Liberty trio inspired by sister’s transformation after mission trip

Charlene Barr with a Hidden Treasure School student in Uganda. (Courtesy Charlene's Project)

Under a cloudy October sky at Lehigh University, three sisters from Northern Ireland flexed their domination on the field hockey field.

Natalie Barr, the eldest of the three, scored her 10th goal of the season, 50th of her Liberty University career, just three minutes into the game. Not to be outdone, Bethany Barr scored two minutes later to make the lead 2-0, with an assist from twin sister Serena.

Serena then scored the third straight Barr sister goal.

From their first introduction to field hockey at Waringstown Primary School to coming to America and playing for the eighth-ranked Liberty Flames, the Barr sisters’ field hockey careers have been brilliant; their accolades and accomplishments too many to count.

Yet it is another Barr sister — Charlene — whose courage, resolve, self-discovery and determination to help others captured the attention of Northern Ireland until her death five years ago.
When Tropical Storm Joaquin brought several inches of rain to Lynchburg, Va., it was a reminder of home for the Barr sisters. Their hometown of Lurgan, a community of 25,000 people on the shores of Lough Neagh, gets an average 24 inches of rain a year.

“We are used to (the rain) and actually enjoy playing in it,” Serena said. “Sometimes (as young children) if it was raining real bad, we would bring the sticks and balls inside and play in the kitchen much to our mother’s displeasure.”

Mom Janice Barr was a social worker. Richard Barr, a doctor. Before their first child, David, was born, Janice decided she would stay home to tend to what would be a multitude of blessings. Five girls followed David: Charlene, Natalie, Serena and Bethany and Rebecca.

While several soccer and Gaelic football teams in Lurgan grab the attention of young boys, field hockey is what many Irish girls play. Natalie was the first Barr sister in.

“I started playing at an after-school club,” Natalie said. “I (initially) didn’t enjoy it but the teacher kept me at it. After a period of time I fell in love with it. Bethany and Serena were introduced to it earlier than I was and they followed suit.”

Natalie was the trailblazer. She played for Lurgan College, the equivalent of a U.S. high school team. Her skill level was high enough to captain the under-16 and under 18-teams of Ulster Province and the Irish national team. In total she played for Ireland in four European Championships including on the bronze medal-winning team in 2006.

Lurgan College benefited greatly having both Serena and Bethany on the team together for four consecutive years. In 2011 and 2013 Lurgan won the Ulster Province title as well as the All-Ireland Kate Russell Cup, a round-robin tournament named after Russell, the most influential figure in Irish Ladies Hockey Union history. Like Natalie, both Serena and Bethany made the Ulster Province and the Irish National teams.

Left to right back row: Natalie, Bethany, Richard, David, Janice, Serena, Rebecca with Hidden Treasure School students in Uganda (Courtesy Charlene's Project)
Left to right back row: Natalie, Bethany, Richard, David, Janice, Serena, Rebecca
with Hidden Treasure School students in Uganda. (Courtesy Charlene’s Project)

Natalie, Serena and Bethany’s success in field hockey was a ray of light in what can only be a described as a turbulent part of their developmental years. Eldest sister Charlene’s angry disposition, verbal and sometimes even violent outbreaks hurt the entire Barr family.

“Mom and Dad were in the kitchen in tears after Charlene said something,” David recalled. “I went into (Charlene’s) room and she was crying. She said ‘I don’t know why I say these things. I don’t mean them. I don’t know why I do these things. Surely you all are going to give up on me.’”

Charlene had spent her first year of life in a hospital with cystic fibrosis before she was adopted by the Barrs. After giving birth, Charlene’s birth mother left her in the hospital.

“If I was going to be home (caring for David), why not do some fostering?” Janice said. “I saw such a need.”

Both Janice and David recalled the day they brought Charlene home. Having never been outside, never been held by a family member, only by nurses, Charlene cried the entire car ride. In addition to battling cystic fibrosis, it was Charlene’s attachment disorder that made her so difficult to live with.

“She would often push you away,” Natalie said. “It was difficult. How do you love someone if they don’t want to receive the love? There were three or four years were it was horrendous. She really wrestled with her identity. We prayed. There were so many battles to face.”

When Janice and David first got married they talked about not having children so they could travel and provide health and medical cares in third world countries.

