A Time To Celebrate

It all started this weekend with an email:

“You’ve got mail! There’s an envelope here from the IRS. Come pick it up when you can!”

It’s been a long time coming, but we are so excited to announce that Educate for Change is now an OFFICIAL registered 501(c)3 in the United States of America.

The whole process began in August 2012. Skype meetings, documents, mission statement writing and re-writing. It’s a long process, but was so worth it. We submitted and then we waited. Having to trudge through the process helped us to evaluate all of our goals and establish our organizations’ culture. We were told the review process would take roughly six to nine months. And ten months later, we inquired. A few months after that we learned that due to a change in the US tax law, numerous previously registered organizations had lost their designation and therefore, all new applications were put on the backburner. Bummer.

Now, 19 months later, we have reason to celebrate. All donations have been tax deductible since August 2012; however, with our official letter we have exciting things ahead. We can now apply for large grants, submit applications to fundraising campaigns like Sevenly and Amazon, and apply as an organization within Uganda.

Exciting things are on the horizon here in Gulu and we are so excited that we are now moving on to our next phase. The next few months will be busy researching and applying for programs and grants to help us grow and better serve our students.

Please join us.

Help us spread the word by liking us on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/EducateForChange) and following us on Twitter (@Educate_4Change) and Instagram (@educateforchange).

Much love from Gulu.

You see a girl: WE SEE THE FUTURE.

Just let this sink in.

In 47 out of 54 African countries, girls have a less than 50% chance of going to secondary school; average primary school completion rates for boys in sub-Saharan Africa stand at 56%, but only 46% for girls. This gaping inequality is a denial of girls’ rights and carries with it a serious social and economic cost.

  • Educated women are more empowered and better able to demand their rights, as well as having healthier, more economically secure families.
  • A girl who completes basic education is three times less likely to contract HIV.
  • Children born to educated mothers are twice as likely to survive past the age of 5.
  • A 1% increase in the number of women with secondary education can increase annual per capita economic growth by 0.3%.

[Taken from Make It Right: Ending the Crisis in Girls Education (A report by the Global Campaign for Education and RESULTS Educational Fund)].

In honor of International Women’s Day this weekend, we want to celebrate our girls. Sixteen intelligent young women are apart of the GLOBAL Scholars program and we hope that number continues to increase exponentially. With access to school, mentoring, and programs tailored towards women, we know that our girls will thrive. They will be empowered, healthy, and less likely to become married or pregnant. They will contribute positively to their school communities, home communities, country, and world.

In home visits and assessments, we are also able to get to know the women our students have learned from. Many of our total orphans are being cared for by strong women: grandmother’s, sisters, aunties, or friends who work tirelessly to provide what they can. Some of our single mother’s are heads of their village loan program or are working each and every day to provide a better future for their child. It really is a beautiful struggle and we could not be more proud of their dedication.

Our young women are such a wonderful blessing to us here in Gulu and inspire us daily as they work tirelessly towards a bright future. Some are from near and others have come to us from far (Arua, Adjumani, Pabbo, Amuru, Bobi and Kole). But regardless of their backgrounds, health status, and heartbreak, they have big dreams to become teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, Members of Parliament, journalists, accountants, and lawyers and contribute positively to their society. And we know they can do it.

These young women are amazing. And they deserve everything good in this world. We will keep working harder and harder and travel deeper and deeper into the villages until more students are reached.

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As we continue to work tirelessly to research and tailor programs that will most benefit our students in Uganda, we hope that you will join in.

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Much love from Gulu.

And Happy International Women’s Day to all of the amazing women of this world.

“A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.”

Let me tell you: our students are unbelievable. They are beautiful, brilliant, and resilient.

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After the long weeks of getting our S2 students and S4 student settled, the applications began to trickle in. I read the student statements and many kilometers were logged on the motorcycle conducting home assessments all over the northern region. From Gulu to Lira to Adjumani and beyond. Our process is long, and it is long for a reason.

Educate for Change is what we like to call atypical. We are holistic in our approach. We are ever-adjusting our programs, plans, and goals to ensure that we are keeping up with the quickly changing landscape of Uganda. We stay close to the news, national exam results, school situations, and most importantly, our students and their families. We like to think that we’re practicing to hear the heartbeat on the ground.

