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Letters from Uganda: Visiting the children and their schools

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 11:04 p.m. MDT

Editor's note: Fourth in an eight-part series

From Steven Ssenyonjo's van, my husband, Larry, and I could see little figures running along the side of the path leading to Brain Trust School in Uganda.

"They are coming! They are coming," the children shouted, announcing our arrival.

As we turned into the schoolyard, we heard singing and saw children dancing and clapping.

After we parked the van under a large tree, Larry, Steven and I stood in front of the 300 children who attend the first through sixth grades at Brain Trust School. As I looked out at them, I thought, "They are so happy to see us even though they don't have a clue who we are."

As if prompted, Steven, who was standing behind me, leaned forward and said, "Sister Barbara, these children know who you are. Ddumba and several of the other children you sponsor through the Child2Youth Foundation attend this school. Whenever you write to them, they make sure everyone hears your words and sees your picture."

Feeling humbled, I looked out at the children and noticed the large red brick structure behind them. At first, I could not tell if it was falling down or still in the process of being built. There was no glass in the window frames, there were no doors in the doorways and the walls were jagged.

As I was silently questioning the building's structural integrity, Steven guided us forward and said we would be meeting with the children in the school's main hall. As we walked toward the hall, I focused my attention on searching for Ddumba, Ddiba, Doreen, Kennedy and Nanyonga - five of the eight children Larry and I sponsor. Once I found them, they followed me everywhere like little ducklings.

After our sponsored children and all the others had filed into the building, they began our meeting by first praying and then singing their national anthem and school song.

Next, a teacher introduced Steven, director of the Child2Youth Foundation. The children know Steven well. He is a high councilor in the very first, newly formed LDS stake in Uganda. He is known as a "man of God" who asked his LDS Church for the tank system that brings clean water to the schools and new bathrooms.

For many of these children, Steven is their father figure. His eyes are bright, his voice is soothing and he speaks to them with a tender spirit. All of the children at Brain Trust School listened intently as Steven shared a spiritual message and told them of Heavenly Father's love.

I was amazed by the feelings of reverence and joy I felt in that dark, crowded room as Steven spoke. The sun streamed through the broken roof, and the room — adorned with only a worn blackboard and a few wooden benches — seemed to be transformed into a cathedral. As I sat there, I felt God testify to me, "These are my precious children. You know them now. Serve them well."

After Steven finished his remarks and Larry and I had spoken, the children were eager to ask us questions. This was a common occurrence at all the Ugandan schools we visited, and most of the children asked about predictable topics, but a few stood out.

For example, one child asked about my hair. "Is it a wig? It is so smooth."

Others asked if we could sponsor them, so they could have books, uniforms and shoes.

I was prepared to answer most of their questions, but there was one I never anticipated: "Do you have a problem with children being beheaded and raped where you live?" one girl asked.

I turned to Steven. "Pardon me. Did I hear her correctly?"

"I will explain later," Steven whispered.

I answered, "No, we do not have a problem with children being beheaded in the United States, but we do have a problem with children being taken from their homes or raped sometimes. But when that happens, everyone does whatever they can to protect the child, and when the people who do these bad things are caught, they are punished severely."

This brought surprised whispers from the children, as the offenders in Uganda are seldom punished for such vile acts against children.

As I recovered from this question and we finished our discussion, the children's parents were invited into the main hall. Larry and I encouraged them to keep their children in school, and they asked that we offer our family members and friends who have contributed to the Child2Youth Foundation their sincere gratitude for giving their children a chance to have a better life.

After our meeting was finished, we got back into the van. As we were driving to our hotel, Steven brought up the little girl's question about children being beheaded and raped. He explained that once a month for the past two years the local people had found a child whose head had been cut off. The authorities finally determined that it was being done by a witch doctor as part of a ritual.

Steven explained that this particular situation had been resolved, but as we visited other schools, we learned that Ugandan children continue to face many types of suffering and challenges — including the challenge of gaining an education.

Some of the students we visited had old brick structures to meet in, others sat in rooms made of sticks and mud, and some had to simply sit under the shade of large trees. Regardless of their locations, most of the schools had no materials to use for teaching aside from a few books and blackboards. Even in these humble circumstances, the children feel lucky to receive an education because most Ugandan families can afford to send only one child to school.

However, even the children who are fortunate enough to attend school when they are young are not able to continue their education because there is no schooling offered beyond the sixth grade.

Steven recognized this problem and decided to build Liahona High School. Using several thousand dollars of retirement money, Steven built this private school where the community members can pay to send their children. For each child who pays, his or her tuition also pays for the tuition of an orphaned child. The orphaned children are also provided a place to live at the school.

Using gospel principles, Steven has created a set of strict rules for the students at Liahona High School. He has also created programs to help share the gospel with them.

In addition to this school, Steven created the Child2Youth Foundation, which allows him to help additional orphaned children. I once asked Steven how much money he takes for running the foundation.

"I earn enough for my family to live on from the owning of the high school, " Steven said. "I volunteer my efforts for Child2Youth, as the money is for the children. Heavenly Father would not look kindly on me if we used the children's funds for ourselves. That is why we use many volunteers."

Larry and I are amazed by what Steven has accomplished in just a few years with limited outside help. Sometimes it is overwhelming to think of the thousands of children who are suffering, and it's hard to believe I can make a difference, but then I remember Kathy Headlee Miner of the Mothers Without Borders foundation, with which we partner. Kathy has rescued more than 20,000 children as well as their families.

Kathy and Steven are my heroes. They have taught me that for each child we save, we are making a world of difference. And, hopefully, that one child will go on to help many others.

Barbara Luke and her husband, Larry, are the U.S. managers of the Child2Youth Foundation, which partners with Mothers Without Borders to care for suffering children and families. Learn more about the Child2Youth Foundation by visiting http://www.child2youth.org/ or by following the foundation on Facebook and Twitter.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company