When Father James Okello of Uganda visited Wilmington’s St. Catherine of Siena Parish at the invitation of the church’s pastor Father John Hynes in 2012, a civil war of more than 20 years in that east African nation had left the country decimated by poverty, disease and violence.
Father Hynes had met Father Okello on an earlier visit to Uganda, where he saw firsthand the misery visited on the land-locked country by decades of brutality, corruption and deprivation.
Until Father Okello’s visit to the Centerville Road church, Africa itself had been an “intangible” concept to parishioner Mary Gispert. But his presentation, and the stories he shared about the impoverished children and families in his Archdiocese of Gulu, inspired and motivated Gispert to help.
Writing a check was not what she had in mind.
“I realized that just living in the US alone, we are gifted with so much,” said Gispert. “I feel like it’s our obligation to help people living anywhere – but for this project, where the people in Uganda have absolutely nothing, that was a real wakeup call to me”
Six years after first hearing about the malnutrition, atrocities and disease facing the families in the northern Ugandan village, Gispert has mobilized a community behind the Gulu Project, the nonprofit she founded to support the people of Gulu. The organization has raised funds that have built a village school, a bus to transport the children and a kitchen to ensure they get nutritious home-cooked meals. Gispert’s enterprise has engaged local businesses in donating goods and services and partnered with Salesianum School.
Amid the poverty, Gispert honed in on education – and the basic need for a simple schoolhouse – as a key focus for her fundraising efforts.
“Children there typically eat only meal a day – dinner,” said Gispert. “They don’t have shoes. There are no rooms, no beds. Several children will share one mat and sleep on the floor. Mothers have to work the fields, planting their gardens, every day starting at 5 am. And fathers go to work. So the children have to be in school.”
At the time of Father Okello’s visit to Wilmington, he shared his dream about a school in the village of Olwiyo. The people there had endured a brutal conflict where the warlord Joseph Kony terrorized the area, stealing little boys to put them into his Army. Kony took little girls as sex slaves for his soldiers. He also had children kill their own families.
“They killed so many people and made many live in camps right on top of each other for 20 years with no access to medication, education, or ability to grown their own food,” said Gispert. “So they were simply not eating. And this is an agriculturally-based community. These people never learned how to care for themselves.”
At the war’s end, the community had to start anew. Father Okello knew that education would be key to rebuilding all that had been destroyed.
So Gispert signed up to help.
“I just felt compelled to help in whatever way I could because it wasn’t a big project. And I thought, well everybody does 5k’s to raise money, so maybe I can do that. So we did that in 2013.”
Initially, Project Gulu helped raise $20,000 to build a two-room schoolhouse. It became a four-room facility.
“The people there make their own bricks, the builders are from the community, and the whole community benefits because you have teachers and various people employed because of the school,” said Gispert.
In 2015, an outdoor kitchen was constructed to provide children a midday meal.
More recently the Gulu Project has partnered with Salesianum School, where Gispert’s son attends. The school’s class of 2019 has donated to the project every year since 2016 and several students themselves traveled to western Africain this past June. A particularly important achievement of the collaboration is the acquisition of a new van to transport 25 children in the region back and forth to school each day.
Alfred Drushler, 41, and his family have attended St. Catherine of Siena Parish for 12 years and enjoy their involvement in activities of the parish. Drushler first became involved with the Gulu Project by running in the 5K three years ago. He now captains an ever-growing team of runners and walkers (last year 34!) for the 5K, and volunteers with several race-day activities.
Additionally, Drushler has landed the support of All Saints Catholic School in Elsmere, where his children attend school. Kids have joined Drushler’s 5K team, and students also have taken up a collection for items to fill a large barrel of school supplies, toys and sporting equipment for students in Gulu. Once a year, the Gulu Project ships barrels full of useful items to the kids at St. Catherine of Siena School in Anaka.
“We are extremely blessed in this country,” said Drushler, who has observed struggling families living in extremely poor conditions on service trips to Mexico and countries in Latin America. “I think it is important to help children with so little thousands of miles away, and I believe it is equally important to raise awareness of issues of global poverty. Education and the formation of small businesses can really have a long-term impact.”
The Gulu project, in fact, puts more people to work than just the tradesmen who have built the school and the educators who care for the children. The Empowerment Piggery and Gulu Beads projects are also making families in Gulu communities more prosperous.
The Piggery is right on the school grounds and was developed to uplift the people in the community and help them to be self-reliant. This past year, a pair of pigs were given to 15 families who were elderly, widowed or had a member who was disabled. After the pigs multiply, the families are asked to give two or three pigs back to the Piggery so the program can grow. The piggery started with a Lenten outreach program at St. Catherine’s in Wilmington.
Gispert several members of her church also take great joy in selling Gulu Beads at special events, such as the Wilmington Flower Market. Gulu Beads are handmade by women who live in the village of Wipolo in Gulu. The beautiful beads offer extra income for their families. The beads are handmade by rolling thin strips of paper into tightly coiled shapes that are then strung together into necklaces and bracelets.
On September 22nd, volunteers will host the annual Give It Up For Gulu 5k Run/Walk and Doggie Dash at Rockford Park to raise funds for new primary level classrooms at the school in Uganda so children can continue their education beyond kindergarten. Project organizers hope to begin construction in December 2018.
Gispert feels fortunate to have been able to help the children of Gulu in a meaningful way.
“These kids now have a chance to be better educated and it gives me the energy to go on and continue to help their future. It is energizing to see how the Gulu Project touches their hearts help as well. It’s so gratifying.”