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We are still a very young organization: Laura and I began the process of NGO formation in August 2012. We rely mainly on friends and family as our financial and moral support, and people are just starting to learn a bit more about us thanks to social media, word of mouth, and my most recent trip to the States. I’ve started to get e-mails from college students who have found my personal page on Instagram (ksullii), or have stumbled upon our site somehow. It is so astonishing, but there’s still so much work to be done.

We are small. And we don’t have a lot of money. But we sure have will and as the saying goes: “A river cuts through a rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.” Let me tell you: I am persistent. I believe in fighting for what I love every day.

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And you want to know what I love? I love that 41 students are in school that otherwise would not be. I love that so many of them worked over their long holiday so that their families would have an easier time providing their requirements like soap, mattresses, and transport money. I love that we have been to their homes and know each one of them, not just by name and face. I love that I will only get to know them better over the next several years and work tirelessly to guarantee that we can provide support, mentoring, and resources to ensure that they excel academically, physically, emotionally, and socially. I love that they are working so hard both from school and from home to grow up to be educated, responsible, and downright good people.

Nearly every school-aged boy or girl I’ve come across is seeking school sponsorship in some form or another. I get regular phone calls and text messages from numbers in villages around the north pursuing an opportunity to come under our program. When I visit their schools, Head Teachers and teachers ask me if we can support more students. I hear stories of heartbreak, grief, and pain on a near hourly basis. It’s exhausting and makes me wonder if someone’s missing the point (and I usually think that someone just has to be me).

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If you were to consider the amount of money (in relation to their income) families needed to come up with in order to provide an education for their children in Uganda, you would be shocked. There is simply no universal, free education here. And I often wonder what’s better: free education that is taken for granted, or costly education that is valued? And is it valued? Where’s the middle ground? How can I wrap my head around what is really going on here?

The ever changing saga of Uganda’s political, economic, and educational landscape is something I grapple with every day as I try to come up with ideas for educational support workshops, student programs (such as leadership trainings, financial literacy workshops, and girls’ empowerment programs), new fundraisers and locally based Income Generating Activities (IGA’s), and even the future dreams of a collaborative school. I am seeking resources about how best to work with my students, counsel and assist those who are HIV affected, infected, or experiencing true heartbreak and emotional issues while igniting their desire for true education. My mind races 1,000 miles an hour.

I dream of the Uganda my students will see when they are my age and my heart aches for the day when they will see themselves the way that I see them. Their beauty, their brilliance, their resilience.

 

It’s what keeps me going.

NOTE: We are still in need of donors willing to contribute any amount towards the 2014 school year. School began in February and will be completed in November. No amount is too small. And I promise you, it is all worth it. Just you wait and see.  If you are able to contribute in any way, please click the link on our website.  And if you can, please help us spread the word.

Much love from Gulu!

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“Little by little, one travels far.”

I’ve been back on the ground in Uganda since 20 January 2014.  My fundraising and vacation time back in the States reached eight full weeks, and I was itching to get back to Gulu and get things moving for the new school year.

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Fundraising is draining.  While I felt alive and so excited about sharing the Educate for Change story with students from nursery through university, young adults, and various professionals in seven states around the country, it was exhausting.  Exhausting because there were days I would present for eight 45 minute periods in a row without a break; exhausting because I traveled for hours on end and thousands of miles across the country and back; exhausting because I know how hard it is to understand something you’ve never seen, and I simply had to do my best to share the story: the raw, true, inspiring story of our amazing community here in northern Uganda.

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I was so blessed to visit with many fantastic and motivated students and individuals who are working so diligently back in the States to raise funds for scholarships, who want to do what little they can to have an impact on someone they most likely will never meet.  But while my time at home was informative, clarifying, and humbling, it was most certainly not rejuvenating or a time for rest.

I’m running on adrenaline.

Since returning to Gulu twenty-three days ago, we’ve been busy. We have conducted parent meetings, group and individual scholar meetings, and home assessments with all of our returning (fifteen) GLOBAL scholars. We have accepted a new student into the program at S4 after a lengthy application and interview, rounding us out at sixteen current scholars.  This week, we have begun initial school check-ins to make certain everyone is back in school, in good health and condition, and are focusing on their studies to ensure high grades at mid-term.

