By Deborah Hilcove
Battered by hurricanes and leveled by an earthquake, Haiti sits more than 7,000 miles away from the devastating drought and civil war suffered by Uganda. Yet both poverty-stricken countries share the friendship of the Roman Catholic parish, St. Andrew the Apostle in Chandler, where Fr. Robert Seraph Aliunzi, AJ, serves as pastor.
Parishioner Gerry Smith describes the “unique outreach” of the parish. The Haitian effort, centered in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Orphanage in Jeremie, began in 2009 with the nonprofit, Grow Haiti’s Children. The goal was to assist children living in the poorest country in the western hemisphere, where eight of ten people were unemployed and more than half the country was illiterate.
Just a year later, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Hispaniola, the Caribbean island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. More than 46,000 Haitians died, with many more contracting cholera. Then Hurricane Matthew stormed the island in 2016, killing more than 3,000. Just this past August, Hurricane María threatened the island.
Once called “the Pearl of the Antilles,” Hispaniola was devastated. Lush, tropical foliage turned brown. Tangled, broken trees, collapsed buildings and splintered wooden shanties serve as monuments to nature’s fury.
Describing Hurricane Matthew’s devastation, Pastoral Associate Bill Marcotte, who assisted with relief work says, “It looked like a bomb hit.”
In the midst of this wreckage, however, the OLPH Orphanage remained a haven. Housing 70 children, ages 5-19, it provides education from kindergarten through 10th grade. It also provides a hopeful future.
Smith explains, “Maybe the mother died and the father’s unable to care for one or more children. He might ask a relative to take a daughter. The relative’s likely poor, but agrees, saying she’ll be a servant to his family, walking at least a mile to fetch water in a five-gallon container, eating only leftover food scraps. There won’t be money for education. But, at the Orphanage, she’ll have opportunity. She’ll have clothes and regular, nutritious meals and the opportunity to go to school.”
Not only does the staff encourage schoolwork, but volunteers teach useful skills to older students. They’ve built bunk beds for the dormitories and installed mosquito netting at the windows. They’ve repaired walls, rewired electricity and tiled the restrooms.
Volunteers also encourage entrepreneurship. A bakery, managed by a 19-year-old and his teenage staff, supplies bread to the school, selling surplus to the community. Nearby, teenagers run two convenience stores, honing their managerial skills. Some of the girls have learned to operate treadle sewing machines and make uniforms for the other students.
The children dream, Smith says, and make plans for their futures. One girl wants to go to nursing school. A teenager wants to study agriculture and another wants to be an engineer. “These children want to go to college and to university. We’re working on scholarships.”
“The focus [for St. Andrew’s outreach] is what can help these kids. They’re the future leaders of Haiti, whether in government or trade.” He adds, “We’re trying to protect the kids. Keep them safe. “
On the other side of the world, more than 7,000 miles from that tropical island, the Republic of Uganda sits landlocked on the African continent.
Awed by its diverse landscape of snowcapped mountains, Lake Victoria and the Nile Basin dotted with lakes, Winston Churchill in 1908 proclaimed the British Protectorate of Uganda, “the Pearl of Africa.”
Since winning its independence in 1962, however, Uganda has been torn by civil war and corruption. Not only domestic problems plague Uganda, but the most severe drought in over 50 years has left 11 million Ugandans without sufficient food. Another 1.6 million hover on the brink of famine.
As recently as 9/26/2017, USA Today reported witch doctors brutally maiming and sacrificially killing children in a wild bid to end the drought.
Fr. Uliunzi, a native of Uganda and a naturalized American, was orphaned at an early age. His 17-year-old brother and wife struggled to pay for his education, knowing it meant survival.
Acknowledging the impact of education on his own life, Fr. Uliunzi is intent on educating the Ugandan children orphaned by conflict. He established the nonprofit, E3Africa, with its mission to “Educate, Enrich, Empower” and envisioned St. Thomas Aquinas College, a secondary school in northern Uganda, serving more than 800 students and helping them grow into leaders.
St. Andrew’s parishioners have joined Fr. Uliunzi in his commitment to educate the vulnerable, impoverished children of Uganda. The first phase of the building project–a multipurpose hall–was completed in May, 2017. The next phase will include classrooms and a chapel.
Referring to Ugandans, Marcotte says, “Education is like gold to them. It’s not just to make money, but education to empower themselves, to be an asset to their community and country.” Summing up, he says, “We have so much here in America, and so much opportunity. We often take it for granted.”
A 6 p.m. dinner to benefit E3 Africa and Grow Haiti’s Children is open to the public andwill take place Saturday, Oct. 21 at St. Andrew the Apostle, 3450 W. Ray Road, Chandler. Information: standrew-cfc.org