Cooleemee native aids community development in South Sudan

  • Posted: Sunday, January 26, 2014 12:01 a.m.
Billy Riddle, Jr. presents a program at John Calvin Presbyterian Church on his mission work in South Sudan. He formed Hope Grows International as a mission organization while in college.  Behind Riddle is a photo of a child in South Sudan.
Billy Riddle, Jr. presents a program at John Calvin Presbyterian Church on his mission work in South Sudan. He formed Hope Grows International as a mission organization while in college. Behind Riddle is a photo of a child in South Sudan.

The first time Billy Riddle Jr. went to South Sudan, he was more interested in travel than in the mission field.

But what began as an overseas internship grew into a calling. Now, five years after that first trip in 2008, Riddle and wife Allie have made the decision to live and work as full-time missionaries in South Sudan.


The Riddles are back in the states while they raise money to make the move, and spoke at John Calvin Presbyterian last week. The church has been a supporter of the Cooleemee native since his early visits to South Sudan.

Riddle’s story began simply enough.

Raised in Davie County, he attended Appalachian State University and worked part-time at Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief organization based in Boone.

In the fall of 2007, he gave up his football career at Appalachian to intern for Samaritan’s Purse in a South Sudanese village called Wadupa.

He spent nine months living in Wadupa, getting to know the people and helping with relief-aid projects, and said he fell in love with it.

When Riddle returned to Boone, he knew he had to go back to Wadupa. He finished up an English degree, and decided to go for another in communications, and made trips to South Sudan in between.

In 2013, Riddle spent five months there with Allie as the two tried to decide if they wanted to work in Wadupa full-time. They decided to go for it.

Riddle has made some changes since his first trip. For one, he’s no longer associated with Samaritan’s Purse.

When the organization’s efforts moved northward, Riddle chose to stay in Wadupa. He says he’s still on very good terms with the agency, however.

Now, Riddle and Allie are aligned with a missions organization called Pioneers International. And when they’re in Wadupa, the Riddles are hard at work.

“Missionaries are people who live in a different culture,” Riddle said, “We have jobs.”

Allie works with Pioneers as a nurse in a nearby hospital while Riddle works with the non-profit organization he started in college —Hope Grows International.

Hope Grows sponsors several projects in Wadupa, including a farm, a bible training school and a coffee growing business.

“We want to see people develop and change in all areas of life,” Riddle said.

Hope Grows operates on an aid strategy known as community development, which helps a community to identify and use their own resources.

They don’t give free handouts. While outside aid is nice and makes things easy, Riddle says, it’s ultimately not sustainable.

“They can’t always get money from the U.S.,” he said.

The farm that Riddle runs is a perfect example of community development. The compound is located in the middle of town — right next to the school, church, prison and an orphanage.

Members of the community are invited to drop in, and Riddle will teach them modern farming techniques that are easy for the average villager to use in their own fields.

The average person in South Sudan can’t afford a tractor, Riddles says, but they can be taught growing techniques that will produce a better crop yield or help them grow crops during the dry season.

The farm also provides the Riddles with a small income. All the produce is sold and used to pay for labor, to provide food for the staff, and to cover expenses.

Riddle illustrated the effectiveness of the farm by relating the story of one of his neighbors, a young girl named Monday.

An orphan, Monday takes care of her younger siblings and attends school. A while ago, Monday approached Riddle and asked for help her with her school fees.

“It would have been very easy to just hand over the money,” Riddle said. Instead, he offered her a job. “I wanted her to have something that was worth more than school fees,” he said.

Now, he says, she’s learning wisdom and what it means to have a job and to handle the responsibilities it brings.

Giving her a job instead of a handout preserves dignity, and that’s something Riddle tries to do with everyone in Wadupa.

“I want them to know that wherever they’ve been, they have something to offer the world,” he said.

That’s what Riddle says it comes down to, helping people help themselves. Two other aspects of his ministry, community groups and Bible training programs, embody this principle.

Community groups are people who want to, in some way, help their town grow. Riddle said that sometimes a group may need some organization, a bit of money, or other support to get started.

And that’s where Hope Grows International comes in. Wadupa now has its own community development team, comprised entirely of the citizens of Wadupa, pushing forward plans to improve life in the village.

Riddle also helps local pastors construct bible training programs. He said that roughly 90 percent of pastors in South Sudan have no training, aside from having read the bible.

“A lot of times, they’re pastors because they can read,” Riddle explained.

Currently, the only training available to pastors is very expensive, and is only offered in English.

Hope Grows is helping local pastors to design a program that is in the local language and is available to all.

Most recently, Riddle has been working on reviving South Sudan’s coffee business. In the mid 20th century, Arabs brought coffee trees to the region and started up coffee farms.

When Sudan’s civil war grew too intense, they left, the farms were reclaimed by the forest, and South Sudan’s market for coffee dried up along with the farms.

“What they still have,” Riddle said, “is the knowledge of how to grow coffee. They still have the coffee trees.”

Riddle is working on revitalizing that industry. He’s hoping to get the farms going and sell the crop in the US and Europe.

Currently, Riddle is trying to obtain a grant to fund the new, coffee-based organization — which will be a for-profit that provides salaries for the staff, and an income for Riddle and Allie so they don’t have to put a strain on those who support them by donation.

In the past five years Wadupa has become Riddle’s home and its people, his family.

“Every missionary thinks their call is the greatest, and I’m one of those missionaries,” he said.

Riddle and Allie plan to stay in the States for the next two years, to raise support and to get the coffee business off the ground.

But back in Wadupa, Hope Grows is still hard at work. The community development team and the local pastors are hard at work, and the farm is being run by a farm manager.

Riddle says Hope Grows runs itself, these days.

Currently, the Riddles are looking to share their story with as many people as they can, and are interested in speaking at local schools and churches.

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