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With all of this on our plate and day trips to Amuru, Pabbo, Luweero, and around the Gulu region, it honestly seems as though I was never gone for two months.  The cold and snow of the east coast is a distant memory.  I even forget that the Super Bowl already happened and that we’re in the midst of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. (Let’s be honest, I would have been way more excited about reading Super Bowl recaps if it had been a Seahawks vs. Patriots game).

With PLE results being delayed by the UNEB grading calendar and some technical issues, the beginning of the year for all students has been a bit stretched out.  I guessed that by now, all students would already have reported to school, but then again, T.I.U. (“This is Uganda”).

Our incoming S1 class just submitted their applications for scholarship and our programs yesterday by 5pm local time.  I’ve loved seeing the applicants come back to campus at Mother Teresa’s.  Some of them have returned and we’ve celebrated their results, others have been let down by the realities of high stakes testing and have had to be consoled and reassured that life doesn’t stop here and they should be proud of their performance.

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Being back at Mother Teresa’s also means I get to see all of the other students. My sign language is already improving and it’s been a blast to meet all of the new kids and also to see the rest that I have known for a while now.  In fact, when I look back on photos from the summer of 2012 when I first met them all, I’m shocked that they are so different.  Still beautiful and perfect, but stronger, taller, and more confident, for sure.  It’s been such an amazing time with them, and I look forward to many more years of watching them grow.

This morning begins our week of home assessment and interviews for the incoming S1 class. By 8am we began making phone calls to get directions to home and David (our lead mentor) is already off for two family interviews today in Pabbo.  Over the next seven days, we have to assess many factors that go into our acceptance process and interview all thirty-seven candidates for scholarship.  Some of this includes going through home assessments and parent/guardian interviews.  When it’s all said and done, we will send letters of acceptance before organizing admission to the various schools around the country, double check that all students have their uniforms and other school requirements, and have them report to their campus before the end of the month.

I’m exhausted just thinking about it all.  But do not worry: the ridiculous laughter and hot, constant sun keep me alert and ready to make some difficult decisions. I mean, when directions to home include “when you get to the tree, branch left, but be sure it’s not at the road that is deceiving,” how can you not help but laugh?  Little by little, we’re getting there.  And I’m so excited to see where this year takes us and share that with all of you.

A small note of congratulations and appreciation: We were so pleased with the efforts of all of the student applicants who sat for their PLE from Mother Teresa. Of the thirty-nine candidates, we had seven first grades, thirty second grades, and two third grades. This means that all of our students passed and that thirty-seven students qualify for a potential scholarship. This is SEVEN more than we were anticipating at the time of the Mock PLE and my fundraising trip. Impressive, to say the least. A special thanks to all of the wonderful students for reading so hard and the teaching and support staff at MT’s for their dedication and focus. These results are so strong for a school that has only been around since 2007.  If you don’t believe me, read this: http://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/PLE–5-000-schools-register-no-candidate-in-first-grade/-/688334/2170218/-/y3pxjy/-/index.html

Much love from Gulu!

Choose Wisely

I’ve been thinking a lot about value lately. Value and choices. When you live in a very small place, you have a lot of time to think. I have been constantly asking myself what I value.  Do the choices I make reflect my values or have I been corrupted and broken by this world?

During my recent trip to Kigali, Rwanda I had the amazing opportunity to see a beautiful, orderly, clean city. In fact, there were several times throughout my four days that I felt as though my body had been transported back to the States.

My intention in this post is not even to begin to unpack the politics of Rwanda and how they have developed themselves so quickly and efficiently over the past 19 years. To say that the history is complicated and that political tensions run deep is most definitely an understatement. However, if you ever plan on traveling to East Africa and you know anything about the history of colonial power in Rwanda and how it contributed in a serious way to the 1994 genocide, or even if you don’t, you have to visit the Kigali Memorial Center.

