This blog post was submitted as an entry in the Teen Impact contest and awarded as a runner-up.
My parents have instilled in me from an early age the importance of traveling and experiencing other cultures. Last Thanksgiving on a trip to Uganda, I finally realized the significance of other cultures and the position I am in to help others. We traveled to Uganda to help build a learning lab for underprivileged children in Africa and complete my plan to help break the cycle of poverty and to give hope. My experience began with an emotional encounter with a young African girl named Sharon. Sharon is an Empower African Children EAC student. Her father died of HIV; her mother is destitute, HIV positive, and cares for her three siblings by ironing clothing for money. Sharon was able to join EAC and thus receives the highest quality education in Uganda through the help of the organization. Her younger brother has one uniform, one pair of shoes and attends school at the local grade school. In Uganda, grade school is free until sixth grade as long as you can pay for a uniform and books. Many families cannot even pay these fees. Sharon's older brother is sick: he has diabetes. Sharon's mother spends almost all of her money trying to buy him medication that needs to be refrigerated in order to be effective. The family had no refrigerator, so Sharon's mom would bury his medicine in the sand, hoping for the best. Her home was one room, no bigger than my closet at home, filled solely with bunk beds. Next door, the landlord leased a small space to a bar owner. Late at night, people would drink and play loud music. The wall she shared with the bar did not reach the ceiling. Besides being loud and uncomfortable, the house was in a dangerous location. Instead of asking how people lived like this, I found myself asking why people had to live like this.
In response to my question, I took several steps. I recruited people, raised money, and devoted substantial time. First, I knew I could not tackle this ambitious endeavor alone. I sent an email to everyone I knew, and I asked my parents and friends to forward the email to people they knew. The email explained my initiative. ReThink would raise money and awareness for children in Africa that have stories similar to Sharon's. After months of spreading my cause, I raised a total of $7,000 and gathered donated supplies that filled 25 duffle bags. The money I raised purchased computers, desks, and chairs for a learning lab. I then made sure I had enough money leftover to move Sharon's mother out of danger. At this moment, I realized I had bought my first home. A few thousand dollars allowed for her relocation, a refrigerator for the medication, replacements for the shoddy bunk beds, and basic household appliances. I hoped my effort to improve Sharon's life would also make others aware that a relatively small amount of money and time can drastically change the lives of others.
Moving Sharon's family changed me. After they had settled in, the youngest son came home from school and immediately led the family in prayer. First Sharon's mom began to cry, and then tears flowed from her sons' eyes as well. I turned to see my mother and father crying. Before I knew it, tears started streaking down my face. I began to look at Africa not for what it did not have, but for what it did have. There is so much poverty, but within the poverty, there is so much hope, gratitude, and inspiration. I realized that one small gesture snowballed into inspiration for many: all of us involved, Sharon's mother's neighbors, and the Empower students who helped me, proud that they could effectively give back to their own community. I never knew what hope truly meant until that day: there is no correlation between material items and a person's spirit. I know that I do not have the power to remedy every problem in Africa, but I do know that I have the desire to try and that inspiration is contagious.
To continue the cycle of inspiration, I have started a club at school called ReThink. We have a number of initiatives, but will focus primarily on a return trip to Uganda on which my fellow classmates and I will focus on furthering the goal of opening a school and spreading hope. Until then, I will work to get as many of my classmates as possible to join me in seeing not only what is possible in Africa, but learning what is possible in our own lives when we invest in the human spirit.
Please check out my blog and see photos and updates of the work I am continuing to do in East Africa.