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Walter Hughes has refocused his life on helping the people of Ghana build community through wells.
Photo courtesy of Walter Hughes
Walter Hughes preaches during one of his trips to Africa.
Photo courtesy of Walter Hughes
People paint a church that Walter Hughes helped support during one of his trips to Africa.
Photo courtesy of Walter Hughes
Guinea worms are a parasite that infect people through contaminated water. Walter Hughes’ work to provide wells has helped eradicate the worms in Ghana.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
The Rev. Walter Hughes of Union Hall in Franklin County recently returned from one of many trips to Africa, where he participated in efforts to provide clean water as a way to quell Guinea worm disease and help people recovering from Buruli ulcer disease.
Friday, March 1, 2013
Neither the village chief’s purported witchcraft nor the suspicious circumstances of a bus crash deterred Walter Hughes from traveling back to Ghana in May 2005.
He returned that year roughly two weeks after an eventful April visit, his second to the African country, demonstrating that local news of his death in a bus wreck was greatly exaggerated.
Although the apparently sabotaged bus had, in fact, plunged down a mountainside, the crash happened after a mission team led by Hughes had been dropped off at the airport for their return to the United States. And no one on the bus died.
More recently, in late January, Hughes traveled to troubled South Sudan to participate in the Carter Center’s campaign, backed by Rotary International clubs and many other organizations in both the U.S. and Africa, to rid the earth of Guinea worm disease.
A few weeks later, he returned to his home in the Union Hall community of Franklin County.
“What I’m doing, I never dreamed I would do,” Hughes said Wednesday. “A younger me would be pretty shocked about the places I go and the things that I do.”
Hughes, now 52, recalls the heady days of his employment at America Online in the 1990s, when innovative ideas brainstormed in hallway conversations migrated quickly to whiteboard scrawling and then sometimes found traction on the road to realization.
He worked in Northern Virginia as the company’s director of strategic technology until his layoff in 1999 after America Online’s acquisition of Netscape.
Hughes’ parents had moved in 1980 to Franklin County, where Walter Hughes Sr. was a plant manager for Fleetwood Homes. After his layoff from AOL, Hughes and his wife, Susan, decided to move there, too, so their children could get to know their grandparents.
By Hughes’ account, beginning about eight years ago, God skewered every excuse he could muster to avoid serving a leadership role in mission and humanitarian work in Africa.
In 2005, on the day before Easter Sunday, Hughes prayed for guidance: “Lord, let my words be your words, and let my will be your will, fill me with the Holy Spirit and use me.”
“I began to search for what was next,” Hughes said.
That same year, a passage of scripture from Luke provided one hint: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required.”
Hughes felt drawn to service work through the Rocky Mount Rotary Club, Glade Hill Elementary and the Henry Fork Service Center in Franklin County. Meanwhile, he was intrigued by changes he had observed in his mother’s brother, the Rev. Bill Barker, a Baptist minister in Georgia who had been involved with mission work in Ghana.
“He became a more effective pastor and he seemed more sure of himself,” Hughes said. “You could see a transformation in him that drew me to find out what had caused that change.”
Hughes accompanied Bill Barker and his brother, Johnny Barker, to Ghana in September 2003. He learned then about a small school, in a slum near Kumasi, that Bill had helped start. Hughes participated when the brothers traveled to northern Ghana, where they often preached beneath sheltering trees.
In 2005, when Hughes led a team back to the slum near Kumasi, they learned that a village chief planned to close the school and sell the land it occupied. The chief had been blocked by a court order. Hughes and his team began working to expand the school — gradually, over a couple of years, adding classrooms, a kitchen, a small library, electricity, running water and a computer lab.
Hughes said the chief was angry about losing the court case and the work of Hughes’ team. He said he believes that opposition led someone to tamper with the bus’ brakes.
He said Susan remained supportive of his work in Ghana even after his group seemed to have been targeted by the chief. The couple has four children.
In 2009, Hughes became a Methodist minister. For three years, he was pastor for New Hope United Methodist Church in Callaway. He left the church in July after concluding his frequent travel was not fair to the congregation.
“It was one of those heartstring moments when you’ve got to choose where you can do the most good,” he said.
For Hughes, a 1983 graduate of Virginia Tech, that place became Africa.
Born in Atlanta, Hughes lived many places growing up because his father was transferred frequently as an employee of Fleetwood Homes. Eventually, his parents settled in Franklin County, where his mother, Yvonne, was a professor at Ferrum College. Today, Hughes’ parents live in the house next door.
People who have worked with Hughes in or for Africa praise his resolve.
“One of the great things about Walter is his tenacity to get projects finished,” said Jon Morris, executive director of STEP, a community agency serving Franklin and Patrick counties. Morris, who traveled with Hughes to Ghana in 2011, is also president-elect of the Rocky Mount Rotary Club.
“Walter has a passion for helping and a passion for getting things done,” Morris said. “A lot of people have a good idea. A lot of people have the heart to do something good. But Walter has the focus and the fortitude to see things through to the end.”
In Roanoke, Janet Johnson is foundation chairwoman for Rotary District 7570 in Virginia and Tennessee.
“Walter is a very successful team builder,” she said. “He does it in a quiet way. He doesn’t want the recognition.”
Ben Coe, a Rotary Club former district governor in Watertown, N.Y., said Hughes’ track record helps Rotary members who contribute funds “trust that he will, indeed, get the job done.”
In an email Thursday from Sunyani, Ghana, Samuel Ankama Obour reported that he met Hughes “about six years ago when he visited my Rotary Club, Sunyani Central Ghana.”
He said Hughes’ ability to “mobilize funds from his fellow Rotarians” has benefited “the deprived people of Ghanaian society.”
Obour wrote, “For instance, through the assistance of Walter, many communities in the northern part of Ghana got clean water to drink and this contributed towards eradication of the Guinea worm disease from Ghana.”
He added, “This is my first time of meeting a very decided person who commits all his time to serve humanity.”
Hughes said the initial emphasis of work in Ghana was on building schools and churches. But he said a man’s question during a presentation one night in Stuart led him to investigate the utility of building water wells. And that became a focus, along with a recent campaign to address Buruli ulcer disease.
Hughes said he has witnessed Christians and Muslims working together in Ghana to build wells.
“I prayed that every drink of water would be a drink of peace,” he said. “People with hope have a future. If they don’t have hope, all they have is the past.
“Basically, I am an entrepreneurial Christian. I glue things together and I find ways for groups to partner. In the Methodist tradition, I would be a circuit rider.”
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