By Mia Hodges
It is hard to believe that just about a month ago I was finishing up my 5 weeks in Gulu. In some respects, it feels like ages ago that Allison, Saelar, and I visited the endearing community of Okumu and were given a chicken as a gift to thank us for what HCU’s micro-finance program has done in their lives. At home in Atlanta, it feels like even longer ago that we sat bemused and surprised as we then ate that chicken the next night for dinner. Yet, a few nights ago, when showing pictures to my family and describing the experiences I had in Gulu, it felt like just yesterday that the three of us were meeting with the children and women that are a part of the HCU community.
Although I loved working with HCU’s students on the weekends, I found that interacting with the women that HCU’s micro-finance program, Uplift, is currently supporting was the most rewarding part of my experience. While Allison, Saelar and I were in Gulu, we met with women in all three of the HCU-supported communities, and were welcomed into their homes with broad smiles and gracious hospitality.
As I told my family about the women who care for at times as many as eleven children through selling produce or working in quarries, they marveled at the diligent work ethic and passion these women have for supporting their families. As I showed them the pictures of these women in their huts, I remembered how they never failed to offer me a chair and express exuberant generosity to ensure that I felt welcome. After leaving, it was extremely rewarding to know that our time in Gulu helped contribute to the expansion of the Uplift program, thereby continuing to support the hardworking women of these various communities.
Upon reflection, I look back on my time in Gulu as an incredible learning and perspective-widening experience. It is so great to see the continued developments that the current interns are making now, between the opening of House of Hope and the new computer classes that are being conducted there. I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with the amazing HCU executive team and I have no doubt that Kevin, Ella, and Jamie will continue to lead HCU to an incredible future. I look forward to helping HCU expand, both in the USA and in Gulu!
By Jamie Stuart
It was three years ago today that Ella, Kevin and I finally secured one very gorgeous, slightly swampy plot of land and one official Ugandan NGO registration certificate.
It all started just a week earlier, when the three of us were driving through Gulu. Back when the roads were still unpaved, dusty red dirt. When there were still empty lots, crumbling buildings and undeveloped properties dotting every city block.
Gulu was already beginning to develop so quickly that the sense of anticipation in the air was almost tangible. As we wondered how it was possible that any of these lots were still empty, available even, an idea grew between us.
“We should entrepreneur something.” I said, a hypothetical statement that could only be said with confidence if the person saying it was someone older, more experienced, somehow better-equipped than myself.
“We really should.” Ella responded enthusiastically, her unstoppable attitude turning my suggestion into a viable idea.
“You know, you really should do something. There is so much that the community still really needs here.” Said Kevin from the front seat, forever confident, fearless, and ready to do whatever it takes to empower her community.
Together we brought this idea into reality, developing a concept that required extensive research, a thoroughly-mapped business plan and a full week of navigating the tricky Ugandan bureaucracy. We were determined to provide Gulu with what it needed most: access to education, family services and a safe space for those who had none.
Ella and I emptied our savings to buy an empty property in one of the poorest communities in Gulu. Paychecks from five years of running between restaurant tables, three summers lifeguarding, and countless fake smiles given to catty customers: it was not without second thought that I handed this cash over, investing everything I had in one completely undeveloped, swampy piece of land.
I remember doing the math and asking myself, “what am I saving for anyways?” How could anything we had been saving for be more important, more rewarding or a better investment than this?
The money we invested in that little plot of land provided the foundation for HCU: an organisation which now reaches over 300 youth in Gulu directly through free arts, literacy, computer science classes. Our Girl Power Gulu program empowers hundreds of young women with menstrual and reproductive health education and sanitary pad distributions, so they can contribute their maximum potential to their communities. We reach over 3,000 more people through Uplift, our microfinance loan and business training program. Our weekly radio show, Lutino Waa, reached hundreds of thousands of people all across Northern Uganda with educational weekly talk shows. Our most tangible asset is the newly-constructed House of Hope, complete with a computer lab, office and classroom.
I can’t say I studied business, but I think that sounds like a pretty good return on investment for just three short years.
By Addie Lynch
The moment that we’ve been working towards is finally here… our new center is finally in use! HCU’s “House of Hope” is beautifully illuminated by all of the natural light beaming in through numerous windows; this is a seemingly small luxury that we never knew we needed at the old facility, where light struggled to make it through the slits of wooden walls. We traded old, splintering desks for new, clean tables and chairs. All of the students were able to sit close to the newly installed chalk boards and take notes in their brand new composition books. Now we even have working electricity!
The kids are loving the new space! Many of them agree that it was a much needed upgrade from the old classrooms. Mirriam, the head teacher at HCU, loves having an office space where she can do her administrative work, and is appreciative of all of the new materials donated by our interns. New reading books, whiteboards, paper, crayons, and other class supplies have made teaching easier and have made learning a more enjoyable experience for the kids. The laptops donated by several interns will soon become core materials in our next program: computer training courses.
