Bob Silon, a Rockville Centre dentist, had always wanted to take an African safari to see what enthusiasts call the Big Five: Lions, elephants, buffalo, leopards, rhinoceroses.
“Travel all that way to see animals?,” said his wife, Diana. “Not my thing.”
Then Silon saw a blurb in a medical journal seeking health-care workers for a mission to Kenya, and he thought: “Wow, this is a home run.” Silon says he knew his wife would make the trip to do something altruistic. He was right, but had no idea where that journey would ultimately lead.
The 2008 mission went to villages with no electricity, where they had to shine a flashlight into the patient’s mouth to pull teeth. “We were in areas where people would sit on a tree stump and that would serve as a chair,” Silon says.
They were already in Africa, so the Silons tacked on a safari in Tanzania before heading home. They saw the Big Five.
Missions accomplished? Actually, it was only beginning. That trip began the Silons’ connection to Africa, now in its ninth year. The couple, both 64, have been instrumental in launching and supporting a primary school in Uganda that now serves 500 children.
ONE LITTLE HAND
The leader of the Silons’ Kenya International Medical Relief Mission, Jean Kaye Wilson, is the link that drew the couple from Kenya to Uganda. Wilson is also the CEO and founder of a Colorado-based Christian charity called H.E.L.P. International (H.E.L.P. stands for His Everlasting Love Prevails). One place H.E.L.P. serves is the Ugandan village of Masese (pronounced Mah-SEH-say), and it needed a free school for children of refugees who had fled conflicts in northern Uganda, the Congo and Sudan and couldn’t afford education fees at government or private schools.
Wilson called Diana Silon for help. “She had so much love for the children in Kenya,” Wilson says.
And Diana, who had first refused to go to Africa, was eager to return.
It wasn’t hard to persuade Bob Silon to head back to Africa as well. While the Silons were on their medical mission to Kenya, they met one 5-year-old girl whose teeth were so infected she had trouble eating. She was terrified of Silon, who pulled her rotting teeth. “It took eight adults to hold the girl down,” he says. But when Silon was leaving the village, he was taken by surprise. “All of a sudden, she was holding my hand. She smiled at me. She said, ‘I ate today.’ When you can impact someone’s life like that, that’s the reason you do something like this.”
“Something like this” soon became something much more.
SCHOOL IN A SHED
The Silons returned to Africa in 2009 and met the Ugandans starting a school with 40 children in a shed. The children live in mud-brick homes with thatched roofs and no plumbing or electricity.
When the Silons were back home, they decided they needed more help for their Uganda project. Their Rockville Centre friends Peter and Delia Garrity seemed the perfect match. Peter was a business professor at Molloy College and at Teachers College of Columbia University; Delia was a retired assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the Rockville Centre School District.
The Silons invited the Garritys over for wine.
The Garritys were hesitant about traveling to Africa. But their daughter Trish was minoring in African studies at Boston University. “She said she was going with the Silons even if we didn’t go,” Delia recalls. So the Garritys committed to go to Uganda for two weeks in 2010 to lend some direction.
“I think we were there 24, 48 hours at the most and we said, ‘How do we walk away from this?’” Delia says. “This might sound so ridiculous, but we both almost felt like this is a calling.”
Both couples signed on as board members of the nonprofit H.E.L.P. International Uganda, created as a branch of H.E.L.P. International, working with two families in Colorado and one in Wyoming. The commitment of both couples includes traveling to Uganda twice a year at their own expense. “There’s no question it’s become a full-time job for me,” Delia says.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Any weekend may now find Delia, who is 66, at a Long Island craft fair, selling colorful paper bead necklaces made by mothers of the Ugandan students to raise money for H.E.L.P. Primary School Masese’s operating budget. In January, Peter, 74, returned from his 11th trip to Uganda, where he instructs teachers in how to teach math and is launching a microloan program to help villagers start small businesses, such as a hair salon.
Bump into Diana Silon, and she may pitch sponsoring a student: For $360 a year, one child gets two meals a day at school and food for the weekends.