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I spent a few hours there.  I read everything and listened to the audio tour.  Studied every picture.  And I just stood, utterly amazed. The horrific violence that was inflicted upon the Tutsi and moderate Hutu people has made me sick to my stomach since I began to learn more about the genocide while I was in school myself. That numb, enraged feeling was certainly intensified. However, in a beautiful way, the museum curators were also able to capture the humanity of so many of the victims and heroes. It reminded me that tragedy is not just numbers, and people are so much more than statistics. It also reminded me that there are two ways to tell every story. And how you tell it shows what you value.

The news lately is horrendous. Shootings. Bombings. Chemical weapons. It is truly enough to make any sane person crazy. It might even be enough for some people to welcome “giving up and giving in” as an option. But, for many, hope still endures.

This world is selfish, broken, and filled with heinous crime. However, I’m telling you… people are not born that way.

People learn how to be selfish because they are not taught to share.  People are broken because the world has failed to value them and tell them that they matter, no matter how they might be flawed. Our communities have not educated children, teenagers, or adults on how to rebuild their lives. We simply mock and jeer them because it makes us feel better about our own path.

We haven’t given enough hugs.  We haven’t shown one another how to love by loving unconditionally.\

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And then there’s heinous crime. I’m not naive enough to say we should go around hugging criminals… but something brought them to that point. No one wakes up one day and just does something both terrible and tragic. There are warning signs. We are often just too self obsessed and “busy” to notice them.  Our society has failed.

Maybe part of the question is gun control. Maybe it’s background checks. But I’m still stuck on this whole concept of early education, true awareness and attention paid to mental illness (by both schools, government, and insurance companies), and the love and support systems established by a community.  We need to create communities that find value in things deserving of our love and affection.

Value. What do we value as individuals? Is it evident?

This week, Floyd Mayweather got paid $41 BILLION to fight. That amount of money, used correctly, could rebuild and empower a developing nation by educating and employing the people. And people watched. And bet. Won and lost and celebrated and beat their heads against tables over it. Teenagers all around the US (and probably elsewhere) stand in line for hours and shell out $180-$250 (or more) for the newest shoes to take photos of them and put it on Instagram. And then complain that they are broke. But it’s all about keeping up appearances, right?

We complain about everything, want everything, and then in the end… are we every truly satisfied?

Something most of the world’s people might agree on is that we value human life. But I think the majority of us don’t even respect it. We simply tolerate it. As long as it lives according to our rules and standards.

So what do we value? Truly and actually value? Is it money? Status? Jobs? Relationships? People?

I find it hard to believe that anyone actually values superficial things. In fact, I have so much love for and faith in humanity, so I refuse to believe it.  The truth is, however, that the majority of our decisions or the ways we choose to live our lives might tell another story.

Simply put, it’s time to choose to find value in the little things. The person next to you. Clean water. Smiles from strangers. The innocence of children. Family and friends. Health.  The fact that you have a job at all… and if not, the fact that you’re still alive and able to read this. On a computer or a phone… somewhere there’s electricity. Because you had an education.

And then it’s time to wake up and realize that we don’t deserve any of it.  We each need to be thankful and give back because we are all, each one of us, abundantly blessed. We shouldn’t be so obsessed with appearances that what we wear on our feet every day could feed and educate a family. But it’s our choice. We always have the choice.

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I know that I was born with much.  God blessed me with a wonderful family and friends, fantastic education, and amazing opportunities.  But even though I KNOW these things, I have had my days (too many to count) when I’ve felt slighted because my life is not what the world tells me is “perfect.”  When I finally come down, away from the ignorant and selfish place where I feel like I deserve better, I remember that every good and perfect gift is from God (James 1:17) and to whom much is given, much is expected (Luke 12:48).

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I need to choose wisely.  Love and hate are right in front of me each day, no matter where I go.  I cannot let the world corrupt me.  I can choose to love or choose to take the easy path, walk away and pretend that I can have no influence.  William Wilberforce once said, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”

My life and my values have been shaken, broken, and shaped by my 27 years on this earth.  I am not the same person I was in high school, in college, or even a year ago.  I hope that what I value is evident to the world.  But each day is an opportunity for me to step it up… to ask for the Grace to love more.

That is what I do here in Gulu. I love and support and hug. I encourage and empower and educate. Some days are difficult, but it’s stuff that matters. One day I pray that the children I work with (or have worked with in the past) will see the world with bright eyes and pure hearts and love just the same.

That’s how the world changes.

