From the Beginning: The Story of How God Led Our Family to Imani

by Judy McGruder

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts….Isaiah 55:9


As a teenager I wanted to join the Peace Corps. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself and serve mankind. But as a small town, country girl that made more plans for the weekend than the future, I opted for nursing school, an LPN license and a job. So I was able to use my compassion for people as my profession and put to bed my “big” little girl “save the world” dreams. And I was happy and fulfilled.

I married, had children and set aside my nursing job to raise my family.

It was always important to me to guide my kids’ hearts to always stop and consider and see the people around them. I knew it was my place to teach them at a young age that everyone is created equal and all colors of skin are beautiful and made by God the same. I knew zero tolerance of racism was the only way to end the separatism that fosters hate.

As my children grew, I helped them understand as privileged Americans with many resources that God requires much of us. We should always be looking for ways to give back to the community, take care of people with less and never, ever think we are better than anyone else.


After the earthquake in Haiti, I started longing to go on a medical mission trip but I never took the time. I heard about a Belize youth mission trip at a local church so I inquired if my daughter Leigh could go with them. She was 15 and they thought she may be too young but they agreed if I went as the group. We were elated to be included. We were going to build a church. The preacher actually came to me concerned that Leigh may actually have a hard time adjusting once we arrived in Belize and could actually suffer a sort of culture shock….I reassured the preacher I knew my daughter’s heart and couldn’t see that happening. Leigh took her camera and her love for Christ. She and the children in Belize were drawn to one another. A passion emerged and her GIFT started to unwrap right before my eyes. It was all God.


A year later our summer vacation was an African safari. One day, Leigh asked if she would have the opportunity to visit an orphanage to visit with and take photos of the children before we headed home. As we drove along a dirt road toward the airport the word orphanage caught my eye…on a mud covered sign with an arrow pointing down a red dirt road.

We stopped at a flea market near the airport and I asked our guide if we could go back to the orphanage, make a donation, play with the children and let Leigh take their pictures. Our guide was surprised by the question and said “Oh, no I would have to go make sure it’s safe and that they would welcome you first.” Before long, our guide was back with a smile on his face and said “Yes, yes, they welcome you and would love for you to come!”

As we introduced ourselves and started visiting with the children, the camera captured the hearts and faces of the beautiful children and Christ handed my family to the IMANI family and the IMANI family to my family and we fell in love that day. It was all God.


We began sending small gifts like a laptop, camera, printer, water filters, and financial support. Brother John from the orphanage added rooms with the money and was able to take in more orphans.

We returned two summers later as a family and spent a week working on the orphanage and helping teach the children English. We helped with healthcare, admitting one boy with HIV to the hospital. We purchased scabies medicine for the entire orphanage and explained how they would all have to have treatment at the same time.

As we left that year it tore my heart out…I remember the pain being so real and saying to daughter I just didn’t know if could go back again. It hurt too much to leave. I self preserved awhile after that trip not knowing if I could return because I knew what had happened the summer before. The children…orphans….who did not know me nor trust me because they knew not trust….I felt them begin to trust me and I felt them know me and that huge honor and gift and responsibility scared the life out of me. They dared to love us and trusted us to come back. I had to wonder if I could risk their little hearts. This couldn’t be a half-hearted hobby to satisfy some charitable desire. These were lives of children who have lived tragedy and heartbreak.  How much of myself could I give? I loved these children but I didn’t want to be the next person to let them down. To teach them to not trust in others.

We had a painful year; I lost both my parents a separated from my husband.

But the next summer Leigh and I returned alone and I wrote these words as I left, “I cried again—it was just as painful and I left behind a piece of my heart with my African children—my babies. I can’t imagine NOT coming back. They are a part of me now.”

On that trip the orphanage was getting crowded. They had outgrown their space and didn’t have clean water but had drilled a well and hit water on their farmland near their gardens. It only made sense they needed a new home.

I made a promise to build them a new home. I didn’t know exactly how it would happen but I knew that with God guiding me and with the love I had for IMANI I would find a way.


That’s how the NEEMA Foundation was inspired.

Leigh and I had already been paying for some of the girls and boys schooling and supplies.  We had already been covering emergency medical treatments. But to build and sustain, I would need a foundation and God had it already planned. He just wanted to hear me say the words, “It’s all Yours Lord, anyway. If this is how you want me to do it, it’s all Yours!” And from that moment, it’s been all open doors. His ways are higher than ours!!  God knew. God knows.

I believe God took a mother’s desire to teach her children to give back to the world, to see as God sees and to love as God commands then placed a camera in the center of it so that my first-born daughter would use her gift to show the world how easy and beautiful it really is to love as Christ loves.

God took my childhood desire to do something bigger than myself, He took my compassion for others, He took my adamancy for equality and love and married my family to the IMANI family.  On Mother’s Day 2016 I personally accepted my calling to mother the children of IMANI and was re-baptized in the presence of my birth children.

Last summer I took both my daughters to IMANI and watched in humbled awe as they taught me how to serve others through dying to self and the washing of hands and feet of the children, callous from layers of dirt.

We walked the ground where the new IMANI orphanage would be built.

I interviewed three builders for the job which deserves a story for itself!

And now we are officially THE NEEMA FOUNDATION.

NEEMA is Swahili for GRACE. I’m thrilled to share that the IMANI Children’s Center is under construction and should be completed in Spring 2017!