The couples’ work has inspired others on Long Island to join the cause — one of Peter Garrity’s business students at Molloy, Chris Martin, 20, of Bellmore, has been to Uganda twice to help establish the microloan program. Sisters Hannah and Caroline Ditchik of Rockville Centre, 19 and 15 respectively, traveled with their parents to Masese and when they returned, Hannah started the H.E.L.P. Club at South Side High School. When Hannah graduated, Caroline took it over.
“Once I got there, obviously I fell in love with all the kids,” Caroline says. “Back home, I try to do as much as I can.” South Side students deem H.E.L.P. Primary School Masese their sister school. The school baseball team in Uganda wears jerseys once worn by South Side’s athletes and Rockville Centre Little League players. The Molloy College Alumni Association has donated the money for the first few small-business loans.
BIGGER THAN BEADS
Each year since 2009, the Masese school has added at least one more grade, and now is fully operating with kindergarten through seventh grade, which is where the Ugandan primary school system ends. There is also a preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds.
The school now consists of four hodgepodge buildings with 16 classrooms, including a room with more than a dozen computers, most donated by the Rockville Centre School District, and two temporary structures. There are 15 teachers, two social workers and three cooks who prepare breakfast and lunch, often a grain called posho with beans. All the teachers and administrators are Ugandan; classes are in English, the national language of Uganda, a former British colony.
The school has started adult vocational training in automotive repair, sewing and woodworking. Bob Silon just secured a grant from Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization to create an aquaponic greenhouse to raise fish and grow crops for the village and beyond.
“It’s just evolved into a whole community project,” Delia Garrity says. The project costs about $120,000 a year; of that, the school’s operating budget is $60,000. About $40,000 of that budget is funded by the Ugandan mothers’ paper bead jewelry.
In the beginning, the two couples would bring back gifts of jewelry the Ugandan women made by hand. People would say, “You should sell these.” So the couples would buy the necklaces from the village women and sell them here at craft fairs and online. They use that profit to pay project expenses. The bead cooperative has grown to 90 women, who now have a market for their elaborate necklaces, purses and lanyards, which helps support their families as well as the school. “This is what we call a win-win,” Delia says.
Capital improvements, however, call for grants and other sponsorship or donations. For instance, the couples helped raise $30,000 to build a security wall around the campus. The dream is a permanent building with 20 classrooms, library and clinic. Ideally, the school will have a sewer system instead of pit latrines. That goal will cost about $400,000, Delia says.
For more information on the project, sponsoring a student or purchasing bead creations, visit help-uganda.com.
In 2015, the first year the school had a graduating class, 23 of the 32 students passed the exams allowing them to continue to high school. Last year, 31 of 32 passed. Now the project is also sponsoring kids’ secondary school fees. Maureen Nyawere, a 14-year-old graduate whose education is being funded by the Masese project, wrote Newsday in an email from Uganda: “Before I joined the H.E.L.P. school, I was a helpless human being, illiterate and who could not access education. But thanks to my American sponsors I can now see light at the end of the tunnel.”
Ugandan Ronny Sitanga, who is the project’s country director in Masese, also expressed gratitude for the work of the Silons and Garritys and the “significant changes” that are visible. “I look at our children who would either be on streets or criminals and thank God for this partnership with our American partners who are determined to make Masese and the surrounding communities better places,” his email states. “Thanks to this support we are now raising future leaders, doctors, engineers, pilots, business people among others who are going to change our nation for the better.”
The Silons and Garritys will be going back to Uganda this summer. They say they have been gratified to see students’ bellies that had been distended from malnutrition now looking normal.
The couples’ dedication has astonished some of their family members, and even the couples themselves. “My kids said, ‘You wouldn’t even stay in a Holiday Inn, and you’re walking through these slums,’” Delia says.
“To see how much these kids have grown through our guidance, it’s had a tremendous effect on Delia and me, that’s for darn sure,” Peter Garrity says. “We opened a door of opportunity for them.”