Kevin, HCU’s lead coordinator says, “It’s really exciting. It’s conducive and very accommodating for the classes because it’s in a quiet area; the students can concentrate on what they need to do. The new center creates the calm environment that bring comfort in one’s heart. The green grasses bring a freshness in the whole family of Hope Center Uganda.”
We are so blessed to be able to continue educating Gulu’s youth in an updated facility, but the work is not over quite yet! Thanks to many generous donations, we have about 15 laptops ready and waiting to be assembled into our new computer lab: as soon as we get Wifi installed. We have two latrines constructed that still need plumbing. Soon, we will have the land around our building leveled to create a space where the children can play outside. Building a kitchen space for Hope Center’s chef, who makes lunch for the kids, is also on our to-do list.
From everyone at HCU, we thank everyone who have helped support our projects in the Gulu district. Thanks to you, our students are getting closer to the bright future they deserve– in turn illuminating the futures of their community, country, and world.
By Allison Daniels
For the past three weeks, I had the pleasure of spending my time working with HCU and staying with a superhero named Kevin Okumu. I traveled to Uganda with two fellow Tarheels, Mia Hodges and Saelar Venters, both of whom are fabulous people that I wish everyone had the chance to know like I do.
Since it was my first time in Uganda (and Africa), the culture shock was real: especially because I was seeing my first glimpses of the new country at night, which can be confusing to a traveler’s red-eyed, crazed mind. We were immersed into Gulu’s culture and its extremely kind (to say the least) community. Every morning when we left to go work, we would be greeted by the local kids in Koro (Kevin’s village) who would run up to the car yelling and smiling, which I believe can make anyone into a morning person.
The majority of our time was split between going to various villages to help implement/improve the current microfinance program and teaching at the HCU school. Between those two, it’s difficult to pick a favorite because that would mean choosing between seeing the ecstatic (and adorably mischievous) kids in the classroom and meeting local mothers receiving loans whose abundant gratitude reassured us all that the program was achieving its goal in helping them. The women who work with HCU: Grace, Esther, and Miriam, are all legends in their own right and run a nonprofit exactly the way it should be run, with kindness and the will to make these communities the best that they can be. In all, my experience working with HCU was enlightening and fulfilling all around.
I mentioned above that I stayed with a superhero and leaving her out of this reflection would be a terrible mistake. Kevin Okumu wrote the book on being a Girl Boss. Writing about the hospitality and even love that she shows to her interns seems almost like a waste of time because no description can do it justice. Hearing from other people in Uganda about how much they love Kevin and how much she has helped this person and that person were odes to her generosity. The other interns and I sometimes asked ourselves, ‘What would we do without Kevin?’ Did we really even want to know the answer to that question? Absolutely not. She is incredible and I consider myself very lucky to have gotten to know her so well. There is no doubt I will be paying her and the rest of HCU a visit again!
We’re almost there! We want to start off with a huge thank you for your commitment to our project so far. In the past few weeks, our engineering team has finished up painting the interior and exterior of the building, installing electric wiring systems and building a septic tank and indoor toilet. In the next weeks, the team will build a second outdoor toilet for the kids, and a small veranda around the house to avoid drainage issues. We still hope to receive donations for solar panels, so the center can be fully self-powered!
The office space in the center is already in use by our local team and this year’s first group of summer interns, Mia Hodges, Allison Daniels, and Saelar Venters, who have been working with us in Gulu for the past month. Their enthusiasm and hard work is leading to great developments in our microfinance loan program, Uplift, which we hope to expand over the summer months. Through providing small loans to local women and giving them financial trainings, we support the family members of HCU’s kids and build our reputation in the local community, while raising money from the interest received on the returned loans. We are happy to report that our return rate is still currently 100%!
Thank you again for your continued support! We look forward to keeping you updated with our growth this summer, when we will be able to see the House of Hope come to life!
We are so excited to share our progress with you! Thanks to donations to our Globalgiving crowdfunding campaign, our team in Gulu has almost finished construction and we are looking to officially open the first Hope Center for classes in April. Since we hit 2018, we’ve finished walls and roofing for the building. Finishing touches like paint, electricity, and plumbing will be completed in the next few weeks.
Our Youth Literacy and Girl Power Gulu programs are continuing in rented space unitl our new center is officially open. We have seen a steady increase in particiption and success from the children enrolled in these programs, and look forward to expanding when we’re in our new space. Project Uplift, our microfinance and business training program, has also been doing very well, and is supporting 2,100 people in Gulu area with small loans and financial education.
