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Long Island charity celebrates Ugandan university students, graduates

Rose Namaggwa, one of the first students supported

Rose Namaggwa, one of the first students supported by the LI nonprofit BULA, is in her last year at Makerere University in Kampala where she is studying entrepreneurship. Credit: Melissa Fricke

Given up by poor families who thought they’d have a better chance at education, three Ugandans spent most of their childhood in an orphanage, facing “a dark future,” as one said.

And if not for an organization started by a Long Island woman 12 years ago, that might have been where their education ended. BULA, named for Better Understanding of Life in Africa, a nonprofit organization founded in 2007 by Blue Point native Melissa Fricke, 34, is credited with changing that dismal outlook for them — and many others.

Participating in several BULA programs, the three Ugandans received educational and other support far exceeding their expectations.

This year, Godfrey Mukalazi, 26, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Rose Namaggwa, 23, is in her last year at Makerere, pursuing a degree in entrepreneurship and small business management. And John Ssendegya, 23, who completed his bachelor’s degree in philosophical studies at St. Thomas of Aquinas Major Seminary in Kampala, has been admitted into the Ministries of Lector and Acolyte in the Archdiocese of Kampala and plans to complete his theology degree and enter the priesthood.

They are the first of BULA’s protégés to achieve higher education.

“They all benefited from continuous care provided by BULA since its founding,” said Fricke, BULA’s executive director, who now lives in Medford. Four more students are in universities, she said, and several others chose vocational training, instead of college, to prepare for their chosen fields.

Answering a need

Although Uganda has been relatively stable for the past few decades (following military dictatorship, guerrilla war and human rights abuses that claimed some 400,000 people), the U.S. government estimates that about 20 percent of the country’s population, about 41 million, live below the poverty line, with children making up the fastest-growing segment of the population. Of those, about 50,000 live in orphanages and other residential facilities, though the majority have one or both parents living.

The success of BULA’s students, said Fricke, reflects its mission “to empower children and youth in vulnerable situations by improving access to quality education — by strengthening families, and by facilitating a platform of support and dialogue among and for young people.”

“We view education as a key tool for empowerment,” she said.

Fricke’s own mission in Uganda was set in motion in 2006, when she was motivated to do volunteer work in Africa after graduating from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania with a double major in international relations and French.

“I had the intent of volunteering somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, and by chance I ended up in Uganda,” she said. She found a position teaching at a primary school and helping out at an orphanage in a village called Gganda, just outside Kampala.

Fricke taught English and reading at the school. “Uganda’s national language is English, but because of poverty most people didn’t speak English or it was very limited,” she said.

“I thought it was a beautiful country; very lush, fruit growing everywhere, beautiful birds. People had a friendly demeanor. I went for four months; I loved it and wanted to stay so I could do more to help the community.

“There were kids living in poverty, so they were facing a lot of challenges on a day-to-day basis. The idea was to come back home and set up an organization,” Fricke said.

With help from family and friends on Long Island, Fricke raised $75,000 hosting backyard cocktail parties, 5k runs, yard sales and other events.

Then, working alongside locals she hired in Uganda, Fricke’s organization built St. Kizito Primary School. Among other improvements, a 30,000-gallon underground water tank was installed to sustain the school through the dry season.

The old school had been “just a few pieces of scrap wood,” Fricke recalled. It had no doors or windows, running water, desks or books. A leaky tin roof made the floor muddy when it rained, yet it was the only school for many children at the orphanage where Fricke lived and worked. “A lot of families sent their children there because they couldn’t afford [the fees] for other schools,” she said.

Completed in 2008 — outfitted with solar panels to power lights and with books donated by Long Island school districts — the new Kizito initially had 80 students, a population that had risen to about 400 by 2012. The school, named after a 13-year-old Ugandan martyr who was killed by the country's king in 1886, is on church grounds and is run privately under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church. BULA helps support it as well as the orphanage.

The day the Ugandan school opened in 2008 was "the happiest day ever," Fricke told Newsday in 2010.

Mukalazi, Namaggwa and Ssendegya, who lived in the orphanage where Fricke worked, subsequently attended St. Kizito.

“Our purpose was providing the community with a school where they could better educate their children, and the school is doing just that,” Fricke said.

These days, Fricke keeps abreast of the school long-distance and through yearly visits, and BULA assists with its upkeep, about $2,000 in 2018.

BULA’s leadership team includes a seven-member board, a small staff in Uganda, and an assistant director, Angie Max, of Austin, Texas.

Max, 28, joined BULA in 2012 after meeting Fricke as a volunteer in Uganda. Max was 17, a high school graduate concerned about “atrocious crimes being done to children around the world.”

“I knew Melissa was raising funds for children to pursue their education, and I wanted to be part of that,” Max said.

BULA expands focus

BULA didn't build the additional schools it initially planned, Fricke explained, but instead shifted its focus to strengthening the families of children in orphanages and other residential facilities rather than supporting the institutions themselves.

Fricke said the findings of a survey by BULA and Alternative Care Initiatives, a Uganda-based NGO established to support the government and others in implementing care solutions, bolstered the need for such support.

