Here is the first of many stories:
It all started on a Sunday in July 2000. I was at Mass in the church I had attended all my life, Holy Family Catholic Church, when there was an announcement made that a visiting priest from Uganda would be living in our parish for the summer. He would be offering African drum lessons to anyone who wanted to learn. Since I drummed on everything—including the dinner table, my desk, and the church pew—my mother gave me a knowing look. After Mass, I introduced myself to Father Joseph Birungi and became his first student.
Fr. Joseph spoke with an accent native to Uganda and didn’t always understand my words. But we both understood a smile. We met several times over the summer and he taught me how to drum. But, Fr. Joseph taught me more than drumming. We talked about his home and his people and their great need for basic medical care. He told me of the many deaths of his people due to simple, preventable diseases. He told me of his dream to construct a health center in a remote area of his country. From those lessons, I was inspired to help the people of Fr. Joseph’s community—somehow. I asked him what I could do to help.
Of course, Fr. Joseph was pleased by my excitement and thoughtfulness, but he also knew I was only a 13 year-old boy. As he told me later, he didn’t expect that I would be able to accomplish much. Nonetheless, he decided to dream big. Fr. Joseph said the new health center would need an ambulance and asked if I could try to get one for him. At first, I thought it would be impossible, but eventually I convinced myself I could do it. The Toyota dealership in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala gave him an ordering price of $50,000! I knew that in order to raise that much money I would need a really great idea. I decided to make life-size foamboard cut-outs of Fr. Joe and ask people in my community to “host” him for a day at their home, business, classroom, meeting, or special event. He would come with a “suitcase” containing information about Uganda and the need for the ambulance, a video message from Fr. Joe, a camera to record a picture of the hosts with Fr. Joe for my scrapbook, and a yard sign to show their participation in my project – and, hopefully, inspire others to participate too. I asked each host for a donation to the ambulance fund and a small medical supply.
Many people helped me prepare the supplies and promote the project, although I initially had to overcome my fear of public speaking. I knew that the no one would know about the need of the Ugandan people if I couldn’t tell them. I spoke to service clubs, school groups, and church congregations—anyone who would listen. Thousands of people responded. I collected 20 boxes of medical supplies and raised over $67,000 in less than 4 months.
I actually traveled to Uganda and went with Fr. Joe to sign the order for the ambulance. During my one month stay I met and lived with the people who would benefit from my project. My trip to Uganda left an indelible mark on me and it is an experience I will never forget. All the people I met were so friendly and, even in their poverty, they wanted to share what little they had. I have seen that all people of the world share the same needs and wants. We are really all more alike than we are different. Everyone needs food, shelter, clean water, and necessary health care. We all want to know happiness, health and love. Parents everywhere want the best for their children and children want to learn and grow. But not everyone gets the same chance for success.
My project helped to provide quality healthcare and emergency transportation to those who would otherwise have no place to go and no way to get there. It brought the world a little closer together as my community realized—and met—the needs of a community across the ocean. Fr. Joseph’s dream became reality when the health center opened its doors in April 2003. His health center treats anyone who comes, regardless of who they are or whether or not they can pay. Hundreds of people have been treated and the ambulance has provided emergency transportation to other facilities when necessary. The ambulance also transports nurses to villages far from the health center to teach disease prevention and provide immunizations. Since the ambulance goal was achieved, I have continued to help by raising awareness and funds—largely at my high school—to help ship a 40-foot container of medical equipment from Michigan to Uganda.
I have been privileged to lead a project that has directly impacted many people living in Uganda. Additionally, the project itself greatly increased awareness in my community about the lack of healthcare and other basic needs. Although my original goal was accomplished, I realized that once I made a connection with the people of Uganda, I couldn’t just walk away. I couldn’t assume that my part was over and that someone else would pick up where I left off. I had seen their faces, held their hands, visited their homes, and eaten with them. I know that I saw the faces of people who are no longer there—and so I continue to tell their story and ask for help.
I have realized that working to help those who are in need in the global community is the best way to show that I care. When I traveled to Africa, I came to understand the many differences in culture that separated the Ugandan community and my community. And even though we were physically distanced, I saw how my project brought us together. I know that I need to continue to work to change the world for the better.
Through my project, I also learned a few important lessons about life. One, it is our deeds, not our words, that change and shape our communities and our world. Second, we must all believe that one person can make a difference. Everyone has the potential to make a difference, but who among us will choose to act on that potential – and what kind of difference will we choose to make? Third, we must first believe in ourselves before anyone will believe in us. And lastly, although one person can make a difference, one person cannot make a difference alone – we need one another to succeed. It takes a group of dedicated people to create change. From my own efforts to promote global understanding, I know that YOU, as one person, can make a difference in the world!