Vail Valley Scenery column: Vail helps fund programs for orphans in Uganda | VailDaily.com

Vail Valley Scenery column: Vail helps fund programs for orphans in Uganda

Vail has a deep connection with helping people in need. Vailites are just plain generous and willing to step up, not just with money but with their time, their skills or good old elbow grease when it's necessary. Our generosity ranges from large organizations with big budgets, such as Bravo! Vail, the Vail Valley Foundation and Roundup River Ranch, to helping individuals in trouble through organizations such as the Vail Valley Charitable Fund, Salvation Army, Bright Future Foundation and Swift Eagle Foundation.

Vailites, though, don't just keep it local. Just look at the local kids from around our area who travel to places such as Rwanda, Cambodia and Tibet to build wells for fresh water, teach children and, in this case, pitch in to eliminate poverty and HIV/AIDS.

The Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project works on behalf of HIV/AIDS orphans in rural Uganda to end poverty and hunger. In 1996, Twesigye "Jackson" Kaguri was living the American dream. He had an excellent education and was ready to explore opportunities, travel and have fun. Then Jackson came face to face with Uganda's HIV/AIDS pandemic. His brother died of HIV/AIDS, leaving Jackson to care for his three children.

One year later, his sister, too, died of HIV/AIDS, leaving behind a son. As a native Ugandan, he saw the plight of orphans in his village of Nyakagyezi. He took the $5,000 he had saved for a down payment on his own home and built the first Nyaka School.

More than 1.1 million children in Uganda have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. To put that in perspective, we have around 52,000 residents in Eagle County. That means that we would have 22 Vail Valleys full of orphans, or the entire population of Dallas.

These orphans and other vulnerable children go without basic human needs that many of us take for granted, including food, shelter, clothing, health care and education. They are usually forced to fend for themselves, making them responsible for income generation, food production and care for sick parents and siblings. Education is a luxury.

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Fifteen years ago, land was purchased for the first primary school for children who were orphaned by AIDS. This school was built brick by handmade brick by the villagers and Jackson and started with grades four and five.

"Now there are two primary schools serving nursery-age through grade seven," said volunteer Sue Lathrop. "The second primary school was built after a small boy walked 50 miles to ask Mr. Kaguri if they could have a school in his village, too."

Last year the secondary/vocational school opened, and 724 students are being served in the three schools, where necessary trades in small villages are taught, with skills including tailoring, carpentry, metal work/mechanical repair and agriculture.

"It's important for me to come where our volunteers live to honor them for the work they have done and to also appreciate their connection and to spread compassion committed to do good, regardless how far the boundaries are in between," said Kaguri, who has won several awards for his work, including CNN's Hero of the Year award in 2012. "I need to raise awareness and to appreciate the people who do this work. We can't let the children of today take their lives for granted."

"We also have a grandmother's program that provides micro-loans and teaches the grandmothers a craft or small business," Lathrop said. "They sell vegetables, tailor garments or make baskets to be self-sufficient. Because so much of the middle generation has been wiped out, the grandmothers are raising their grandchildren."

This program has 7,000 grandmothers who support more than 34,000 orphans. Wow. Lathrop was honored with the Frank Tumushabe Volunteer of the Year award, which bears the name of Jackson's brother, who died of HIV/AIDS. Lathrop has been involved with Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project since 2010 and has traveled to Uganda twice, each time spending a month volunteering in the classrooms and teaching the students.

An event held recently at the home of Ronny and Janis Simon, who serves as chairwoman of the Board of Directors for Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project, had guests attend from as far as Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Chicago, Aspen, New York, Michigan, Boulder and Denver, with about 90 people in attendance. The evening in Vail, along with a speaking engagement at a Boulder Kiwanis Club and at Hewlett Packard in Fort Collins and a meeting with donors in Aspen, raised $46,000 for the organization.

Abbie Weeks and Lauren McMillen, high school seniors from Cherry Creek High School, shared their experiences in Uganda in June with their advanced-placement environmental science teacher, Jeff Boyce, who was honored as a Champion for Environmental Sustainability for his work coordinating a solar panel project. The students installed solar panels on buildings at the secondary vocational school.

Carol and Rob Auld, from Aspen, were honored with the Distinguished Service Award. The Aulds have not only provided financial support; for many years, Carol spent 10 weeks at the Nyaka school each year, teaching in the classrooms.

You can read more about Jackson's journey in his book, "A School for My Village," and learn how you can participate in the organization by visiting http://www.nyakaschool.org or by contacting Lathrop at sukilathrop@gmail.com. Click here to see a CNN video about Kaguri.

Carolyn Pope has covered community service events and nonprofit activities since 2001 and co-authored "The Women of Vail." She can be reached at 970-390-9913.