, in a certain sense, became lifelong, and which has resulted in the creation of leadership schools for African youth in Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania – and which will soon result in another in Southern Sudan. Right, Mr. Timmis in the mid-1990s with his wife, Laura, and the then first lady of Uganda.
As an undergraduate, Mr. Timmis had considered law school, but he ended up dropping that idea. His family’s foundation had already been involved with a group in South Africa, called Jesus Alive, and Mr. Timmis decided to take a year to live in Uganda. Having recently undergone what he calls “a conversion” which deepened a faith which he says “hadn’t really meant anything to me before,” he began reading the Bible avidly, because “suddenly, it was like it was in Technicolor for me.” He also began wondering about how he could reflect Christ more in his own life.
One way to do that eventually opened up: directing the building of a rural hospital. It was a task with its own challenges – “When you need something, you can’t just run out to The Home Depot” – and soon he was undertaking a 300 mile road trip to the work site once or twice a week until it was completed.
He next found himself running a soccer program for street kids, and as he would watch the kids play, he’d be thinking, “What kind of men will these boys become? What kind of fathers will they make?” As their skills at moving the ball increased, Mr. Timmis began to train his eye on a larger goal - as he puts it, “I realized soccer could be a tool for mentoring them.”
He bought a ranch and, along with two other Americans, Tim Kreutter, who had grown up in Africa, and John Riordan, “a friend of a friend,” they ruminated on what was needed most in Uganda, which had the sufferings of war in its recent past and AIDS entrenched in its present. They came up with the answer: “Godly leaders.” Their shared vision developed into Cornerstone Leadership Academy, a “Christ centered school” that would encompass a student’s final two years of secondary education, where schooling would be provided free, where a solid academic program could be pursued and where friendship among students of different tribal and religious backgrounds would become a means of bridging the divides that cut across Ugandan life. Pictured above, Mr. Timmis with his daughter Bailey at the Cornerstone Leadership Academy for Boys.
Hundreds of students were considered for 25 slots, and those chosen commenced a life that included working at chores at the ranch and pursuing their studies so diligently “they put American students to shame,” Mr. Timmis says. “Many of them voluntarily get up at 4:30 and study until 6:30” before their school days begin. “Ninety-five per cent of them go on to college,” he says, “in a country where fewer than 1% do.”
No matter what their religious background, they learn and put into practice the teachings of Jesus Christ – “Even the Musliims, whose faith considers Jesus a great prophet,” he says.
A shelter for girls and then a school for them followed. Next, says Mr. Timmis, “What happened over the years, there have been other people who have liked what we’re doing. They realize that what we’re doing is unique with advanced education.” As he explains it, a few donors began to ask, ‘If I pay for it, will you help come and do it?” And so, in 2006, a co-ed leadership academy was founded in Rwanda; another was founded in Tanzania, in 2010; and in the newly formed country of Southern Sudan, yet another school will open in 2013. Pictured right, Bailey Timmis with students at the Cornerstone Leadership Academy for Girls in Uganda.
Once graduated, the students become part of the “Old Students Association,” attending weekly meetings together to support each other as they go through college. After finishing with college, they return to the ranch for a retreat every Easter, often bringing their spouses and children with them.
The former students are now assuming key roles in Ugandan society: Two graduates have become involved in national parliament; three are young university professors, two are governors of provinces. Others have gone into businesses or work for NGO’s; some have gone into ministry, and one is a Catholic seminarian – all salting African society with the values that undergirded their years at Cornerstone, as Mr. Timmis and his friends had envisioned.
Mr. Timmis, who, in his earlier years in Uganda, dated his future wife, Laura long distance while she was still in college in the U.S. -- and who brought her to Uganda once they were married -- returned with her to live in the United States in 1995. He makes a ten-day visit to Africa every year. “I’m the father of this whole thing, I go back to encourage them,” he says. His daughter Bailey, now 16, or his daughter, Teresa, 13, take turns accompanying him in alternate years.
Could he go back there to live for good? “Yeah, I could … I think about it. Although I’m clear right now I’m supposed to be here.”