When Blue Point resident Melissa Fricke was graduating from college, she called home one day to tell her parents what she planned to do next.
They were expecting graduate school. Instead, she told them, she was going to Uganda to work as a volunteer in an orphanage.
She was met with dead silence.
"That's a scary proposition," her father, Tom Fricke, recalled thinking, worried about her safety faraway in an African nation then being plagued by a dwindling civil war.
Nearly four years later, Fricke's journey to Africa has turned into an inspiration for her family, her hometown and hundreds of children and their families in Uganda. Like Oprah Winfrey in South Africa, Fricke has built a school for children in Uganda - only unlike the TV megastar, she's done it on a shoestring budget raised in a grassroots effort in the Bayport-Blue Point area and beyond.
She and the nonprofit she has created - BULA, for Better Understanding of Life in Africa - have raised the money through backyard cocktail parties, 5K benefit runs, cookbook sales, yard sales and dodgeball tournaments organized by the Bayport-Blue Point High School Honor Society.
Getting help from home
The day the Ugandan school opened in 2008 was "the happiest day ever," said Fricke, 25, who spends several months a year in Uganda and the rest in Blue Point. "It was hard to believe it was done."
But her work is hardly finished. She's embarking on plans for a second school and is being approached by other communities in Uganda that want a school, too. The fundraising goes on, with the next such event scheduled for Wednesday night at Mickey Felice's restaurant in Patchogue. Fricke, who is currently in Uganda, also baby-sits, coaches field hockey and works at her father's tombstone business when she is home to raise money for the project and to support herself.
Fricke's mother, Karen, describes her as a quiet girl who rarely raised her hand in classes in high school. Now she speaks to crowds of hundreds about her project, including at two meetings of Long Island public school teachers at Gurney's Inn in Montauk last year.
"What she has achieved over there is way beyond anything I imagined," said her father, who along with other family members spent two weeks in Uganda helping to build the school alongside the locals Melissa and her group hired.
She never planned it this way. As an international relations major at Lehigh University, Fricke was taking courses in development and poverty issues. After graduation, she figured she could either go for a master's degree or go out into the field to see the world firsthand.
She signed up with an international volunteer organization that connected her with an orphanage in the village of Gganda, just outside Uganda's capital of Kampala. It is a country not without its troubles. The regime of military dictator Idi Amin, who ruled from 1971 to 1979, killed 300,000 people by some estimates. The country has since stabilized, though poverty is rampant and a brutal rebel force called The Lord's Resistance Army was until recently waging civil war and abducting children the rebels turned into soldiers.
Trouble still breaks out occasionally. Ethnic riots erupted in the capital last September, and a new American volunteer at the school and orphanage, Mackenzie Brown, a recent Washington & Lee University graduate, says she nearly got caught in the one-day crossfire. She returned to the United States in December after several months in Uganda, interrupting her yearlong commitment, and is remaining here for now.
Fricke says the outbreak of violence was a relative rarity and she generally feels safe when she travels in Uganda.
Making a better school
Still, her arrival in the country in November 2006 also was bracing, but for a different reason. One day shortly after she moved into the orphanage, she walked past what seemed to be an abandoned building made of scrap pieces of wood and a leaky iron sheet roof. There was no electricity, no windows, no door, no running water. The dirt floor turned to mud when it rained.
It turned out to be the local school.
There were no desks or books. Children carried benches back and forth on their heads from a nearby church each day so they could sit. When it rained they had to huddle inside the school in certain spots to try to avoid the water falling through the roof. Many of the children from the orphanage where she lived and worked studied there.
"It was hard for me to grasp a school was like this," Fricke said. "Seeing the school that way for some reason really got to me."
She decided to do something about it. She called home and asked her parents if they thought it would be possible to raise enough money to build a new school. Her father said he didn't know, but "let's try."
Melissa had plans drawn up for the school, got local officials to approve them and then flew home to Long Island to raise the money.
Nine months later she returned to Uganda with $45,000. Eventually the cost of the school rose to $70,000, partly because of additions. They added a 30,000-gallon underground water tank to help the school get through the dry season, and solar panels were installed to power lights and donated laptop computers.
Tom Harrison, an architect from England whom Fricke had met in Uganda, offered his services. A new volunteer at the orphanage, Andrea Procopio of Pennsylvania, teamed up with Fricke and became BULA's vice president. At one point, as Fricke and Procopio rode along bumpy dirt roads in a truck with supplies, normally quiet local women dropped what they were doing and cheered.
Workers finished the building in about seven months. By June 2008, Fricke stood in front of the school and a crowd of children, teachers and community members and cut a blue string. "It was hard to believe it was done," she recalled.
Today, the St. Kizito Primary School instructs 220 students, compared to the 70 or so in the old school. School districts on Long Island including Bayport-Blue Point, Sachem and East Islip have donated books, which were shipped over by British Airways after employees donated cargo space.
The school is named after a 13-year-old Ugandan martyr killed by the country's king in 1886. It is located on church grounds and is privately run under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church; BULA helps support it, along with the orphanage. Last year the United Nations recognized the school's use of environmentally sustainable bricks as a model others might use.
Fricke, a parishioner at Our Lady of the Snow Roman Catholic Church in Blue Point, and BULA have their sights set on building another school in a nearby village and are weighing requests from other areas as well. She returns from her latest trip to Uganda next month and will forge ahead with more fundraisers, newsletters and talks to schools.
It is her way of trying to make a difference, she said. "I do think it is a way of changing the world."