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Let It Be Enough

I’m trying to live by a new mantra these days: “Let whatever you do today be enough.” Work here simply doesn’t feel like work and it never follows a schedule. I love what I do… quite seriously. I love spending time with kids. I love writing. I love networking and forging new relationships. I love fighting for something I believe in. I love learning about methods of sustainable development. But all of it together is quite overwhelming… especially while adjusting to a work schedule that is on “African time.” Long term plans often leave me dissatisfied and impatient. So I’m learning better how to wait.

When there’s not many distractions and the power is out, I find myself doing a lot of “self study.” I find that I am terribly patient with others, but not often with myself or with my goals. I’ve begun to medicate with tea, sunsets, good music, and spending more time with friends. Now that I’m in town, I want to get to the school more often to just sit and play with the little ones. All in all, I’m trying to learn how to effectively balance my passion and my “life” and accept the reality that I will probably never complete a to-do list in 24 hours time. Especially if it’s raining.

Last week was “school visit week.”

We began our week last week traveling to Gulu High and Keyo to see Lubangakene and Mirriam. On Wednesday we traveled to the familiar Sacred Heart and Layibi College. The remainder of the week we prepared for our day trip to Luweero and worked on other projects. We learned much from the Head Teacher at Gulu High that we plan on writing into our programs. The work we have begun here is not as “easy” as it might appear on the surface. There’s a lot to balance and as I am learning, many similar programs have been unsuccessful, leaving students with no support other than financially. Unfortunately, many programs fail for this reason or because the means for their financial support is not sustainable. It also often develops a certain culture of entitlement amongst the students that we want to avoid. Simply, this cannot be the case with Educate for Change. Now begins the time for me to develop plans to ensure our fate.

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On Saturday,I traveled to Luweero to visit the kids from Pope John Paul II Academy.   And after a long day of the Post Bus, boda bodas, hitching a ride, and traveling the last 75km’s in a beer delivery truck, we made it back to Gulu with the most beautiful sunset out the passenger window.  Success.  Our scholars at PJPII are done on the 15th so I will see them back home shortly.  A few of them who live locally will even come visit Mother Teresa’s and perhaps tutor the P7’s!

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Of all the schools we have scholars attending, the most interesting to have visited is Pope John Paul II. It’s a new school so there is a lot to learn from them, especially as we plan to build a secondary school for Mother Teresa’s within the next five years. The school opened in February 2012 with S1 and a few S2’s. Now there are a little over 200 students on a small plot of land, 11km’s from the main road. It’s remote, beautiful, and so peaceful. Our scholars rave about a few things, but mainly how they are able to focus so far away from town. In addition, because they are no longer in Acholiland, their English language improving immensely. And that there is no bullying. That sounds like an A+ report from my end.

In the coming weeks the primary students are going home for a short holiday, leaving the P7’s behind to prepare for exams. I’m looking forward to this time with them so I can get to know them on a more personal level before we begin scholarship interviews. From what I see so far, this is a very special class. I’m hoping more of them will want to join their brothers and sisters in Luweero and maybe even get a few of them to apply to Restore Leadership Academy. More on that beautiful place and their amazing staff and students in the next week or so. Promise.

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Education: A Weapon That Will Change the World

Everywhere I look in Gulu, I find hardworking women. I have also encountered determined and diligent men, don’t get me wrong. In fact, many of my closest friends in this beautiful region are some of them. They do exist, even though it would be rather simple to stereotype them otherwise. What is utterly remarkable, however, are the amount of women I see working from dawn to late in the evening. These powerful and beautiful ladies line the streets and markets, balancing children, jerrycans, and gnuts in a manner worthy of a slot in a Vegas variety show. In many senses of the word, they run this town. But they need to be educated. All people need to be educated.

When I first began to teach Social Justice at Serra, I was amazed by what I learned in order to teach my students. I had always been intrigued by justice; however, I was not well versed on the issues. I had no stats or stories in my back-pocket ready to drop at a moments notice. As the months passed, I became impassioned by social justice. My desire to be a life long learner inspired me to get informed. Now years later, I am certain that the struggle for justice is what wakes me up in the morning. That and seeing and talking with my amazing kids. You know us teachers, we have many children, and by now I have nearly a thousand. My kiddos in LA, Gulu, or as they grow into adults (yikes) and travel and live across the world and continue to pursue their dreams. For the students in LA who I have been beyond blessed to not only teach but love, I know that it has been through education that their worlds were unlocked. In school, they were exposed to the realities of our world and perhaps the path that was best for them. And now they are out there doing it. They are making our world a more beautiful, just, and peaceful place. I’m often so proud of them that I’m moved to tears.