“Both (Mom and Dad) instilled a care for the unfortunate,” Bethany said. “Dad had worked overseas in Uganda and multiple other locations (doing) HIV-AIDS prevention work. He said to Mom ‘I would love the whole family to come to Uganda. I want you to see the children there.’”

David and Natalie were the first Barr siblings to go to Uganda.

“I always wanted to be a teacher and go to university (near) home,” Natalie said. “An e-mail came from (Liberty University field hockey coach Jodi) Murphy asking if I was interested in coming to Liberty to play. At first, my response was ‘No’ because I had already started.”

Natalie changed her mind on Liberty, in part, because of a coincidence. Murphy had also been to Uganda with Pathfinder Hockey, a sports ministry group that uses field hockey as a means to help young people.

“I realized the impact education has in communities where there is very little hope,” Natalie said. “I could bring hope to communities. A (person) I worked with (in Uganda) had previously worked with Murphy there. That intrigued me very much so. It seemed like God was forming a bigger picture than I ever imagined.”

At the opening of Hidden Treasure School in Uganda. (Courtesy Charlene's Project)
At the opening of Hidden Treasure School in Uganda. (Courtesy Charlene’s Project)

As Serena and Bethany had followed Natalie to Liberty, the entire Barr family eventually followed David to Uganda. How the eight of them got there was a part of the picture being formed.

“A family friend knocked on our front door,” Serena said. “He handed our parents an envelope. He said he felt God was telling him to give us the money for our entire family to travel to Uganda.”

The neighbor knew that some of the Barrs had been to Uganda in the past but had no idea they were discussing the whole family possibly going.

“The trip impacted each of us massively,” Serena said. “We saw how big the need was and how blessed we were.”

It not only impacted Charlene, it completely transformed her. The Charlene that was periodically having lung complications, getting bounced on and off transplant lists, being under weight and fighting off infection was healthy enough at the time to also go to Uganda.

“Her relationship with the kids (in Uganda) was incredible,” David said. “She met kids that were orphans. She could identify the difficulties with them losing parents. She bonded with them incredibly. You could see her eyes light up with the kids and their eyes light up. She was brilliant there; absolutely brilliant.”

“She knew that she wouldn’t have survived if she was born in a country like Uganda,” Serena said.

Charlene’s mental transformation continued upon returning home. Physically, though she was getting worse despite her attempts to cover it up.

“She didn’t like to show us when she wasn’t feeling well,” Serena said. “‘I’m good, I’m fine’ she would say. She didn’t want sympathy; she wanted to act strong in front of us. Because we were so close to the situation we didn’t see (her) deterioration.”

When doctors told the Barrs that Charlene needed a double lung transplant it was the first time she felt down about her health. The situation was so dire that Charlene had to drop out of school in early 2010. Natalie vividly remembered the moment.

“It was a like dark cloud was over the kitchen table,” Natalie recalled. “‘Her head was down and arms crossed (resting on the table). It was hard to see. Then it was as if a lightbulb had come on (over her head).”

Charlene perked up. She knew what she was going to do. She was going to build a school for children in Uganda.

Awkward silence followed with Natalie thinking she’s lost her mind

“Dad said, ‘What do you mean?’” Natalie recalled. “Charlene said ‘If I’m not able to go to school, I’m going to help others go to school.’”

In that moment that Charlene’s Project charity was born.

“We tried to being in some realism into the situation,” Richard said. “But when she had gotten this between her teeth nothing was going to turn her.”

The story of Charlene’s efforts despite her failing health made its way around Northern Ireland.

“She came out of the hospital with IV lines in her arm (and on the same day) propelled down a high rise building in Belfast to raise money,” Richard said. “No one would have known she just stepped out of a hospital.”

Young people got behind her. They realized what a big heart Charlene had as well as her vision.

More than $120,000 was raised. Around the time the Hidden Treasure School in Uganda was breaking ground, Charlene – the Barr’s own hidden treasure – had gotten worse. In late 2010, on a Saturday evening, Charlene passed away.

“The whole family and our grandfather were at the house at the time,” Natalie said. “It’s very rare for the whole family to be together. The Lord orchestrated it.”

Above: Charlene Barr with a Hidden Treasure School student in Uganda. (Courtesy Charlene’s Project)
Keith Chartrand

Keith Chartrand

Keith Chartrand is a freelance writer based in Ocala, Fla.