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February 14, 2006 > Children of Hope

Children of Hope

by Mona Shah

Children of Hope is a relief project focused on orphans and fragile family units in slums and semi-slums of Kampala, Uganda's capital, in the Sudanese refugee camps of Northern Uganda, and in other hurting Ugandan communities. The civil wars in Northern Uganda and Sudan have sent thousands of people fleeing for safety. Most of these were simple subsistence farmers, who ended up in cities, slums or refugee camps, were they had no way of earning a living.

Many single women, often uneducated and unskilled, end up caring for children, their own and others, whom they are not really able to support. Children of Hope director Catherine Coon, working through local Ugandan and Sudanese churches, identifies children living in these conditions, and with the consent of the caretaker, finds sponsors for them. Sponsorship enables the children to attend school (school requires money in Uganda, with children having to pay tuition, buy uniforms, and provide all their own supplies), obtain medical attention, and in many cases provides food, mattresses, blankets, clothing and other necessities, and sometimes housing. While the focus is on the children, the whole family benefits, as pressure is relieved and encouragement provided. This also keeps kids from leaving their homes and heading to the streets.

Grace Agweng is one such caretaker who was helped by Children of Hope. She is HIV positive. Her husband left her and took their youngest son with him. She was left with the older boy, Jimmy. In October 2002, she had no work and couldn't pay rent. She was evicted from house after house and was under threat of eviction from their current home, a mud brick room in a slum called Naguru Go-Down. The five dollars a month was too much for her to pay. Jimmy, at age 14, had been in and out of school due to lack of money to pay school fees. He was currently in the 4th grade and number 237 in his class of 276.

Catherine proudly claims, "We helped Grace and Jimmy find a better place to live. Grace struggled for a long while to find a way to earn money. Several months ago, she found work, but it pays poorly and is over an hour and a half from where they live. So Grace stays close to her job and visits Jimmy, who is living alone, once or twice a month. Neither likes this situation at all, but it is their only opportunity for money. Grace is very worried about Jimmy staying alone, but her options are few. The project is trying to help them with housing options."

With sponsorship through Children of Hope, Jimmy has thrived. No longer worried about being expelled from school and having school supplies and a uniform furnished, he has left his worries behind and concentrated on his education. By the middle of 5th grade, Jimmy was number three in his class. This past year Jimmy was in 7th grade, the final year of primary school (the school year just finished in early December). He was number one in his class and was also the head boy (president) of his school. Jimmy is a strong Christian and started a Bible club at his school. Several of his friends have become Christians through the club and Jimmy's influence. Being part of Children of Hope changed everything for Jimmy and now he is working to change others' lives as well.
All of the programs take place within the context of local churches. Children have weekly contact with strong Christian adults who serve as their mentors.

Locally, Catherine was invited to the Fremont Centerville Presbyterian Church's bible study group, Kindred Spirits. She spoke to them and showed slides of the children she educates. When she enlightened them on her duties and telling the terrible conditions the children were going through, sickness of AIDS, rapes, and killings, tears shimmered in many of the eyes of those present. Marylyn Buchannan was in the audience and asked, "What can I do to help raise money for these children for books, which they don't have, and many other needs?" Marylyn went over to Catherine and asked her if she liked watercolors. "I love them," she said. So Marylyn decided to paint a montage of the children. Once she received the CD with the children's photos, she went about the difficult job of choosing those she could paint well.

She asked her husband if he would mind leaving the photos on the dinning room table (she never put them away until the picture was finished) and he said 'of course,' but he said it to himself. In his heart he didn't think the project would reach completion. When painting this watercolor Marylyn says, "You have to paint flat on the table and consequently your neck takes a lot of stress." She could only paint for a short time each day, as it is "very difficult to paint small faces."

Six months later, after many suggestions of modifications and input from her husband, Marylyn finished the montage. The montage is available for sale, $25 for an 11" by 14" print, at the church and all proceeds will go to the Children of Hope. For more information call the Centerville Presbyterian Church, located at 4360 Central Ave. Fremont, at (510) 793-3575.

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