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That same dream for a successful, happy future for all students is what brought me to Uganda. I’m determined to provide what little I can to make sure that my beautiful children here in Sub-Saharan Africa are empowered and exposed to the same rights my kids 9,000 miles away possess and enjoy. But that goal is a little bit trickier here. There are way more hurdles and bumps in the road I’m walking these days.

Education in Uganda is an interesting issue to tackle. Statistics are there, and I’ve done some research but numbers never tell the whole story. For now it’s the little I have.

UNICEF reports that while 92% of primary age children in Uganda enroll in primary level 1, only 32% of these students will finish primary level 7. And of the 32% of children who sit for their P7 exams, only 17% will attend secondary school. Astonishing.

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Around the world, eduction is viewed through many lenses. I think what we can all agree on is that education, good education, is powerful. It is so powerful in fact, some people don’t want it. There are governments who fear the educated, because they are the ones who will challenge corruption. There are men who fear educated women, because they won’t be submissive. These are the truths we need to shatter.

On the other hand, there are families who fear education because of the cost. They know that education is the key, but in many cases, funding school for their sometimes 13 children is next to impossible.

Investing in sustainable education is our mission. Not only will education unlock possibilities and dreams, but it fights poverty and empowers communities. Through education, people are able to remove the blinders the world places over their eyes. The educated and empowered begin to be returned to themselves and see what they are truly made of. Let me tell you: pride and confidence can do wonders for a socially just and peaceful world.

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Around the world 75 million primary school aged children are not in school.  More than half of these children are girls and 75% of them live in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.  Why?  The simple answer is money.  However, when it comes to the girl, it’s a bit deeper.  Many families lack the desire to send their girls to school because they are needed to do the housework, they tend to drop out, and they are expected to get married young and raise their own family.  Another reality in much of the world is that families fear sending their young girls far off on their own to the closest school due to risk of rape, defilement, and trafficking.  The issues run deep and are not easy to eradicate.  But they can be.  There is hope.  “One of the most effective ways to fight poverty and bolster poor communities is through investing in education, particularly that of girls.” (Half the Sky)

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In order to combat these issues, education is essential. Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.” I would argue that deep down, everyone knows this. But until all families and governments are on board, we are counting on individuals to support our mission and to demand education and justice for all.

The beautiful thing about the children who I’ve encountered in Uganda is that they are so hungry for education. They want to be in school. I have P5-P7 students coming every day asking if I can help them find some research on the internet to answer their deepest questions about the colonization of Africa, the benefits of debeaking chickens, and the process of pollination. It’s a very different experience for me compared to schooling and the indifference of many of my students in the past. So I beg you, help us feed their desire. We have 15 GLOBAL Scholars currently reading for exams to finish their second term of S1 and several P7’s preparing for their exams and applying for scholarships to attend secondary school. Education here is not free but a small investment in these children will change their world.

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You can donate today!  No amount is too small.

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There’s Hope

When I got my tattoo in February, I was a stern believer in hope. “Dwell in hope” on my wrist serves as a daily reminder — not only of my faith in the goodness of God and people around the world, but of the miraculous situations I’ve encountered and beautiful people and experiences that makeup my life and memories. I’ve seen some amazing things in 27 years. Miracles, some might even say, have happened seemingly right before my eyes. I’ve also been so blessed to be born into a fantastic family, have a solid group of friends, and unbelievable support system at every turn. But sitting here today amidst the hustle and bustle of Gulu town, I can easily say that my faith and hope in God and in the world is stronger than ever before.

Life in Gulu is not easy for most people. But life isn’t easy for the majority of the world’s population. The difference, it seems, is that despite the daily struggle for survival for some of my students, some of their families, or people I greet on the street, there is always hope. That same hope is lacking in America and in much of the western world. The passion for education and change in this beautiful country is mesmerizing. If I can be of some help and provide an opportunity for those who are desperately seeking a chance at a future they deserve, I will be able to breathe a little bit easier. But truth be told, I will never rest.

