Going Home

We’re a family here at Educate for Change. And like with any family, it’s always special when we get to visit home.

Living so far away is not easy, but I’ll save the sappy lists of the people and things I miss for another day. Indeed, many minutes throughout my weeks are spent longing for familiar things, the feeling of being welcomed, and the comfort of sharing words and coffee with a loved one. It is because of these feelings that I am always excited when my schedule allows me to attend home visits.

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Home visits here are a BIG deal. And I mean big. The hospitality of the families involved in our program is unparalleled. In fact, the hospitality of nearly every Ugandan I’ve had the privilege to meet ranks quite highly. No matter who you are or where you come from, individuals and families open their doors and offer whatever they have on their table or wandering around their compound. (Yes, we get a lot of chickens as gifts). It’s one of the most evident ways that the country of Uganda is community centered more so than it is individualistic. It challenges me to consider my own generosity. And each time I travel home, I learn more and more about the GLOBAL Scholars and the place they come from.

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When I travel to visit our Scholars and their families, it is undeniable that I am better able to assess our students. To understand their motivation and consider why being granted access to a secondary education is quite honestly life changing has opened my eyes over the past few years to many realities I used to be blind to given my upbringing and exposure to education. When I go home, I see the pride in the eyes of the students’ families, even sometimes from members who were not necessarily ecstatic about them attending school in the first place. Indeed, as we continue to encourage education, real change is happening. (We would love to applaud the amazing teachers, mentors, and family support for these changes, in addition to other stakeholders within the community here in Uganda. You rock).

  • Girls who were expected to stay home after primary school and get married or start their own families are studying and performing well. Their families who may have initially been unsupportive of their attendance in secondary school are starting to come around and be the encouragement they need to be successful.
  • Students who were shy and withdrawn are gaining confidence and exuding pride. They know how to talk and present themselves well; they know how to articulate their goals and the benefits to their hard work; they know where they come from and they are motivated to make a change in their community.
  • Our students have a renewed sense of responsibility at their homes. In certain situations, their home environments are quite difficult; however, they return with renewed spirits and aim to assist in whatever ways they can on their holidays. They rebuild thatched roof huts that have been burned down or destroyed, they work in the garden, sell mats, slash the compound, and they do whatever they can while studying their books, to better help their families and raise what little money they can for various things they need or transport money. They give back in whatever way they know how, and it’s remarkable.

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The majority of our students are from out of town, which means that we need to cover quite the distance when we meet them from home throughout the year.  The terrain is rough and tough and depending on the amount of rain we’ve had, the roads are quite interesting (to say the least).  Adjumani is close to the South Sudan border and one of our boys is from deeper in Amuru than I ever imagined existed. Though this makes scheduling and travel difficult, working with students from such a broad part of the country allows us to better understand many aspects of our work in Uganda and will help us to eventually transform more than just the Gulu region.

 

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The few days I was able to go on the road with David were long. Some days we traveled far to see only one student, and other days we had eight home visits stacked on top of one another. There was no shortage of mango juice, soda, biscuits, and goat. While my stomach rumbled and tumbled, I kept thinking about how blessed I was to share in a meal with our families. They are amazing to offer us everything they can to make us feel appreciated, loved, and welcomed. I get so excited to see how their homes have changed since the last time I visited and watch their siblings and neighbors grow like weeds. Indeed, I am always impressed with what our students do from home: many build their own huts and even in one case, I was pleased to see that a Scholar constructed built-in shelves and a seat so that his family would have less things to purchase in the market. Creativity really has no limit for these kids.

 

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At home visits,  I am able to evaluate the family situation and certain issues we’ve ‘heard about’ from a first-hand perspective. This one-on-one, intimate attention allows us to follow up on any and all complications the family or student may be experiencing. Health issues, land wrangles, and deaths in the family are constant topics of conversation and issues putting stress on the Scholars and their families.

Going home also allows us to better understand family dynamics, witness emotional distress the students might be facing due to specific situations, and better guide them through these scenarios alongside their parents or guardians. In addition, we have learned a lot about the individual communities our students come from and difficulties that are being faced from their land. One issue I have been shocked to learn about is that in a few families, the stress of having their child home is difficult to carry because of the neighbors! In fact, there are a few villages that are reportedly so “jealous” that students have been granted scholarships that our families and/or students fear for their safety. It is not uncommon for the threat of attack or poisoning to be there. Despite this threat, it is our task to encourage structure that might help the student avoid problems while allowing him the time at home that is so crucial for personal development.

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Blogging, social media, research, grant searching, communicating to our donors, and programming from here take up the majority of my time. However, feeling the heartbeat of my community and the families and students of Educate for Change is crucial to keep me going. It’s imperative that we constantly assess and evaluate our projects and even take them in new directions, depending on what we find from school and home. Our ever-evolving mission is completely dependent on those we serve. Each one of our students is so amazingly special in their unique, individual ways and we are more committed each and every day to do whatever we can to ensure their success in every aspect of their young lives.

We are so proud to know that as this community continues to grow here in Uganda, so does our community of support at home in the USA. Thank you to all of our donors and advocates, we would be unable to do this work without you.

If you are interested in sponsoring a scholarship for one of our GLOBAL Scholars, please contact us at educateforchange.us@gmail.com. Generous individuals, classrooms, schools, groups of friends, Rotary clubs, and businesses are currently supporting seventeen of our forty Scholars. In addition, we have a select group of committed individuals who are constantly giving when they can.  We are so blessed to receive your support.  Truly, no amount is too small.  So if you’ve been itching to give back in a small way to make a big change, we would love to welcome you to the family, too!

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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He Carries Us

**The following blog post was written by Kristine Sullivan, co-founder and current Director of Programs and Development who is on the ground in Gulu, Uganda**

No one walks alone.

Yesterday afternoon on the road to Mother Teresa’s was the first time I’ve walked the road by myself since we arrived on Friday. It has been a busy few days after 43 hours of travel. My body has mostly adjusted to the time, but not yet the heat or the perpetual “stick” of DEET, SPF 30, and sweat. It will come.

I’ve gotten to know many of the kids from St. Mary’s in our (first American student visit!) group rather well and it feels like I’ve known them for more than a few days. They are fantastic, loving young men and women and I am so happy they are here and working with the kids and on projects around the school. It’s been amazing to watch them lead large groups of song and dance and be able to connect on a personal level with more children than I ever could! On Tuesday, they began to scrub the walls and paint the lower primary level classrooms amidst young students attempting to help or climbing up the side of the structure to see what was going on inside.

We’ve spent a lot of time walking around seeing Gulu as well and I’ve gone to town a few times on my own. It is in those moments and in this walk on the road when the reality of my move actually began to set in. I was ‘alone.’

However, there’s actually no such thing. Mothers carrying babies, men on bikes, boda-boda’s, children on their way home from school all greeted me as I walked. I’ve made new friends at MTN and Coffee Hut and even had a God moment with Beau from Restore on the steps on Uchumi. I’ve already been able to see Godfrey, David, and randomly ran into Papito at Mass on Sunday. We don’t walk this world alone and this new direction in my life will be no different, just different.

It hasn’t started how I imagined. And I still don’t have a phone at all or internet regularly (for those of you who have been waiting for my call or text— give me time!) But as I sat around the children tonight in prayer and listened to their beautiful voices, I was reminded, as I should not have to be.

He is carrying us all on this road.

Much love from Gulu.