By Heidy Brosofsky-Weaver

Tyler Workman laughs as he looks back at an old photo of himself as a Palm Valley two-year-old engulfed in a pair of men’s boots. Little did he know that he would one day walk the dusty streets of Masaka, Uganda, in a pair of well-worn boots rescuing hundreds of children in dire need and empowering a village by providing jobs and hope. But that is exactly what Workman is doing through Okoa Refuge, the non-profit organization he founded with his wife, Liv, 10 years ago.

When Workman, 32, recalls this “rollercoaster” of a decade, he is humbled at the positive impact Okoa Refuge has made in thousands of lives, but he is not surprised. Sean Yost, pastor of Redeemer Church in Ponte Vedra, is not surprised either.

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“I saw Tyler as a 13-year-old reading books about starting an orphanage. It’s not what the average person is doing at that age,” Yost said.

Yost spoke recently at “An Evening of Hope,” the 10th anniversary celebration and fundraiser for Okoa Refuge at Bowing Oaks Plantation. He says his own children volunteered at Okoa’s compound in Kayirikiti Village, and it inspires youth to see that “you should never give up on a dream just because there are obstacles.”

While working in a Jacksonville book bindery from age 15 to 22, Workman spent his breaks drawing out plans for an orphanage. During this time, he met Liv, who shared his vision of going to Africa, and they opened Okoa Thrift Store to raise funds. Meanwhile, she earned a degree as an infectious disease nurse, and he obtained an AA degree and contractor’s license. The two were able to open the orphanage in 2010 with 20 children and six volunteer caregivers and teachers.

In 2012, after building a girls’ dormitory and starting a Bible school, the Workmans moved to Uganda permanently with their two young daughters, living on a sparse budget. Amid death threats and attempts to raid the orphanage, the couple persisted, opening a boys’ dormitory, a baby home, and a church in 2014. After obtaining 15 additional acres, the first coffee crop was planted, providing jobs through Okoa’s Community Empowerment Program, which trains adults in everything from raising pigs to computer skills.

In addition, Okoa started a medical and dental clinic, a career home for former prostitutes and abused women, Bible schools in three African countries, and (upon request from the government) a business center for people with disabilities. Okoa’s mobile medical clinics have helped more than 45,000 people, and Workman says it is not uncommon for them to give out close to 6,000 prescriptions in one of their free care days.

A photographic timeline of Okoa’s milestones was on display at the recent anniversary celebration, and many in attendance fondly remembered their own visits to the refuge, smiling at specific pictures that sparked memories.

“This girl, Nampija, loves to dance,” Charlie Stoner pointed to a 2017 photo taken during her mission trip, when she assisted in one of Okoa’s medical clinics and helped build a road and kitchens. “Okoa is well received in the community, and everything that is donated is used to maximum capacity,” Stoner said.

What’s more, Okoa has earned the respect and trust of the locals and officials.

“The government comes to use for help with the hard cases,” said Workman, relaying story after life-changing story. This year, he said Uganda ordered almost 600 international aid agencies to leave the country due to corruption. As a result, just three months ago, Okoa was designated as the only orphanage allowed to care for infants in the district. This means expansion is needed. At present, Okoa serves 200 children (85 live at the orphanage) and employs 80 staff members (30 work at the orphanage).

“Okoa is personal. Okoa is family. And what’s left is for Okoa to grow,” Workman said.

The Workmans host mission groups throughout the year, with Liv running the website at home while caring for her family of eight. Despite the many challenges, including bouts of malaria within their family, the dedicated couple is happy to see the fruits of their labor.

“It’s been a wild ride. We could never have imagined what God had in store for us,” said Workman, who looks forward to many more years walking through Masaka in his dusty boots.

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Photo courtesy Sarah Eddy, Sarahdipity Photos

Tyler and Liv Workman and family in Africa

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