We look forward to keeping you updated with our progress, and could not be more grateful for the impact your support has allowed us to make. We’re proud to show you the attached photos of the amazing things we’re accomplishing in Gulu!
Because of many generous contributions to our GlobalGiving crowdfunding initiative, we raised $15,403 to build Hope Center Uganda’s first resource center. We have already begun construction, and by April 2017, HCU will be able to reach hundreds more children through education courses in a brand new facility!
In late October, funds were disbursed to our Program Director, Kevin Okumu, who is overseeing the levelling of the land and the construction of the Center. With the help of our hired engineer, Kumakech Denis, and the Denflo construction crew, we hired machinery and bought fill to level the land.
The construction team started working on the foundation the first week of December, and Denflo estimates that the walls of the structure will be completed before the end of the year. In the meantime, HCU’s programs continue in our rented space. The 70 children enrolled in our literacy program will continue to recieve English, computer science, and arts classes, while the adults and families enrolled in Project Uplift, which impacts 2,100 people in Gulu, receive monthly loans and personal finance trainings. And our monthly Girl Power Gulu sanitary pad distribution and menstrual health education program continues to impact the lives of 130 local girls and teens.
We look forward to keeping you updated with our progress, and could not be more grateful for the impact your support has allowed us to make. We’re proud to show you the attached photos of the amazing things you’re accomplishing in Gulu!
My first few weeks in Gulu have been great to say the least. Although my attempts to learn the local language have stalled I’ve learnt plenty more. I think I can say that I know my way around town and have slipped into a good routine. Ive begun to sink my teeth into a draft strategic plan for HCU after getting a grasp of the organisation on the ground; what it does, how it functions, who’s involved etc.
Like anywhere else, weekends are the best part of the week. Not because I get to blow off some steam at a party but because I get to teach my HCU class on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. I wont lie and say I wasn’t a little nervous with my first solo classes over the students but any sense of nervousness dissipated on my second weekend when I arrived to find a few of the kids having spelt my name out on the blackboard – whether or not they meant it I took it as a sign of affection.
I did encounter one challenge that I didn’t foresee when teaching the class. In an attempt to curry some favour for myself (and also because I need any excuse to eat some chocolate myself) I told the class that I’d bring some chocolate to the next weeks class. When the day finally came, to great anticipation, I brought in some chocolate for the class. What I thought would’ve been an easy and happy enough task turned slightly sour as some children from the other class got wind of it and came down to get some as well. I tried to accommodate as many as possible but some went without which left a bad taste in my mouth about something that should’ve been a happier event.
Resolute to fix the issue next weekend I brought in some more chocolate for myself and the class but distributed it in a lot more controlled fashion. While this solved the problem it reinforced a thought of mine that good intentions aren’t always enough when it comes to helping. You need to have a plan and implement it correctly to avoid unforeseen consequences and achieve your desired outcomes – a good lesson when approach future programs within HCU I’m sure!
Written by Harry Marshall
By Harry Marshall
I’ve always found arriving in a new city or country at night is unsettling. You struggle to get your bearings because everything is either dark or lit up by brownish-yellow florescent streetlights. So arriving in Kampala at 9:00PM at night and the subsequent 6-hour drive to Gulu didn’t really allow me to get my bearings until morning.
Uganda was infinitely different to what my mind imagined the night before. Saying that, I honestly don’t know what I was expecting before I arrived and I prefer it that way when I’m going to new places. It allows you to enjoy every new aspect you’re faced with instead of making comparisons to some made up place in your mind. The one thing that my imagination would never have been able to think up was the sheer beauty of the natural environment. The landscape was contrasted between the green of the environment and the brown soil of the earth, all against the backdrop of the immensely blue African sky.
This isn’t my first trip to Africa however something that I must’ve forgotten in the last 10 years since I was last here was how friendly everyone is. Always eager to ask how your and laugh at a joke; if sometimes are your expense. Innocent, Kevin’s husband, is a fine example of this. I don’t think he can manage a sentence without laughing mid-stream at one thing or another.
The first weekend’s HCU classes with the kids was a genuine treat. Kevin introduced me to the older class first then took me to the middle and young class afterwards. After jumping the first hurdle with the kids as to how to pronounce my name Kevin and Mirriam left me armed with nothing but a red pen to manage the class and do some marking of their earlier work. Immediately I remembered the power of a red pen to primary school children from my own school days; a tick here, an enthusiastic ‘100%’ there and I was fairly sure I would manage the next hour or so.
The next day on the Sunday was my baptism by fire. Kevin and Mirriam left me with the older class for the entire class running through a few English exercises. Surprisingly I absolutely loved it (and I hope the kids took some enjoyment from it as well). Kevin seemed to think I did a good enough job to merit taking the upper class more regularly which will also free Mirriam up to take more specialised technology classes with small groups of the students.