The words coming from the Rev. Patrick Walusimbi did more than catch the attention of Dr. Thomas Dickelman.
They spurred the pastor of The Community Church of Lake Forest & Lake Bluff into action.
“For me, it wasn't a feeling of ‘It would be nice to help.’ It was far more a sense that I really had to do something,” Dickelman said. “But I knew I had to go to Uganda to check it out firsthand before I could speak to people in our church and the Rotary Club about providing support.”
‘God, give me the guts and the words’
What Dickelman saw and heard that day in September 2005 at a regular Wednesday meeting of the Rotary Club of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff was Walusimbi stand and tell the story of his school and orphanage in Uganda.
“He spoke of the impact AIDS, Uganda's devastated economy, and the civil wars had on the children in his community, and what he and his wife, Eva, were doing to care for the children,” Dickelman recalled.
He was impressed because Walusimbi did not overdramatize it, or make an impassioned plea for financial support.
Walusimbi remembers his feelings that morning: “It’s hard to explain how an African man feels, sitting in a room full of Americans after a good, generous breakfast. I had goose bumps and said to myself, ‘God, give me the guts and the words.’ I didn’t expect anything. I just wanted to say something real to represent our children.”
He knew that back home, he had many debts, which included unpaid teachers’ salaries and brought loan collectors to his doorstep every day.
Lake Forest/Lake Bluff connection
That was six years ago. Within a year, KidsUganda was created and Saturday night (Sept. 10) will mark its fifth anniversary with its third “A Bright Night” benefit from 6 to 11 p.m. at 780 Ridge Road, Lake Forest. Tickets are $100 per person in advance, $125 each at the door. For information, call 1-847-234-8191.
Walusimbi came to that Rotary meeting as the guest of Lake Forest resident Dr. Larry Shoemaker, who was then chief medical officer for . Shoemaker had just returned from a mission trip to the rural Ugandan community of Mityana, bringing back Walusimbi, founder of the Maranatha Schools & Orphanage.
“I was motivated to take the trip to Uganda by my daughter, Cindy, who had died about a year earlier,” recalled Shoemaker. “I knew that she would be proud of me for doing it.”
While in Uganda, Shoemaker had met Walusimbi and Eva, who had started a small rural mission church in Mityana 14 years earlier. They quickly realized that the Ugandan children were in desperate need of much more than Sunday school — immediate needs such as shelter, food, medical care, education, and love.
“The thing that caught me was the children,” Shoemaker said.
By the time Shoemaker visited, the Walusimbis were educating and feeding more than 700 children in the four schools they had built, in addition to housing about 65 orphaned children who were living in two classrooms that had been converted into makeshift dormitories — all with precious few resources.
Giving children hope
A few months after Dickelman heard Walusimbi talk, he was on a plane flying 16 hours to Uganda.
"After visiting, I felt confident the people in our church and community could help Patrick and Eva care for the needy children in their community,” Dickelman said. “Children who in some cases had nothing — let alone hope for the future.”
Patrick recalled, "A whole lot started happening after that. They started sending monthly remunerations, and I could pay the staff every month. And we could feed the children.”
That year, the Rotary Club donated $50,000 to build a vocational high school to teach practical trades like carpentry, cooking and tailoring. The Community Church of Lake Forest/Lake Bluff hosted Walusimbi and his wife for a summer visit and pledged their support of the schools. KidsUganda, a 501c3 organization, was formed to oversee the effort.
The board and the community raised $11,695 that first year, and by fiscal 2010, the total had grown to $862,795 to support Maranatha.
The KidsUganda lifeline
Today, the Walusimbi’s educate, feed, and care for more than 1,200 students from pre-school through ninth grade, including nearly 200 children who live full-time at the school. The largest school is in the town of Mityana, and three smaller schools are in remote, rural villages.
“When you look at where we were before that (Rotary) meeting and where we are at today, it is unbelievable,” says Patrick. “KidsUganda has been a lifeline to Maranatha just as the school has been a lifeline to these children.”
Shoemaker returns to Africa every year or so. When in Uganda, he visits a girl named Jackie, who he met during his first trip to Mityana.
“I like to see how she has grown, and I think of her and the others as my children.” he said. “I have a picture of Jackie on my desk. And if I ever get discouraged, I look at her beautiful eyes, and think about how well she is doing, and I know that everything is going to be OK.”