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Stepping up for Uganda

Editor’s note: Herald News Editor Amy Maestas recently returned from spending a few weeks in Uganda, where she worked with the International Center for Journalists to build partnerships with foreign journalists.

By Amy Maestas

Herald News editor

KATOSI, Uganda

Last month, schoolchildren in this small fishing village 20 miles from the country’s capital city showed up at St. John Bosco Primary School in slightly tattered school uniforms or unassuming street clothes. Doing their best to follow practiced protocol, they greeted a foreign visitor with hesitant smiles and applause. A half-hour later, their smiles widened and the school playground overlooking Lake Victoria turned to a sea of bright red Durango soccer jerseys. In an instant, two small towns a world apart connected.

That connection wasn’t just through soccer diplomacy. The jerseys were donated by Durango Youth Soccer Association, but the field where they ran was on the playground of a school built two years ago with the bulk of the funding coming from Durangoans. Nearby, widows sold handmade bracelets and necklaces – the seed money for which came from a Durango couple. Down the road in the village, women worked at a sewing school – with some machines and fabric donated by Durangoans.

Women and children in Katosi are building better lives, and Durangoans are helping make it happen.

‘Charity is great, but opportunity is better’

Kathy Darnell, a longtime Durango resident, co-founded a charitable organization called Step Up Uganda in 2012. More than a decade ago, she started working with groups that help Ugandans improve their lives and their futures. Darnell previously worked for Ssejinja Children’s Foundation Durango chapter. Two years ago, she left the organization and co-founded Step Up Uganda with former Durango resident Melanie DuChateau (who has since left the organization).

Darnell raises money mostly by holding events in Durango, such as the annual Mother’s Day Telegraph Trail run. She said 100 percent of money raised from the events goes toward the various projects Step Up Uganda helps lead in Katosi. One of the biggest projects was building a primary school, which has a large number of orphans and widows because of HIV/AIDS. According to 2011 data from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, the rate of HIV in Katosi is 47 percent; the national rate in Uganda is 7.3 percent.

The wooden school is built with 2-by-8-inch pieces of lumber and corrugated-steel roofs. The bare-bones classrooms have wooden benches, chalkboards and many handmade educational signs, urging children to be respectful and laying out warning signs of child rape. What is on the walls explains the dangers many of the 240 schoolchildren face.

Fishing has almost exclusively sustained the village, but with a changing economy and climate, fisheries are dwindling. Charity organizations, such as Step Up Uganda, work to teach residents, particularly women and children, that new skills and education are critical to support themselves.

“The whole idea of the projects is empowerment,” Darnell said. “We focus on teaching instead of solely on sponsorship because opportunity is better for them to be sustainable.”

Events in Durango have helped Darnell spread information about her work in Uganda.

“The Durango community has been so gracious. People here understand that this is about community to community,” she said.

But word of mouth has elevated that awareness in the last couple of years.

Kate Stahlin, director of coaching for Durango Youth Soccer Association, said the group twice has donated soccer jerseys for Ugandan children. It is part of DYSA’s community-focused GOAL (Go Out And Lead) program.

“The program is something I feel passionate about,” Stahlin said. “I wanted to implement a program that highlighted the importance of giving back to the community, that teaches kids about leading in the community.”

DYSA asks members of its soccer teams to do one community event per season. Donating old uniforms is an example the association provides for its members. Two years ago, DYSA donated soccer jerseys to children in Gulu, Uganda – the epicenter of the deadly war with the Lord’s Resistance Army. These stories help DYSA soccer players understand that their world is larger than Durango and that doing for others is good leadership, Stahlin said.

“It doesn’t matter if they are 9 or 18, they take something away from it,” she added.

‘Love and solidarity’

Many students of St. John Bosco leave the school looking for an opportunity beyond fishing. But not all are able to go to secondary school. Step Up Uganda started a sewing school to teach women in their 20s tailoring skills. Seed money to buy machines came from many Durango residents.

Darnell recently returned from Uganda, where she visited the students and widows in Katosi. With her she took nearly 50 pounds of fabric and sewing patterns, which were put together by Sisters of the Western Slope (SOWS). This womens’ group, formed by Durango resident Jen Cuntz, makes quilts and pillows for people in need. During the last couple years, individuals and groups such as the La Plata Quilters Guild have donated fabric to SOWS. With the surplus of materials, Cuntz said, SOWS decided to donate it to women in the Step Up Uganda sewing school.

“There is a great need for love and solidarity in the world,” Cuntz said.

Besides donating the box of fabric, SOWS donated the $200 cost for Darnell to take it to Uganda.

“I know this box is really going to help,” Cuntz said.

Learning business skills

Early supporters of the Katosi widows group were Durango residents Rich and Sally Olsen. During a talk Darnell gave several years ago, Sally learned about Darnell’s efforts in Uganda. At the time, Sally said, she was mainly involved in supporting groups that work at orphanages. She shifted her involvement after learning that the widows in Katosi were needing to learn business skills to support themselves.

Sally told Darnell she would provide money to pay for a space for a widows group to form and work. For one year, Sally also donated $225 each quarter to sponsor two widows in the Katosi sewing school.

Initially, the widows’ craft group made baskets and mats. But they wanted to make different crafts that would be more marketable and unique. Sally provided seed money for the group to buy supplies required to make jewelry, which they sell for profit.

“I see that a little help can provide a big difference in their lives,” Sally said about her motivation to continually donate. “They pay it forward to make a difference in others’ lives.”

Today, 18 women in the widows craft group sustain themselves by providing microloans to each other. If a widow needs money to buy supplies, the group loans her 50,000 Ugandan shillings (about $19). She pays the loan back at 17,000 shillings per month. This self-reliance teaches business skills that the women would not have learned elsewhere, said Joyce Najuma, chairwoman of the widows group.

The seed money to create their crafts changed their lives, she said.

“As you see, (the women) are looking good because they can make money to support their daily financial needs,” Najuma said through an interpreter.

The group is making only a tiny profit right now. Najuma said they lack a market in which they can sell their jewelry. Katosi is not a tourist destination, and few women have the means to travel the 20 miles to Kampala to sell their crafts. The group recently tried raising chickens, but a disease ruined the animals’ abilities to lay eggs. Their next efforts will be to raise money to buy cows and grow vegetables, but the funding will have to come from the coffers built up by selling jewelry.

Meanwhile, the children and widows of St. John Bosco and Katosi learn self-sustaining lessons each day, and Durango residents continue to play a significant role. Donations of time, money and goods fill the villagers with hope that the larger world is invested in helping improve their lives.

“This is a greater story of our group in a world that is at odds at times,” Cuntz said about SOWS’s donations. “The rewards are so great. The true motivation is to bring people together.”


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