(I write a monthly column for my town's newspaper back home. I'm so thankful for this opportunity. I know this looks long, but I think you'll be intrigued! Thanks to Aisha and Richard for sharing their stories! Please carefully read the last few paragraphs and consider "starting with one"! So here's the article--because the above is just a screenshot, so you can't really read it.)
[WILL YOU] START WITH ONE?
As is the case in any culture, the children represent a future generation who will one day lead their country. For the African country of Uganda, the alarming reality is that the children face unspeakable challenges such as extreme poverty. 10,000 of this nation’s children are “street children,” lacking a stable home and begging on the streets. To state the obvious, this street life prohibits them from receiving the tools (an education, for example) needed to one day lead their country.
You may be tempted to toss this newspaper aside right now, thinking, “I wish I could make a difference in Africa, but…” and then insert a string of excuses. But -- what? You feel you lack resources? You believe you can’t meet such an overwhelming need?
After reading this article, I hope you’ll discover that you can certainly offer hope to Uganda’s children, starting with one life.
During my nine months in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, I am volunteering with Dwelling Places (DP). DP’s founder, Rita Nkemba, recognized that Uganda’s children at-risk are the future generation and decided to take action. Formed in 2002, DP exists to change the lives of street children, abandoned babies, and families living in the slums. DP’s goal is to find a safe, loving home for each child on their program. Currently, more than 300 children are supported by Dwelling Places.
I could quote statistics about street children until I’m blue in the face, but most likely the numbers would quickly escape your mind. If you’re like me, your heart is stirred by personal stories, and you’re more likely to share a story with your friend than a quoted statistic.
When I first met 17-year-old Aisha, she was energetically singing songs on our bus-ride to the River Nile in Jinja. At first glance, she appears to be your normal, social teenager. Yet her childhood , before she was rescued by Dwelling Places, was anything but normal. At age 12, Aisha had not learned to write her own name because she never had the opportunity to attend school. Aisha grew up living on the streets, along with her siblings and mother.
“Life on the street is very difficult because you face many challenges.,” recalls Aisha. “We slept on the streets, and at night we looked for boxes to cover ourselves.” Aisha’s mother became pregnant with triplets and gave birth to them on the streets. The babies fell sick, and the mother rushed them to the hospital, but due to the unsanitary conditions on the streets, two of the babies died. Young Aisha was the one begging for money on the streets to pay her siblings’ hospital bills.
After an exhausting day of begging under the blazing African sun, she only made about $1 to $2. When she was twelve years old, Aisha found a job serving drinks in a Ugandan bar, which is not an ideal situation for a young girl. It was at this point in her life that Dwelling Places discovered Aisha and brought her off the streets.
“When I began Dwelling Places’ catch-up school, I wanted to give up, because the four-year-old kids could write their name, but I could not even at age 12. Auntie Maureen (DP staff) encouraged me, and I slowly learned!” Five years ago, Aisha could not read or write; today, she is a motivated student who is excelling in a prestigious high school.
While spending time with Aisha last week, I inquired about her dreams for the future. With bright eyes and a huge smile, she answered: “If God helps me become a doctor, I’ll be treating the poor. I also want to take care of street children. Like Mama Rita, I would build a big home to give the kids a place to be happy, like Dwelling Places did for me.”
A four-step Holistic Care model is used when moving a child from the streets into a loving home. This is a process that can take anywhere from several weeks to two years, depending on the individual. “Rescue” is the first step; DP’s social workers make connections with impoverished children on the street or in the slums. When brought onto DP’s program, the child begins step 2: “Rehabilitate.” DP brings the child to live at their Transitional Rehabilitation Center. Here, the individual learns basic daily living skills and also participates in empowerment and counseling programs. If necessary, the children are enrolled in DP’s interim school until they are caught-up with their appropriate grade, in which case they enroll in a local school. In step 3, “Reconcile,” the DP staff traces the child’s family and then strives to improve the child-to-family relationship. DP’s Family Empowerment Program encourages the family towards self-sustainability by helping them begin income-generating projects. If the child lacks a responsible relative, then the options of foster care or adoption are pursued. “Resettlement” is the ultimate goal, and even when the child is placed into a caring family, DP continues to financially support the child until the age of 18.
Richard’s life is another story of hope.
At age 20, he displays remarkable insight and maturity because of his experiences. We’ve been friends for several months, and last week I had the privilege of hearing his story while we took advantage of a mango tree’s shade on a hot day.
When Richard was just a toddler, his father threatened to kill Richard’s mother. Perhaps displaying God-given wisdom, young Richard urged his mom to flee, so the two of them fled to the slums in Kampala. They later found out that Richard’s father was indeed planning to kill his mother the next day; it was a miracle that they ran away when they did.
Growing up in the slums has been extremely difficult for Richard. He recalls that his mom walked two and a half miles each way to her job at a factory. The little money that she made went towards an education for her son. Here in Uganda, all education costs money. Richard remembers, “My mom would tell me, ‘My son. I didn’t go to school, and your brother didn’t either. Now you’re the person to make the change in our family. I’ll do the best I can to send you to school.’”
“Life was very, very hard. I grew up sleeping on a cement floor, no mattress. And we couldn’t afford for me to eat at school. So I remember coming home and crying from hunger. All mom could afford was to buy me two small donuts (10 cents each), and that was my dinner. I would eat that, and it would have to last me until the next evening.”
When he was fourteen years old, Dwelling Places did a slum-outreach near his home, which is how he became enrolled on the DP program. With DP’s help, Richard successfully completed his remaining years of schooling. Last year he graduated from high school, and although DP can no longer financially support him, Richard has aspirations of beginning and completing university.
In the meantime, Richard is currently volunteering in the Dwelling Places’ office. He is grateful for DP’s positive impact on his life and is giving back to their ministry.
My respect for Richard grew as I listened to everything he has endured throughout his life. He is currently living with his mother in the slums, so he is still fighting to completely overcome poverty. This young man recently decided to strive towards becoming a social worker in order to positively impact children at-risk, as he once was.
Richard is enthusiastic about sharing his story with all of you. He sat across from me and earnestly shared from his heart, “By choosing to help one child in Africa, you are actually helping a lot of children. Because that one child may grow up, see that there are children who are still suffering and feel they should do something.”
So let’s get practical. I want to extend a call-to-action to you, the reader.
1) Consider sponsoring a Ugandan child through Dwelling Places. Sponsorship is more than just writing a check each month. Rather, it’s a relationship with a child—an opportunity to motivate him towards positively impacting his society.
Not sure if you can financially sponsor a child alone? Consider networking. Gather a few friends, your classmates at school, or a small group from church and together you can offer hope to a child.
Choose to sponsor the child in one (or all!) of the following categories: food, housing, or medical ($25 a month for one category) or education ($30 a month).
I know finances can be tight, but you may discover a frequent indulgence that can be eliminated. For example, coffee! A medium Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks costs around $4; drink one less latte a week, and you’re well on your way to sponsoring a child!
2) DP’s founder, Rita Nkemba, will soon be traveling to America and will be in Pennsylvania in mid—late November. She’d love the opportunity to come speak to your church, small group of friends, or wherever you’d like. I’ve been privileged to work alongside of her, and I know you would enjoy her first-hand accounts of rescuing children from the streets.
Please send me an email if you want to take action on either of these opportunities.
You may not be able to single-handedly change the plight of Africa. But I’m asking you: will you start with one life?