Bicyclists traveling from Pacific Coast to Lake Michigan as fundraising campaign
By Linda Sailer
Courtesy of The Dickinson Press
The first time Syd Sparks set foot in Uganda, the Bowman native said he was “blown away.”
“This was my first time out of the country, my first time in a Third World country and my first time seeing poverty,” he said. “I left after a month, thinking I don’t know if I would ever come back.”
That was in 2001. More than a decade later, Sparks and his family live in the East African nation and have dedicated their life to spreading the Christian Gospel in different ways.
This spring, Sparks and his cycling partner, Stephen Roise, are dedicating more than a month to helping expand a Bible camp in Uganda where Sparks works.
They are preparing to hit the road for a 2,425-mile trip from the Pacific Coast to Lake Michigan during a “Cabins for Kids” fundraising campaign.
Their goal is to raise $166,000 to build 10 cabins and two shower houses for Musana Camps, a division of New Hope Uganda Ministries. Musana Camps, located on the banks of Lake Victoria, was founded by Sparks to offer a Christian camping experience for youth and adults.
“There aren’t a lot of camps in Uganda providing this opportunity for children,” said Roise, a former Dickinson resident who works as the New Hope Uganda Ministries administrative assistant at headquarters in Belle Fourche, S.D. “This is an opportunity for children from other ministries, orphanages and children’s centers to encounter Christ in a different way. I’ve had a chance to meet kids who have gone to camp and heard their testimonies. Camp absolutely fits the ministry to introduce them to Christ and see transformed lives.”
The camp has developed to a point where there are adequate roads, sufficient water sources and a kitchen to serve 500 campers. Still, there is a shortage of housing.
“We have been forced to turn away over 400 kids due to inadequate lodging,” said Sparks, who is living in Dickinson with his wife, Andrea, and their three children while on furlough from his ministry in Uganda.
Realizing the need for cabins, Sparks proposed the ride to Roise about eight months ago. Since then, they have been training and making travel arrangements.
“I’ve been riding in cycle classes and go out on the road every day when it’s nice,” he said.
The cycling team will depart May 7 from Bellingham, Wash., peddle over two mountain ranges and travel across six states before finishing June 12 in Racine, Wis., hitting Dickinson at the halfway point. They plan to ride six days a week, averaging 80 miles a day, stay with host families and speak about the ministry on Sundays.
The road to Uganda
Sparks grew up in Bowman, the son of Donald and Judy Sparks. He played football, wrestled and ran track while in high school.
But from age 8 through his high school years, Sparks spent his summers at the Trail’s End Ranch, a Christian-based summer camp at Ekalaka, Mont. He eventually served on the camp’s staff.
“I loved everything about camp,” he said. “It was partially the outdoor experience. You’re out in nature, a chance to get away from home, a chance to be with friends. I felt free to be me. One of the things about Christian camp ministry is you hear the same things your parents are saying, but it makes sense outside the normal routine. I looked forward to camp every summer.”
Sparks credited the childhood camping experiences for influencing the rest of his life.
“My summers spent at camp are where I made some of the most important decisions that have shaped my life,” he said. “I am excited to be able to influence children in ways that will have positive impacts on their lives.”
Sparks graduated from Dickinson State University in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education and planned to pursue teaching.
That was before he came in contact with a missionary from New Hope Uganda Ministries. The missionary spoke about the Kasana Children’s Centre, where New Hope cares for children orphaned by war and disease. Curious about the ministry, Sparks and a friend visited the center in 2001.
Sparks felt he was given a chance to see the center for a reason, but he didn’t know why.
“I came back to the states and finished my degree,” he said. “Before I graduated, another missionary came home looking for teachers. I had finished my degree debt-free so I was asked if I’d be willing to teach. I had no reason to say no.”
Sparks returned to Uganda in 2003, teaching physical education to the children of missionaries and also at a Ugandan school. While there, he became friends with mission director Jay Dangers, who expressed a desire to start a summer camp within the ministry. His vision also spoke to Sparks’ heart.
After teaching a year, Sparks enrolled in a camp internship at Forest Springs, Wis.
“Part of their program was to create a camp on paper — I dreamed of a camp for Uganda,” he said. “I physically took the camp paper back to Don, and he said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
He met Andrea during the internship program. The couple married and returned to Uganda in 2007 with the goal of finding land for a camp.
Sparks’ vision for a camp was similar to what he knew as a youth, but the setting was far different.
“You still get away from home, you still have fun and games and you’re still learning and teaching around campfires,” he said. “Our very first camp was different in that there wasn’t anything on the property — not a single brick. We stayed in tents, cooked on campfires, and fetched water from a stream half a mile away. It was a true backwards camp.”
“The biggest blessings of my life have the been the privilege of watching step-by-step how things have grown and changed,” he said. “I’ve seen God provide in ways I’ve never imagined.”
Since the camp’s beginning in 2008, donors, staff and volunteers have worked to complete the first phase of the development at Musana Camps. This has included roads, electrical systems, water systems, a workshop, a kitchen and tents.
More than 2,700 people have come through the camp programs, and others have attended outreaches there. Musana Camps has hosted camps for street kids, retreats for churches and training for church leaders, Sparks said.
“The camp is still new, but it’s definitely growing,” he added. “We’re still young and new people are getting used to the idea of who we are.”
Dickinson’s Evangelical Bible Church is among the churches that have been supporters of the New Hope Uganda Ministries.
Gary Wood, EBC’s pastor from 1990-97, is the ministries’ president.
He expressed his appreciation to Sparks and Roise for their fundraising endeavors.
“The ability to fund work overseas is not easy,” Wood said from his home in Belle Fourche. “For one thing, we’re not large, and so to have these two guys going on a 2,425-mile bike ride is not only pretty amazing, but it shows their dedication. They believe in what the Musana camps are doing. The cabins are needed so we can get more people there. How can you have camping without a place to sleep.”
Wood also referenced the work of Paul and Jodeen Kessel of Dickinson, the first EBC missionaries to work at the Kasana Children’s Centre in 1988.
“Since there, there have been hosts of people who have been there,” he said. “The kitchen was built by an EBC team two years ago. It’s that connected.”
EBC associate Rev. Ron Dazell continues to lead the congregation in its support of New Hope Uganda and the Musana Camps.
“New Hope Uganda has several North Dakotans serving in Uganda, and mission teams travel in support of their work every year,” he said. “The level of support is at such a level that they even have had dakota projects. These are projects that have been almost entirely supplied by people in North and South Dakota.”
Dazell described Syd and Andrea as special people.
“They have answered God’s call to raise their children in a land far from either of their families,” he said. “I am proud to see Syd and Andrea serving God with such commitment and passion.”