My dream may be huge and some people even believe, inconceivable, in Uganda. Educating as many youth as possible. Justice for the deaf and disabled. Equality for and empowerment of girls and women. Building a secondary school. Running a literacy and feeding program for street kids. “What’s the point? It’s too much. Where will you even begin?” I’ve heard it all; the doubters are many. But I am certain that this is my purpose. Each day, even despite frustrations, failures, and wrong turns, there is always hope and promise. Even if it is just in the innocent smile of a child.

We all have purpose. Where you are born should not determine whether you are able to live and achieve whatever that purpose may be. However, currently in our world there is a ridiculously strong presence of injustice. Our current population seem to react to injustice with even more violence and cruelty, as if that will help any situation. Gandhi told us, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” And that’s what I see today, nations of blind men trying to lead us into the future. It will never work.

So I beg you: choose peace. Choose hope. It is so real.

We currently have 15 students on partial or full academic scholarships throughout the country and another 30 or so who will be sitting for exams and applying to our scholarships for February. These children are not only the future for their families and for Uganda, but for the world. Whatever you can do, say, or sacrifice to help give them that gift, I ask you to consider doing so.

You all give me hope every single day and for that, thank you. From the bottom of my heart.

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My Language Is Love

I speak very few words of Luo and I know about five signs in Ugandan Sign Language. I’m really trying. I may not be able to perfectly communicate with all the children at school or people I may meet deep in a village. But I promise you, they know I love them.

I love people, deeply. I seem to trust everyone and that’s not always a good thing. But at Mass yesterday, I was reminded that love is our absolute calling from God. We must love our neighbors as ourselves. And I’m working very hard at that.

The news of the George Zimmerman acquittal hit me hard and made me (continue) to question our American justice system. I am mortified by how the whole situation played out. But at the same time, I think about the 70 people killed in Chicago a few weeks ago and other violence our cities see every single day. I think about being here, caught between a beauty I cannot quite describe and also intense poverty and need. We need to realize that when we are speaking about justice— it should be justice for all.

We are all neighbors. The color of our skin is irrelevant aside from a beautiful gift God gave us that allowed us all to be precious and uniquely special and gorgeous. We certainly cannot all understand one another, whether that be due to cultural differences or language barriers. But love is a silent weapon which when used appropriately, eradicates the need to speak and creates a certain peace that is so desperately needed in our world.

This morning, I was already shattered before 8am, but I suppose that’s typical. I was pouring my tea and I heard the loudest, most desperate cry. As I walked around the compound trying to find the source of the noise, I spotted a nursery boy crouched over in pain, tears pouring out of his eyes, right beyond the gate. All he could “say” to me was a point in the direction of a few older deaf boys. Those ‘stubborn‘ ones who always seem to be getting themselves in trouble. I tried to ask him what was wrong but he just kept screaming. So I did what anyone would do… I got down on my knees, I wiped his face clean, and I gave him a hug. As he stopped crying, I held his hand and walked him towards the sitting room, hoping Sister would be able to get to the bottom of the chaos. As I brought the boy to her, I said, “Sister, can you ask him what’s wrong? He’s nursery so I don’t think he knows enough English to explain.” And that’s when I learned he is deaf as well. She even tried to sign to him, but he’s in the class for students who do not yet know how to sign. Right now he’s learning how to communicate for the first time.

As I sat with the boy next to me, my heart shattered. I gave him a piece of bread and the rest of my bottled water and just watched him. Beautiful, precious, unique. I couldn’t imagine feeling hurt like he was and unable to explain what happened. It made me mad but at the same time, I knew that eventually he would be apart of a rich culture of deaf students at the school and hopefully in a new Uganda by the time he reaches adulthood. One that provides opportunities for the deaf and disabled and does not keep them from school or condemn them to a life of labor without much choice. Justice — allowing equal opportunity and treatment for them; allowing them to dream big dreams and create for themselves a future they can be proud of and enjoy to the fullest.

