Sperryville teacher follows call to Ethiopia

While many are happy within the friendly confines of Rappahannock County, there are those who choose to venture outside its borders — not to get away, but because they believe their calling lies elsewhere.

One of those people is 23-year-old Joy Heddleston, a Sperryville resident who didn’t just venture to a different state. Instead, Heddleston chose to join a two-year missionary program in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia.

Heddleston got her first glimpse of Ethiopia during the summer before her senior year at Wakefield Country Day School, when she joined a two-week sports camp sponsored by Serving in Mission (SIM), a missionary group associated with Liberty University. Heddleston, who graduated from LU last year with a degree in education, said she had thought about teaching overseas for a while, and that two-week trip cemented the destination in her mind.

Joy Heddleston and her kindergarten class begin each morning with “circle time.”
Joy Heddleston and her kindergarten class begin each morning with “circle time.”

She’s spent the past year teaching kindergarten at Bingham Academy, an international school for students from kindergarten through 12th grade. “It actually reminds me of Wakefield,” said Heddleston of the 350-student school.

Heddleston confessed she was nervous to teach kindergarten, which was the only open grade level when she applied. Her previous stint as a student-teacher was with fourth graders, and she was convinced that was the grade-level she wanted to continue with.

Soon, however, she fell in love with her younger wards — particularly because “they’re excited [learning] everything.” Though the whole school teaches the British-based Cambridge curriculum, at the kindergarten level, Heddleston said it’s still focused on “play-based learning.”

“Cambridge is kind of like the AP [Advanced Placement tests], but more intense,” she explained. “At the high school level, the last six weeks of the year is all tests.”

Heddleston said she finds it gratifying to be able to make a difference, not just in the lives of the kids, but in their parents’ lives as well. “It’s an international school,” she explained. So while the kids are getting a daily education, it “enables their parents to do other missionary work . . . like Bible translations or starting orphanages.”

Teacher Joy Heddleston (right, purple) poses with her Ethiopian kindergarten class at Bingham Academy.
Teacher Joy Heddleston (right, purple) poses with her Ethiopian kindergarten class at Bingham Academy.

And while it’s hard for her to pick one thing to describe as her favorite about her international experience so far — “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you,” she said at first —  as a teacher she’s always thrilled “to see students making progress.”

This is actually Heddleston’s first time home in a year, meaning she’s missed some important moments. “I missed the birth of my niece,” she said, “so I spent some with her last week.” And while it’s clear she loves teaching (and says she wants to continue for “at least [another] year” once her initial two-year period is over), it’s also clear she’s missed some of the amenities Rappahannockers take for granted.

“I’ve been trying to eat a lot of salad since I’ve been home,” said Heddleston with a laugh. And after an inquisitive look, she elaborates: “You have to bleach all your vegetables over there, and it’s really hard to bleach lettuce, so I haven’t had a salad in a while.”

Though she does have electricity and internet access in Ethiopia — “They usually don’t go out at the same time,” she said, only half-jokingly — she admitted it was “a bit of of culture shock” upon first arriving in the country.

“There’s so much need there, and sometimes it can feel like you’re not really doing anything to help,” she admits. “You just have to take it step by step and do what you’re called to do.”

Living in a completely different part of the world has also afforded Heddleston a number of unique opportunities. She recently journeyed to Jinka during one of her breaks and visited the Mursi tribe, who inhabit the southwestern portion of the country.

Heddleston said she was immediately in awe of the Mursi. “It looked exactly like a photo from National Geographic. They were dressed in their native fashions and would let people take pictures with them for what was basically a quarter.”

Recently, she journeyed south to Awassa with other faculty and met the pilot of the only helicopter in the country. “It’s the only one there and they use it for everything” from medical transports to picking up and dropping off new missionaries, she said.

“Everyone is much less concerned with time and more focused on relationships,” she observed. “They have so much less, but they’re so joyful.”