“The Care Leaver Experience” revealed that of 50,000 children and youth living in residential care facilities in Uganda, seven of 10 experienced physical violence and/or emotional abuse, according to the June 2019 report.

When they leave care, the report said, many children and young adults are ill-prepared to integrate into communities although 80 percent have one or both parents living, according to the report. The “care leavers” often suffer from stigma, discrimination, instability, fear and loneliness; they have difficulty finding jobs, meeting basic needs for food and clothing; and are more likely to be involved in criminal justice issues.

“It’s enlightening, often heartbreaking, and important for us all to understand when working with children around the world,” Fricke said of the need to support those leaving orphanages.

To answer these needs, BULA created Uganda Care Leavers in 2016 to assist children and youth leaving orphanages and other institutional care. Through the program, BULA holds workshops to help care leavers with such skills as resume writing and preparing for a job interview; it’s also building a counselors network to support care leavers who have experienced trauma. In turn, BULA hopes donors who support institutional care will redirect their support to social programs and reunification with families.

BULA’s social worker in Uganda, Evelyn Nanteza, 30, said most of the care leavers “do not have any other alternative compared to what BULA does for them. BULA has laid a foundation for those children who had no hope of living a better life.

“It is important for a child to grow up in a family setting so they can embrace their culture, learn to associate with people in the community, rather than being locked up in an orphanage.

“John, Rose and Godfrey, I am happy they have reached this far,” Nanteza continued, “because I remember they actually did not have hope that they would make it to the university.”

Lives transformed

Mukalazi, an orphan who was raised by his aunt and who graduated from university this year, said that before he went to St. Kizito primary school, “my life was full of hopelessness.”

Now he is an operations and marketing assistant at a lubricant business. He plans to pursue a postgraduate degree in procurement and international trade — and start a family by 2024.

“I decided that when I get a child she/he will be called Melissa or Fricke in memory of what Melissa did in our lives,” he said via email.

Ssendegya, 23, said his life before going to St. Kizito “seemed to be a life with a dark future. Honestly speaking, it was hopeless.”

One of five children, Ssendegya told Newsday in an email, “Getting school fees was a real struggle.

“My going to St. Kizito came as a remedy to the education challenges I faced. By pursuing this vocation of priesthood I am giving back to the world a wholehearted service so that all people may have a good life.”

“Unrealistic punishments,” fetching water late at night, hunger and other hardships made life difficult for Namaggwa growing up in what she described as a “kinship house,” or orphanage.

She said she complained to her parents, “saying I was tired of the suffering, but my dad sat me down and advised me to be strong and to endure the pain and suffering so as to have a better future that he could not provide.

“I listened to him and endured all that so as to achieve a better tomorrow, and here I am today,” said Namaggwa, 23.

After graduation, she said in an email, she plans to “start my own business to look after myself and my family and help other kids that are experiencing the same conditions that I passed through … I will never let Melissa down.”

Helping vulnerable Uganda students with their education and their general welfare has become a lifelong commitment, said Fricke, who also works for her family’s tombstone business in Center Moriches and is now married and expecting her first child.

“When I first went to Uganda I was motivated by a deep discomfort with global inequities and the extreme poverty that existed around the world,” she said. “I wanted to learn more about the experience of people living in countries where these conditions were widespread so that I could be better equipped to do humanitarian work throughout my life. BULA was birthed from that experience.

“Nearly 13 years later,” Fricke said, “these motivations are still at the core of why we do what we do at BULA, but it is perhaps made stronger by the reinforcement we have from seeing the effects of our work on the children and young people we serve.”

How to help on LI

BULA relies on fundraising to finance its programs to improve the lives of vulnerable young Ugandans.

An annual backyard cocktail party on Long Island is among its efforts organized by Melissa Fricke, founder and executive director of Better Understanding of Life in Africa.

The first cocktail party, held in her family’s backyard in Blue Point in early fall 2007, when the organization was founded, brought in $15,000. This year’s event is Sept. 7 at the same location.

For the past 13 years, trays of food have been donated by Cavanaugh’s, Blackbird, The Harbor Crab and about 15 other restaurants. Dinner, beer and wine are the usual fare.

About 100 people attend each year, joining BULA’s supporters, board of directors, and Fricke’s family and friends. “New people come every year,” Fricke said.

“It’s a presentation to give everyone an update on what we are doing,” Fricke said. “This backyard fundraiser is always a highlight of our year as we reflect on all of our accomplishments. It’s a time to bring together our supporters.”

Raffle prizes include gift certificates, themed baskets, and tickets to a play or sporting event. “Nearly everything is donated by local businesses and friends,” Fricke said.

Attendance at the event is by invitation; for information, call 631-419-3090 or email info@bulainc.org.

For the past several years, part of the proceeds of Long Island's annual Brewery Run have benefited BULA. The 10-mile run — in January at the Blue Point Brewery — is organized by the Greater Long Island Running and Sayville Running Co. BULA also accepts direct donations; visit bula-uganda.org for more information.

— Merle English

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