The news this morning was particularly depressing. George Zimmerman. Protests and riots all over America. Chaos in Egypt, turmoil raging in Syria. Congolese refugees flooding to western Uganda with no food, water, or shelter. If I focused on this all day, I would have been a ridiculous mess. So I did what I could. I wiped the tears I had been hiding, walked my boy to morning assembly and sent him off with a big hug and smile— after I washed his face clean. I greeted all of the beautiful students. And I drove off to visit our scholarship kids at Layibi, Gulu High, and Keyo to tell them how proud I am of them and check on their fees and grades.

None of us can do much. But we must do what we can every single day. Our society needs to wake up. We need to realize that there are more pressing issues than the ones we joke about as “First World Problems.” We need to demand justice ALL the time, and not just when it is popular. I beg everyone… to just start caring about people. It is truly simple. Solidarity is a means to world peace, but it must start with each one of us truly engaging with those around us and within our means. Until then, I’ll keep spreading love everywhere I go and hope that sooner or later, it will be enough.

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“I learned to love like they did”

1014147_339035799559874_922780627_n(1)  This is a guest blog written by Trine Parsons. Trine traveled to Gulu with St. Mary’s School this summer and will be a freshman in the fall.

On July 12, I returned from Gulu, Uganda. Myself as well as nine other St. Mary’s School students traveled with three teachers and another adult to Uganda for three weeks. In that time period I have learned the best skills and life lessons I ever could. I have never been in such a loving and tightly knit community. Everyone no matter what age would run up to you with the biggest smile on their face and hold your hand. All of the little kids were itching to be able to attach to you. All of this love is developed from children that were abandoned, orphaned, abused, abducted, the cruel list of situations these children have gone through is unbelievable and yet they seem to have the most innocent love for everyone. This continually made me wonder how this was possible. How these kids could not be more scarred than they were. Through my travels I learned to love like they did.

The children and the people living at Mother Theresa’s Primary School, where we were working the majority of the time in Uganda lived with next to nothing.

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Before we traveled to Uganda we all had to read a packet about the economic differences of metropolitan areas to small African villages. It told us that many people living in poorer parts of Africa spend a dollar a day. That struck me as unbelievable, I do not know how I could have a budget of one dollar or less a day. As I read it clarified that even though to people living in the United States think of these people in Uganda or other places as poor but in reality they do not view themselves that way. Yes they have little no know money but to them that is their usually income and they do not view themselves as less fortunate or poor. They have learned only to live off of the necessities. Even reading about the kinds of poverty beforehand it still startled me when I met kids that had no shoes and only one shirt that was ripped. By seeing all of this I began to grasp what these kids needed, not just material goods but emotional needs as well.

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While in Uganda I was able to ride boda’s through town and around bumpy side streets. I got to peel a mango and eat it like a apple. The culture is so different than anything I have ever experienced. As we walked into town we passed grazing cows and goats tied up by the road. We continually had people staring at us in awe while little kids would yell, “Munu, munu…” which I discovered ment foreigner. I loved learning little bits of the language. I was able to remember quite a few words but the pronunciations, not so much. Part of what made the experience so great was being able to make so many friends. We visited Sacred Heart which is girls secondary school and Laiybi which is the boys secondary school. We made so many friends and we had a great time. I was fortunate enough to see Obina Brian who goes to Laiybi lip sync to Rihanna’s Diamonds. I also was able to visit many different NGO’s in Gulu. One of my favorite NGO’s was MEND. It is a branch of Invisible Children that provides jobs for twenty two of the most vulnerable women. It provides them with a support structure as well as counseling they may need, it also teaches the women to be seamstresses so they might be able to create their own business later. Fourteen of the twenty two women were previously abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Despite that while we were about to leave they began to dance. Soon we all joined in dancing to lively music. That I why I love Uganda we could dance with people we just met.

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I found myself at home in Uganda. In the summer of 2014 my goal is to return to Uganda for three months. I want to raise $5,000 to bring with me so that all of the bricks for the secondary school, that would allow deaf children to go to school, can be made. In Uganda I would like to become functional in sign language to act as interpreter for people in the United States. I would also like to create fun ways to teach English to students. My name is Trine Parsons and I have found my passion by traveling to Uganda. Because of that I have never been so happy.

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